The Protege Effect

I attended a presentation recently where the speaker introduced the concept of the “Protégé Effect.”  It was the first time I’d heard the term so I did a little background research on it and how it can impact student learning.  For those of us who utilize peer instruction, the Protégé Effect will probably confirm a lot of our experiences.

Researchers working at Stanford University wanted to study the effects of using “teachable agents” with 8th grade Biology students.  Teachable agents (TAs) are computerized characters that can respond to tutoring.  In the study, some students were asked to learn Biological concepts so they could teach their TAs while another group of students were asked to develop an online concept map to demonstrate how they organized their understanding of the concepts.  In the study, the students who worked with the TAs spent more time engaged with the content and displayed more motivation to learn. Put simply, students put forth greater effort to learn for their TAs than they did for themselves.

In a follow-up study, the researchers also examined the emotional state of students who were engaged with TAs.  In the study, a group of 5th grade students were asked to teach their TAs to participate in a simulated Game Show on selected material.  The control group was asked to study the same material so they could participate in a Game Show themselves.  Looking at the affective engagement of the two groups of students, the TA group was much more emotionally connected with the learning process than the control group was.  When the TA missed questions in the Game Show, the students accepted responsibility for the TA’s failures and reflected on whether they fully understand the material and how they could have taught the concepts differently.  The control group, however, did not outwardly display the same ownership over their own learning, even though they were engaging independently with the content.  Across the two studies, it is clear that the act of teaching someone else can motivate individual learners to take more ownership over their learning and to put forth greater effort to learn.

In their research, the authors attribute three factors to the power of the Protégé Effect: an ego-protective buffer, an incrementalist view of intelligence and a sense of responsibility.  The first factor, the ego-protective buffer, provides a shield so students can examine failure without feeling negatively about themselves. This can be a powerful metacognitive force since students can reflect on their learning without feeling badly about their own failures.  Additionally, the incrementalist view of intelligence helps students see that reviewing and revising can impact their own learning.  When the learning process is externally directed to support the learning of another, students spend more time examining their understanding and working to revise their thinking. Lastly, teaching another person motivates students to take more responsibility over their learning.

While the Protégé Effect demonstrates the power that teaching can have on a person’s learning, it also showcases the social elements that are critical to educational environments.  Learning is a social endeavor, involving students engaging with one another to collaboratively construct their understanding of material.  While many instructors balk at the concept of peer instruction because they feel that students can’t really teach other students successfully, the Protégé Effect demonstrates the Latin proverb Docendo discimus.  By teaching, we learn.


Chase, C. C., Chin, D. B., Oppezzo, M. A., & Schwartz, D. L. (2009). Teachable Agents and the Protege Effect: Increasing the Effort towards Learning. Journal Of Science Education And Technology, 18(4), 334-352.


2 thoughts on “The Protege Effect

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