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Two-Way Learning

Creating a classroom culture of reciprocity, where teachers and students are learners first
Two-Way Learning

This post is republished (in slightly edited form) from Into Practice, a biweekly communication sent from Harvard’s Office of the Vice Provost for Advances in Learning to Harvard. Into Practice offers evidence-based teaching advice and shares the pedagogical practices of faculty from across Harvard. It grew out of a successful 2012 grant project led by the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Nonie K. Lesaux and Matthew Miller that aimed to create a new model for engaging and supporting doctoral students in their professional development as educators.

Katherine Merseth, a senior lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, creates a culture of reciprocity in her classroom, where students and instructors alike are expected to both teach and learn. “The two words are often interchanged because they are inextricably linked — learners need teachers, and teachers need learners,” Merseth says.

The benefits: Though seemingly contradictory, sharing responsibility for teaching and learning enhances instructor influence. In her popular undergraduate course, Dilemmas of Equity and Excellence in American K-12 Education (see video trailer), Merseth encourages students to lead the discussion, promoting new perspective and understanding. “When I teach, I get back more than I put out, because I acknowledge this relationship between teachers and learners. I teach, basically, because I love to learn.”

The challenges: The nature of improvement in teaching and learning is more uncertain than in other practitioner/client relationships. “Success is difficult to define. What does it look like? What are we measuring?”

Takeaways and best practices:

  • Because her approach relies on developing relationships, Merseth makes an effort by following up individually on students’ particularly insightful class comments, and reading the student-run campus newspaper to be aware of their extracurricular achievements. “People don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care,” she says.
  • Instructors are more effective if they get to know their students and build upon their knowledge base. “If you can hook a new understanding to an existing one, it will stick better,” Merseth says.
  • “I tell students that every ounce of energy I put into teaching, I expect them to reciprocate with equal energy in their learning,” she says. “I hold them accountable, and they are expected to hold me accountable.” She carefully considers and addresses class exit cards in order to show her vulnerability and promote partnership in the learning process.  

Bottom line: Teachers and learners depend on one another to be successful. Just as the teacher must be present, the learner must agree to participate. “If you don’t develop a meaningful relationship with your students, the learning will be diminished.”

Relevant research: Participants who studied a text passage in preparation to teach it to another student engaged in more effective learning strategies and exhibited better recall than participants who studied solely for an individual test, suggesting that instilling an expectation to teach can be a simple and effective intervention to increase learning efficiency.


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