Mastering the Protege Effect

What decades of experience teaches us about learning.

Reed Rawlings
Jun 18 · 4 min read

If you’ve ever tried to teach yourself something, you know precisely how difficult it is to master a new subject.

If you grew up in Western culture, you likely learned that rote memorization and endless reading were the best ways to learn. If you could beat the information into your brain, it would be there when you needed it. But, this often means that you only know the “what” of a concept, not the how or why of it all.

That’s because you don’t truly understand what you’ve learned. To do that, you must demonstrate mastery or, the ability to teach an idea.

The philosopher, Seneca, believed that,

Men learn while they teach.

This is known as the Protege Effect, and it has real, modern-day evidence backing it up. A 2014 study, showed that individuals expecting to teach, rather than test, recalled more material than their peers. In a 2018 study, participants who taught their peers were better suited at free-recall tasks. That is, they were able to answer questions with better accuracy even when they lacked time to study.

Why it works

  • Teaching a subject means you’ve got to take on a different perspective and think about fundamental issues more abstractly. Often, when teaching, it isn’t enough to explain an effect directly. You’ve got to make parallels to what the learner already knows.
  • Teaching forces you to think critically on an issue. You have to be able to narrow your focus so that your student understands the concept without feeding them confusing, redundant information.
  • When you’re teaching, there’s an enhanced fear of failure. If you can’t explain well or don’t know the subject well enough to teach, you’ll let your peers and yourself down. This fear can act as both an extrinsic and intrinsic motivator, prompting you to fine-tune your learning.
  • You’ll use different, better tools when teaching. If you’re forced to present an idea, you’ll have to think of the right way to do so. Will you engage your students in active learning, go through examples, use a presentation? There are a host of options, and committing to teaching allows you to explore each of them.

The benefits of teaching aren’t limited to learning. When you teach, you’re in a position to work on your communication and presentation skills as well as improve your confidence.

Techniques for Taking Advantage

Learn as if teaching: Perhaps the most straightforward take away is that we should all learn as if we’re going to teach someone else. We should take notes, plan outlines for critical points, and rehearse our lines. But, this can be difficult to do if you know that you’re the only one who’s ever going to listen. It’s a sort of metacognitive failsafe that prevents us from doing unnecessary work. You’re just as likely to ask yourself why you’re putting in all the extra effort if it isn’t going to be put to good use.

If you don’t have the luxury of a captive audience, try writing about your new subject. You can post anything almost anywhere, Twitter, Reddit, and even Medium are open platforms for your new found knowledge.

Rubber Duck: This method was popularized among engineers attempting to debug code, but it borrows almost precisely from the Protege Effect. It’s rudimentary in its functioning, but extremely useful. I use it practically every day when helping our customers debug their code.

The rubber duck is just a name. This could be any inanimate object. It merely needs to work as a sounding board for your thoughts. This method takes advantage of the first and second reasons in the “how it works” section. When you’re explaining to your rubber friend, you’ve got to think about the problem in a new way. It forces you to go through each of your steps, what you know, and what you wish you knew. This process can often help you uncover new insights, or, at the very least, create connections between bits of information.

Teach: This is probably the most challenging method, especially for beginners, because it requires an actively listening ear. But, if you have the option to teach someone, whether it be a partner, friend, or online acquaintance, you’re in an excellent position. The more interactive your teaching, the better. An active learner can point out when they’re confused or what isn’t clicking. They can highlight things you may have missed in your learning and ask questions you never thought of.

Thankfully, many online classrooms facilitate this exact type of learning. If you’re working on a MOOC or similar online course, you can likely find someone eager to learn alongside you.

At the end of the day, the style you use will come down to you. For my work, I find the rubber duck the most effective, I don’t often need a deep dive into a new subject that comes with teaching. But, I do need to gain a fresh perspective.

If I were ever starting on a new subject from scratch, I’d probably want to “learn as if I was teaching” because I want to cement the knowledge early on. I wouldn’t want to take the chance of missing a fundamental component just so I could breeze through my work quickly.

The next time you’re learning something new, practice teaching. You’ll be surprised how much you learn.

Age of Awareness

Stories providing creative, innovative, and sustainable changes to the education system

Reed Rawlings

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I focus on self-regulation — goals, compassion, motivation, focus, stress, and the tools to support them.

Age of Awareness

Stories providing creative, innovative, and sustainable changes to the education system