Docendo discimus. By teaching, we learn.

Seneca the Younger

Penned by the Roman philosopher Seneca the Younger in the early days of the Roman Empire, it holds as true today as it did two thousand years ago. Modern psychology researchers have dubbed it the protégé effect. Yes, according to SCIENCE, you are psychologically wired to learn stuff better when you teach it.

This is why you, as a PR pro or marketer, should jump at every opportunity to teach others within your organization.

Consider what happens when you become the “teacher” in a situation. The need to understand the material well enough to recall and explain it to another person leads you to reinforce your grip on topics you already know and refresh yourself on topics that have become rusty. Your “protégé” will ask you questions that challenge you to re-examine what you know from a different perspective – and help you discover gaps in your own knowledge.

You don’t know your stuff nearly as well as you think you do! This is both humbling to realize and rewarding to overcome. The first time I tried to train an intern on measurement tools like Moz and Sysomos, he asked me all sorts of questions I had difficulty answering. I had to push myself to find different ways to explain things so that they made sense to him, not just me. Flexing my brain sparked thoughts like, “I never thought of measuring it like that before!”

What’s actually happening here? Let’s dive into psychology for a moment. In a 2009 Stanford study, fifth- and eight-grade students were enlisted to instruct a computerized “Teachable Agent” in biology. Students who aware that they were teachers put more time and effort into learning the material, and scored higher on exams than students who thought they were learning for just themselves.

Why teaching causes us to learn better is the subject of part two of the same study. Students responsible for a Teachable Agent expressed a wide spectrum of emotions tied to the success of the agent: dismay at its failures, pride at its progress, and a strong overall sense of responsibility for its success.

In short, the emotional relationship we form with a “protégé” motivates us to learn material more thoroughly so that we can recall and teach it effectively, and not “let down” the student depending on us. You could even say that teaching others is a way to “hack” your professional development by tapping into the power of your psychological drive to teach well.


The value of learning-by-teaching becomes all the more apparent in fast-evolving industries like PR and marketing, in which success often depends on quickly and efficiently mastering new tools (or inventing new uses for old tools). When you discover something new, not only do you learn it better by teaching it, but your colleagues benefit from valuable new knowledge.

Informally teaching colleagues is just one way to spread the value of the protégé effect. A few more ideas:

  • Write how-to tutorials for internal use on your team
  • Contribute posts to your company blog
  • Run an internal training session
  • Conduct a webinar

The best part is, teaching begets more teaching.  When you teach a colleague something, they now have the power to teach it to others (and learn it better in the process as well), who then teach yet more people within the organization. Everyone wins. Why wouldn’t you want to get in on that?

JJ Samp
Marketing Analyst


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