For learners: learning through telling

We don't always know what we know. In fact, we are fairly bad at judging what we know and what we understand.

We have all been through this scenario: you read something in a book, you listen to your instructor explain an idea in class, and you think: Yes, I’ve got this. It’s pretty simple. But later when you’re on own, or during a test, the material seems to have disappeared. It becomes clear to you that you didn’t really have an understanding of what you read or heard.

How can you tell what you know?

First, by recognizing that familiarity isn’t fluency. Just because something seems familiar does not mean that you understand it or that you will remember it in the longer term.

And second, by constructing a more accurate picture of what you know. To do this, you will need to test yourself and pay careful attention to what you know and what you don’t know.

Here is how:

Explain it to yourself

Close the book and explain what you just read in your own words – a learning technique called elaboration.

Connect what you just learned to what you already know – knowledge builds on itself and without connections, we quickly forget what we learn.

Put it into context - what does the idea remind you of?

Draw it out – sketching out a new idea highlights what you understand, and what you don’t understand.

Explain it to someone else

Tell a friend – when you explain something to someone, especially someone not familiar with the idea, you quickly learn what you know and what you only think you know.

Help someone else - helping others helps you; studies show that advising others can clarify a concept for you.

Compare your explanation with someone else’s – what are the similarities and differences?

Tell your team – trying to get your team to see things the way you see things puts an idea into sharp relief.

How can you put these ideas into practice?

Participate in discussions. It may feel like just another requirement, but studies show that ongoing participation helps you learn. It’s important to talk about what you learned in class so that you get a sense of what you understand.

Test yourself often. Self-explanation is far more powerful than re-reading, summarizing, or underlining as a learning technique. Take frequent breaks to explain what you know in your own words; and take your time – learning something new takes time and effort.

Talk about what you learned after an experience. Whether it's playing one of our simulations or taking part in a group project, take a moment and talk to others about what you learned. Framing what you learned for others helps you remember and make sense of an experience.


Want to learn more?

Try out BlueSky Ventures, a free, 90-minute business simulation, and see how we use interactive videos and game design to help you learn.

If you're an instructor who wants to use this for a class, click here to access teaching materials.

Works Cited

Brown, P. C., Roediger III, H. L., & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make it stick. Harvard University Press.

Carey, B. (2015). How we learn: the surprising truth about when, where, and why it happens. Random House Trade Paperbacks.

Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M. J., & Willingham, D. T. (2013). Improving students’ learning with effective learning techniques: Promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14(1), 4-58.