November 27, 2020

Teaching to Learn

by William Gust, PharmD, PGY-1 Pharmacy Practice Resident, G.V. (Sonny) Montgomery V.A. Medical Center

Former French inspector general and poet Joseph Joubert once wrote that “To teach is to learn twice over.”1 Joubert’s maxim is rooted in the idea that while the learner is only responsible for his or her own understanding, the teacher’s added responsibility to accurately communicate a concept to others incentivizes more active engagement of both the subject itself and one’s own deficiencies with it. Furthermore, teaching often necessitates the creation of educational materials, which requires the highest level of cognition.2 Thus, promoting the sort of active engagement that teaching requires can be a powerful tool in expediting the learning process. By creating and presenting educational materials to teach others, students enhance their knowledge, comprehension, and confidence related to the subject far more than they would through traditional instructor-led methods.

Encouraging students to develop learning materials for themselves or fellow students bolsters their comprehension. Uskokovic demonstrated this during his employment of a co-creational classroom, in which students developed not only lectures and presentations but also the curriculum itself.3 In this model, the instructor assigns students a broad topic and encourages them to break it down into a series of questions that will be answered by their learning materials. Once questions are assessed for appropriateness of scope by the instructor, students are free to develop learning materials however they see fit. Following the creation of their learning materials, students present to the class for discussion who then ask questions and suggest revisions. In this study, the investigator compared exam performance using this co-creational model compared to the students' exam performance using a traditional didactic instructional model and a flipped classroom model, in which students read the material before class in preparation for elaborating on that material during class meetings. Although the sample size was small (n=8), students performed significantly better on exams when the co-creational model was used when compared to exams where the material was delivered via traditional didactic or flip methods.3

Student teaching also improves knowledge retention. In a crossover-study evaluating the benefit of peer-teaching on learning, Peets et al. randomly assigned medical students to serve as peer educators in small groups at different periods during a Gastroenterology/Hematology course.4 Peer educators were not given outside resources by the investigators but were responsible for coordinating and leading their assigned small group discussions. At the end of the course, the investigators administered a 94-item multiple-choice examination broken down by the various clinical cases covered during the course. After comparing student performance stratified by clinical case, students who served as peer educators for a given clinical case performed significantly better on questions than their group members who were only responsible for their own learning (Mean Score 80.7% vs 77.6%, Cohen’s d = 0.33; p < 0.01).

Taken together, these studies support the idea that student-teaching with student-created learning materials enhances student knowledge and comprehension. The results of Uskokovic make a particularly compelling case for the student involvement in the teaching process given the improvement in exam performance with the co-creational method when compared to the flipped classroom method. Had the results in both groups been similar, the better exam performance could have been explained by the presence of active learning, which is central to constructivist theory. The results of Uskokovic, however, suggest that student construction of the content to be covered as well as the learning materials promotes enhanced engagement that cannot be replicated by other active learning methods. Students who serve as peer teachers spend more time engaged with the material.  Peets et al. showed that student peer educators spent significantly more time engaging with the learning material (99 +/- 60 minutes vs 36 +/- 33 minutes, Cohen’s d = 1.3, p < 0.001) when compared to the other group members.

By encouraging (or perhaps requiring) students to create their own learning materials, teachers can improve student knowledge, confidence, and long-term retention. While the studies above focus on the creation of learning materials as a tool to teach other students in traditional classroom settings, this teaching strategy can be adapted to an array of settings, including patient education during practice-based experiences. It is important to note, however, that allowing students to teach with their own learning materials does not eliminate the need for a teacher. Critically, instructors that choose to employ student-generated materials as a teaching method must reduce cognitive load by choosing the right topics to cover and the right questions to ask. In this way, teachers can foster maximal learning in the students’ zone of proximal development while minimizing the chances the students will feel overwhelmed or bored. Overall, student-created learning materials offer a powerful way to enhance knowledge and retention by making the student an active participant.


  1. Joubert, J. Joubert: A Selection from His Thoughts [Internet]. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co.; 1899. Accessed 2020 Nov 23.
  2. Armstrong, P. Bloom’s Taxonomy [Internet]. Nashville (TN): Vanderbilt University, Center for Teaching. Accessed 2020 Nov 1.
  3. Uskoković V. Flipping the flipped: the co-creational classroom. Res Pract Technol Enhanc Learn 2018; 13(1):11.
  4. Peets AD, Coderre S, Wright B, et al. Involvement in teaching improves learning in medical students: a randomized cross-over study. BMC Med Educ 2009; 9:55.

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