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Why Teaching Makes You Smarter

The art of teaching is the art of assisting discovery.

            Mark van Doren

Last fall, I taught for the Science Honors Program (SHP) at Columbia University. SHP is a highly selective Saturday morning program for high school students who have a strong interest in science and math, and students must take a rigorous, three-hour examination to be accepted. SHP distinguishes itself from other programs by requiring instructors to teach without homework or grades. After teaching an Applied Neuroscience course for 32 incredible students, I came away with one conclusion: the best way to learn is to teach. In this post, I will discuss how learning by teaching has been studied by scientists and implemented by educators.

The “Protégé Effect”

As Annie Murphy Paul observes in Time Magazine, we’ve long known that the best way to understand a concept is to explain it to someone else. The Roman philosopher Seneca said, “While we teach, we learn.” In a pair of studies published in Science and Intelligence, researchers illustrate the benefits of younger students teaching others. The Intelligence paper found that first-born children are more likely to be intelligent than their later-born siblings. They attribute this effect to elder siblings teaching their younger siblings. The Science paper provides evidence that the relation between birth order and IQ score is dependent on the social rank in the family and not birth order. In this way, children with a higher social rank develop a better understanding of their work by showing others the ropes. This concept was dubbed the “protégé effect.”

Innovative Education

Realizing the benefits of the protégé effect, educators have established new programs where students can teach young students. For example, the University of Pennsylvania has developed a cascading mentoring program for computer science. In this program, undergraduates teach high school students who in turn teach middle school students. This unique computer science course is funded by a three-year, $600,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to increase interest in software engineering.

Other educators are using a virtual pupil to help students learn by teaching. One example is Betty’s Brain, a virtual character built by engineers and computer scientists at Vanderbilt University. Betty learns, tries, and makes mistakes like a real-life student, and she’s given hundreds of middle school students the opportunity to “teach” her environmental science. In a study published by the Journal of Science Education and Technology, researchers concluded that students who taught the character in Betty’s Brain spent more time studying course content and learned the material more thoroughly than their peers. With a virtual pupil, middle school teachers found that their students were more motivated to learn the material and identify gaps in their own understanding.

Emotional Intelligence

Learning by teaching is effective because of emotional intelligence. As Paul states in a Time article, the emotions elicited by teaching help make it such a powerful vehicle for learning:

Student tutors feel chagrin when their virtual pupils fail; when the characters succeed, they feel what one expert calls by the Yiddish term nachas. Don’t know that word? I had to learn it myself: “Pride and satisfaction that is derived from someone else’s accomplishment.”

I can attest to how emotions accelerate learning as a teacher. Professor Jeremy Dodd, the director of the Science Honors Program at Columbia University, took a chance by hiring someone as young and inexperienced as I was in teaching. As aspiring scientists, my co-teacher and I were motivated to foster excitement about scientific research. We succeeded in doing so by hosting guest lectures and visiting laboratories in person. Our students had the rare chance to try augmented and virtual reality (AR/ VR) set-ups and experience a brain computer interface (BCI) firsthand. Their motivation inspired me to prepare well for each subsequent class. Moreover, it reinforced my passion for neuroscience research.

Tips for Getting Involved

There are many teaching opportunities available for early career researchers. Here are three recommendations I have:

1. Learning Unlimited

Learning Unlimited provides a national support structure for independent, college-student-led educational programs aimed at middle and high school students. As an undergraduate at Columbia University, my peers and I founded a Splash program where high school students take classes taught by undergraduates for one day. Splash currently runs at MIT, at Stanford University, and many more!

2. Girls Who Code

Girls Who Code is a national non-profit organization dedicated to closing the gender gap in technology. There are 10,000 students across 42 states that participate in free summer programs and after-school clubs by Girls Who Code.

3. Graduate Teaching Assistantships 

Fellow PLOS ECR blogger Emma Whittington discusses the benefits of graduate teaching assistantships in this post.


As I reflect on 2016, I believe that teaching Applied Neuroscience for SHP was my greatest accomplishment that year. I had the chance to design a curriculum from scratch with my co-teacher, and the freedom to teach topics we love and invite speakers we admire. Through teaching, I’ve learned that the protégé effect is an effective and powerful force. So if you want to learn better and faster— consider teaching the subject.


  1. Chase, C. C., Chin, D. B., Oppezzo, M. A., & Schwartz, D. L. (2009). Teachable agents and the protégé effect: Increasing the effort towards learning. Journal of Science Education and Technology, 18(4), 334-352.
  2. Leelawong, K., & Biswas, G. (2008). Designing learning by teaching agents: The Betty’s Brain system. International Journal of Artificial Intelligence in Education, 18(3), 181-208.
  3. Kristensen, P., & Bjerkedal, T. (2007). Explaining the relation between birth order and intelligence. Science, 316(5832), 1717-1717.

Featured Image: Teach by Wokandapix licensed under Creative Commons Public Domain on Pixabay



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