The protégé effect and its impact on our students

The protégé effect and its impact on our students
Image generated by Midjourney

The best way to learn is to teach, the age-old adage goes. But is that really the case?

Yes! It is a well-known psychological phenomenon called the ‘Protege Effect’. Numerous research studies have been published online confirming the protege effect's existence and effectiveness.

You can even confirm the theory by reflecting on some of your school experiences. How many times has the kid who could explain concepts to you in a straightforward manner (and at the eleventh hour at that) excelled in the test themselves? To fully understand the psychology and the ultimate benefits of the protege effect, we must first understand what it is and how it works.

What is the protege effect?

Common sense suggests that you must first understand a subject very well to be able to teach it to others. While this is a standard model of knowledge delivery where a designated teacher takes on the responsibility of teaching students, other methods, such as peer-to-peer teaching, have emerged over the years. These methods are often more effective for alternative learning settings such as online courses. The protege effect is the simple idea that teaching a certain topic/concept to peers can help us learn it better ourselves.

The psychology of the protege effect

The protege effect works well due to several social and psychological inclinations that our brains have become conditioned to. Using effective peer-based learning strategies can help students use these inclinations to their advantage and develop better, more effective learning strategies.

  • Respect for teachers

Students are often nurtured to develop respect for teachers and mentors throughout their school lives. As a result, when they are tasked with teaching a peer a concept or two, they tend to brush up on it and push themselves to develop a better grasp of them. This happens because students assign an inherent sense of responsibility and respect to the task of teaching, even if it is just helping a peer brush up on concepts. This motivates you to organize the information in your head and be more thorough with it before teaching.

  • A sense of agency

Teaching peers imbibes a sense of agency in students that pushes them to be well-versed in the material. A well-known study, Betty’s Brain, published in the Journal of Science Education and Technology, sought to study the effects of the protege effect on students. The study asked eighth graders to learn some biology topics from a computer program. A few of these students were given programs with Teachable Agents (TAs), which are digital characters that could reason based on how they were taught. Students who worked with TAs learned much faster and more effectively than the ones that didn’t. This is because these students instinctively picked up the responsibility of teaching the TA and responded to it.

  • Better organization

When you are teaching your peers a topic/concept, you will naturally try to organize it according to a concrete structure. Why? Because organizing information well makes it easier to both understand and teach. Well-organized pieces of information facilitate the formation of neural connections that make it much easier for the brain to learn and understand things. For example, let’s say you’re teaching someone about the timelines of both world wars. Approaching the topic randomly will make it a mere collection of hard-to-remember dates and events. Instead, organizing them according to a set timeline (the first war lasted for four years from 1914-1918, and the second, bigger one lasted for six from 1939-1945) will make it much easier to retain key dates. Preparing to teach a peer allows you to collect and structure information which also helps you understand and remember it well.

Using the protege effect to learn to code

Coding is a practical skill that can be learned and refined through the protege effect. Conducting one-on-one code reviews and problem-solving sessions with peers can help you work on your pain points and learn languages better. One of the key factors in learning how to code is continuously practicing. Solving problems first-hand helps you understand the syntax and semantics of each programming language and teaches you how to code better. Here are a few exercises you can do to implement the peer-learning method in programming.

  • The rubber duck method

The rubber duck method of learning involves articulating conceptual challenges by trying to explain them to an inanimate object - like a rubber duck! It’s the software world’s equivalent of rehearsing before a mirror. This method is known to help reach a ‘eureka’ moment where a solution suddenly dawns. Practicing this method allows you to visualize and verbalize everything you’ve learned (including weak areas), which helps you retain and understand information much better. The rubber duck method can prove especially effective with concepts like data structures that require you to visualize elements to fully understand them. The method can also be used to help gain confidence before teaching a peer.

  • Code reviews

Conducting peer code reviews is another great way to boost your coding skills. It allows you to learn from the mistakes of your peers while being introduced to new methods of using high-level functions that is easy to implement but hard to understand.

For example, a simple calculator can be built with any programming language using both if/else loops and switch cases. However, switch cases are more efficient because they’re easier to code and compile. Conducting code review sessions with peers can familiarize you with new coding concepts like using switch cases.

Another example is a data analysis assignment that you’re doing might require you to clean the given dataset extensively in order to get the most accurate results. The peer whose code you’re reviewing might be using a better cleaning technique that takes care of more outliers and garbage values and allows one to generate more accurate results. Similarly, reviewing a peer’s SQL code might introduce you to a new method of writing queries that gets the job done much faster.

Using the protege effect to learn how to code at Turing College

If you want to become proficient in programming languages, Turing College’s specialized online learning programs are an excellent choice. Our courses are curated by industry experts from some of the world’s leading tech companies like Vinted, Amazon, and Unity.

We offer a hands-on learning experience where the main format of teaching is one-on-one code reviews done by professional and students.

Once you become more senior student, you start assessing junior student code & projects. This helps you learn from experience and develop the habit of working in a holistic, community-driven coding environment.

By finishing our course, you will know the subject more in-depth and be ready to upgrade your career!