How to Help Students Learn by Putting them in Teaching Roles

Cindy WyattBy Cynthia Wyatt, Associate Professor of English

Quote: To teach is to learn twice over by Joseph Joubert
Image Source: Lori Nova Endres 2016

It’s often been said that the best way to learn is to teach. In April 2019, I presented an adjunct training session on the topic of helping students learn by putting them into teaching roles. The inspiration for the talk was Teach Students How to Learn by Saundra Yancy McGuire with Stephanie McGuire, Sterling, Virginia, 2015.

McGuire and her co-author demonstrate that “learning” means mastery. She suggests that her students “teach” the lesson they are working on to someone –a family member, for example, or even a pet.  Many of us recall hearing the counter-intuitive phrase, “If I want to learn something, I’ll teach a class on it.” The secret that McGuire brings to light in her book is that when we endeavor to teach information to others, we discover what we haven’t fully remembered or grasped about it. We discover the weak links in our comprehension.  We return to the source and upgrade our lesson.  McGuire illustrates these stages of learning with Blooms Taxonomy, which progresses from simple knowledge to complex evaluation.

I brought examples of how I have used presentations to place students in the teaching role. One is “Own that Fallacy,” in which students work in groups to dramatize logical fallacies, the ways our minds can be manipulated by advertising, politics, and even domestic disputes, to the class. An example is “Slippery Slope,” the fallacy which suggests that taking an action will certainly put us on a down-hill course to some disastrous end. This is a fallacy because it predicts only one dire outcome when in real life many results may come of an action, both positive and negative. Over the years, my student groups have acted out “slippery slope” as parents threatening their children with Stephen King-like scenarios if ever they speak to strangers or accept a ride in a stranger’s car, for example.

Another presentation that worked well for several years was based on “The Perils of Indifference,” a text by Elie Wiesel, a holocaust survivor who reminds us of the blindness of the world as the Nazis came to power and murdered millions in concentration camps. Wiesel makes references to world events from the WWII era to the present, including the concentration camps Triblinka and Auschwitz, the ships turned away from American shores full of Jews escaping Hitler, the Troubles in Ireland and assassinations of political leaders in our country. I give each group a card with the name of an event on it; their assignment is to research and then teach the class what happened, where, with pictures if possible. I remind them that they will be teaching the class about events they are ignorant of but should learn about. Presentations have been strong and effective over the years. I have learned a great deal myself.

Ben Jobe offered his own example: for his Speech classes, he selects major events and people in recent history to assign to students for an informative speech. He makes the same point — nobody in the class is familiar with these important events and people; it’s essential to teach them clearly enough to pass a quiz on the topic.

Others in attendance also had examples of how they put their students in the teacher role. For example, an English teacher said she assigns the class to design quiz questions. Based on a rubric, questions are evaluated for degree of reflection of cogent and thorough reading of an assigned text and awareness of quiz questions as learning tools.

The session was satisfying and I am committed to offering the topic again in the coming semesters.