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Is Teaching Overrated?

It may be better to help learners engage in self-explaining.

We are all familiar with the notion of a master teacher — a person who holds the class spellbound, who clearly explains very complicated ideas, who inspires students to work hard.

In support of this notion, many studies have shown that a highly experienced, highly effective teacher can boost the performance of the students by six months or even a year, compared to comparable students taught by a mediocre teacher.

But perhaps our emphasis on teaching is misguided.

That’s my assessment of the work of Micki Chi and her colleagues. Their interest is in learning: what a person learns and how strongly that learning takes hold. They find, in repeated studies, that what matters the most is getting the learner to self-explain, not in exposing the learner to a master explainer/tutor/teacher.

In one study, Chi, Roy & Hausman (2008) found that a Tutor-Centered approach (as opposed to a Learner-Centered approach) resulted in little learning:

  • There was no benefit when the tutor initiated an interaction with the learner.
  • There was no benefit when the tutor injected high-quality comments.
  • There was no benefit when the tutor adapted as needed to help the learner.

Worse yet, Chi, Roy and Hausmann showed that novice tutors couldn’t accurately gauge whether a learner understood the material. Several previous studies had found that even skilled teachers were inaccurate at assessing learners’ understanding. If skilled tutors, working one-on-one, face-to-face (this was before social distancing), cannot adequately judge what learners are comprehending, it’s unlikely that those tutors can adapt their instructional tactics to determine how and when to deliver explanations, feedback and questions and to select the next problem for the learner to work on.

The Chi, Roy and Hausmann research involved tutors, not classroom teachers or corporate trainers. But I think the research findings might well hold across different settings. Therefore, instead of a tutor-centered approach, Chi and her colleagues favor a learner-centered approach that encourages students, trainees, and other types of learners, to engage in self-explaining , rather than in passive attempts to memorize the material. Chi & Wylie (2014) have described a general scheme for increasing learning as students shift into self-explaining, moving from passive to active and then to a constructive and finally to an interactive stance.

The research by Chi and her colleagues over the past few decades suggests a few important principles:

  • Make the learning active. Reduce (or eliminate) the time the learner has to spend listening to an explanation or a lecture. The point here is to avoid putting learners in a passive mode. Even when learner are watching a video, you want to see them doing things like taking notes, writing down steps, posing questions.
  • Make the learning constructive. You want the learner to be trying to self-explain, not to try to memorize what’s been presented. Some learners think that the way to study from a textbook is to read the material again and again, hoping that most of it will stick. That strategy doesn’t work very well — it’s better for the learner to be questioning the text, writing notes in the margins, seeing connections with earlier material. Sometimes you may even want to omit critical details in order to provoke the learner to fill in these details themselves.
  • Tutoring sessions worked best when the tutor was not continually explaining things, but instead was scaffolding for the learners: posing questions, giving prompts and hints, making statements with a fill-in-the-blank format. Chi et al. (2004) have listed 14 different forms of scaffolding.
  • Scaffolding comments work best when they are short, perhaps 30 words, and not sliding into explanations. They invite relevant reactions. (Explanations tend to be long, averaging 66 words.)
  • Errors are a prime opportunity for learning. Good tutors/teachers take advantage of errors. But they should NOT just correct the error. They should use it as a way to have a dialog with the learner about the flawed beliefs that led to the error.

Chi and her colleagues are not claiming that teaching skills don’t matter. After all — skilled tutors and master teachers do make a difference. They can answer questions when the learner gets stuck. They can motivate learners to work harder. They can scaffold to encourage self-explaining. They can provide feedback to alert learners to flaws in their mental models, and judge when to provide the feedback and in what form. Good teaching can be quite valuable. But it isn’t sufficient.

Too many people equate teaching and learning, and they assume that good teaching equals good learning — or at least leads directly and efficiently to it. Even teaching programs that recognize that the teacher has to understand the learning needs of the students seem to fall into that trap. Get the teaching right and the learning will necessarily follow.

It seems to me that Chi’s insight is breaking that flawed assumption and focusing on learning as a distinct activity. For Chi, the real issue is how to promote the most learning: by encouraging learners to take an active, curious, constructive stance of self-explaining.


Chi, M.T.H., Roy, M., & Hausmann, R.G.M. (2008). Observing tutorial dialogues collaboratively: Insights about human tutoring effectiveness from vicarious learning. Cognitive Science, 32, 301-341.

Chi, M.T.H., Siler, S., & Jeong, H. (2004). Can tutors monitor student’s understanding accurately? Cognitive and Instruction, 22, 363-387.

Chi, M.T.H., Siler, S., Jeong, H., Yamauchi, T., & Hausmann, R. (2001). Learning from human tutoring. Cognitive Science, 25, 471-534.

Chi, M.T.H., & Wylie, R. (2014). The ICAP framework: Linking cognitive engagement to active learning outcomes. Educational Psychologist, 49(4), 219-243.