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Teaching Strategies: Have Your Students Teach

Jordan Catapano

I remember when I was in 7th grade, I was taking pre-algebra. Math wasn’t my favorite subject, but I did what I needed to get by. But then one day, that cute girl I had my eye on needed help with math. Did I know enough to tutor her? No way! But I offered to tutor her anyway. Every week we got together so I could coach her on her math. As time passed, something interesting happened: It was my math grade that ended up improving the most.

Why did my math grade improve so much while the girl’s grade made only a minor rally? Wasn’t she the one who was receiving the help?

When I brought this up to my teacher, he told me something I would never forget: “You’re doing better because you’re doing the explaining.” I realized that since I was using the teaching strategies, I was the one who was forced to learn the material well enough to explain it to someone else. While I loved having an excuse to spend time with this girl I had my eye on, the ultimate benefit was that I had a reason to study the math content in a new and worthwhile way.

This principle transfers to our own teaching strategies. When students are the ones doing the teaching and explaining, they are much more likely to achieve.

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Teaching Strategies: Why Students Should Do the Teaching

Educators might be hesitant to hand over the chalk and let the students do the teaching strategies. Teachers might raise some common objections:

  • “My students hardly know the material themselves.”
  • “Students won’t explain the content as well as I can.”
  • “Students are too scared or unpracticed to present information to peers.”
  • “The experience will be frustrating to students and to me, and end up wasting time.”

There is some validity to these objections, and if we aren’t strategic with how we allow students to teach, it is likely the experience can be frustrating and a waste of time. But once we acknowledge these objections, we also need to acknowledge that there are really good reasons – beyond my personal anecdote – that should cause us to heavily consider letting students take charge.

Here are a few of the advantages that student-led teaching could yield:

  • Students learn the material better. When they are in a position of having to explain it to someone else, they are compelled to learn it well enough to do so.
  • Students practice presentation and leadership skills. In addition to the knowledge they gain from their study and preparation, they also have the opportunity to lead their classmates through a lesson.
  • Students gain independence. Students don’t have to be completely without a teacher’s guidance, but they definitely have the chance to rely on themselves to steer their learning and do what they see as necessary to master the material well enough to share with others.
  • Students conjure approaches and ideas we wouldn’t have ourselves. When we watch other teachers, we benefit from observing how they present different content. Not that our students will all blow us away with their lessons, but we do have something to gain by seeing the approaches others take – and then we can use those ideas ourselves!
  • Students relate the content to students. One of our tasks as teachers is to make sure the content connects with students in a way that makes sense to them. But who knows students better than students themselves? Students can share ideas with their peers in relatable ways that we might be unlikely to stumble upon ourselves.

If our overall goal is better, more enriching learning for students, then presenting them with the opportunity to teach the class will be a profitable approach for everyone. In addition to students learning the content better, they also gain experience with presentation, leadership, independence, creativity!

How to Help Them Do It Right

OK, so you want to get started having your students sit in the driver’s seat. How should you do it? There’s no magic formula here, but there are some general guidelines you might consider as you plan your approach for supporting your students teaching the class.

  1. Start small. You don’t have to immediately jump into having students present full-blown lessons. You can begin to regularly implement students teaching by letting students more thoroughly explain their thinking to the class. Rather than just giving the “Answer” to the question, have students tell the class how they arrived at that answer. Maybe even allow them to come to the front of the room to do so. Often students are asked what the answer is, and they raise their hand and share the answer, and then the class moves on. We might often see this in math class, but this appears in other subjects as well. Before moving on, hit the pause button and ask students, “How did you get that answer?” and have them walk through the explanation process.
  2. Offer a template. Students are students, not teachers. Even though they’ve been around teachers for years, they are not trained in lesson planning. Share with students a clear structure or template for how you imagine their lesson going; show them the requirements, and also areas where they can add their own creative variations.
  3. Model what to do first. If you’re planning on having students teach the class and have provided a template, give your own model lesson using this sample first. Students can see how you manage the class, use language and instructions to guide, frame questions and discussion, time activities, and so on. As opposed to other lessons you lead, intentionally point out to students that you’re modeling the type of lesson you’re expecting them to emulate.
  4. Have a talented group go first. Another classic tactic teachers use to model instruction is to have a student or group who is likely to do excellent work go first. In addition to the teacher modeling what to do, students can see another positive example from their peers.
  5. Make groups small. The goal is for students to work directly with the material themselves well enough to learn it on their own. If you have students in a group that’s too large, they are less likely to engage in the experience as fully as if the group were smaller. You could have students work on their own, or in a group of 2-3 to make sure everyone is required to master the content enough to explain it.
  6. Don’t make their lesson contingent on a prior lesson. If you’re asking students to teach a chapter from your science book, for example, don’t set it up so that the second group’s presentation is meant to build off of the first group’s, and so on. The reason is that you don’t know how effective each group’s presentation is going to be, so you can’t ask students to build off of knowledge they didn’t really acquire. Also, if Group 2 is focusing on their section, how are they going to learn the content from Group 1 first? It is difficult for students to master content that is contingent on other content they haven’t even learned yet.  

One of the questions you may be asking yourself is, “How will all students learn everything the other students are teaching them?” This isn’t a bad question, but it is a bit misguided. The point of having students teach one another is not so that students can learn from each other. We certainly hope this happens, but that’s a secondary objective.

The primary objective in having students teach the class is that they learn the content through their own process of teaching. Group 1 is the group most likely to master the Group 1 content. Group 2 is the group most likely to master the Group 2 content. The goal is for students to use this process to master their own group’s content. You can build other elements – like note taking, assessment, jigsaws, and so on – into the lessons, but make sure you recognize these as the secondary objectives in your process.

Three Examples

I want to give you a few brief examples of how I’ve engaged with having students teach the class, to give you a clearer insight into different ways this might work for you.

Poetry: In pairs, the whole class took turns guiding the rest of the class through Shakespeare sonnets. I did my own model first, asking students to read through the sonnet with me out loud, asking students to look for particular features in each quatrain, separating the class to work together to summarize/paraphrase their quatrains, and working together as a class to decipher a final meaning. Then I allowed pairs time to study their own sonnet together with my lesson template in mind. Pairs then took turns for the next several class periods following my leading and likewise leading their classmates through the poems.

Independent Books: Students had independently read a book in a small group, and instead of just asking students to present a book report, I asked students to teach a lesson to the class based on the message of their novel. They were required to lead the class through a sample activity that demonstrated the novel’s theme, present at least one passage for reading and studying together, and leading a discussion. One group had read “Lord of the Flies,” and the sample activity they created (which involved students rabidly searching for a $20 bill in the classroom) was one that I stole and used myself for years to come! The students didn’t end up memorizing the themes of each of the novels presented, but the opportunity to teach certainly reinforced students’ understanding of their own novel they had read.

One final example comes from Discovery Education, offering a walkthrough of how a teacher might help her students teach their own science lessons from a textbook.

It’s clear that one key way to help students master and reinforce learning is to have them teach the content to someone else. If they can explain it clearly to others, if they can answer others’ questions, if they can come up with lessons, activities, and discussions associated with the content, then they are that much more likely to forge lasting retention. While you can’t provide a cute guy or girl for each of your students to tutor, you can facilitate the right structure where your students can have the chance to teach others.

How do you facilitate students teaching the class? Tell us about your teaching strategies, thoughts, and experiences in the comments below!


Jordan Catapano taught English for twelve years in a Chicago suburban high school, where he is now an Assistant Principal. In addition to being National Board Certificated and head of his school’s Instructional Development Committee, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website www.jordancatapano.us.