Learning by Teaching


What is Learning by Teaching?

Learning by Teaching, often called Reciprocal Teaching, has been identified by many scholars and teachers over time as one of the most effective methods to confirm student understanding of course content. Student-driven instruction can take many forms and can be executed successfully in many different instructional formats. According to Barkley, Cross and Major, “it puts into practice what researchers and scholars find to be true about effective learning: it is active rather than passive, requiring students to both give and receive as they help each other gain knowledge or understanding.” (189) 

“The basic idea of the learner centred teaching method is that some traditional functions of the teacher are assigned to the pupils who are asked to teach the new content to their classmates by themselves. Thus, “they themselves are responsible for the quality” of their lessons.” (Skinner, 38)


Key Components

In order for Learning by Teaching to be successful, instructors must prepare students by ensuring they have the time and resources required to learn the content thoroughly. The topics assigned to student-instructors, or those students who have been identified by the instructor to teach a particular topic or session, should be of a level that a student with a good recall of the content can present successfully, but challenging enough that it results in discussion and follow-up.

Instructors explain the purpose of the exercise and outline requirements for each student-instructor’s presentation. Also useful is to have a closure activity to reflect upon what the class has learned and a follow-up contact with the student-instructor to gather feedback about the experience. (Barkley, Cross & Major, 212-213)

One potential set-up to a multi-session student-led learning exercise is as follows:

  1. Instructor puts students into small groups and presents a list of possible topics upon which students will develop expertise and teach other groups.
  2. In small groups, students research the topic using instructor-provided materials as well as other resources.
  3. Students work together to master the content and develop presentations on the topic, such as fact sheets, illustrations, and presentation materials.
  4. During the presentation session(s), the groups are then rearranged so that there is at least one member from each of the original groups present in the new group. Each student has an opportunity to teach the content knowledge he/she has acquired to his/her the other members of the new group, and he/she gains the knowledge gathered in the other groups by participating in the lessons taught by the other students in their group.
  5. The whole class assembles and the instructor debriefs the activity, checking for knowledge and gathering feedback about the exercise.



Using the above set-up, this activity can be applied across many topics and disciplines.

Student Ambassadors

In addition to in-class activities, instructors can look for opportunities for students to teach concepts presented in class to other groups in their community.  For example, one Honors Astrobiology class has planned to take advantage of an on-campus planetarium. The course instructor has planned a culminating activity which positions students in small teams to learn about one or more key concepts presented in the course. At the end of the semester, students will act as hosts and guides at the planetarium “open house” event for the community. They will give informative presentations on the subjects assigned to them. Students will engage in a creative activity by putting those presentations together, and they will be motivated to learn and process information deeply enough to present it to members of the community.


Best Practices

Reciprocal teaching techniques require students to be knowledgeable enough about the topic or one part of the topic to teach it thoroughly to others.  It is also beneficial for the learning group (the rest of the class) to have some prior knowledge about the topics in the event the student-instructor wishes to lead discussions and generate ideas from the group.  An effective strategy to implement student-led instruction is for instructors to provide an overview of the foundational principles of a topic or subject being taught by student-instructors and then assign student groups to research more deeply a specific technique, idea, or topic related to the broader topic in the overview.



Barkley, E., Cross, K., & Major, C. (2014). Collaborative learning techniques: A handbook for college faculty (Second ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Skinner, J.D. (1994). “Learning by Teaching“. In: Zielsprache Englisch 2. pp. 38 – 39.


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