PhD studies at a university offer a unique way to improve personal communication skills and engrain the fundamental knowledge of the subject so deep within the mind that it might remain there even at an age when forgetting one’s own birthday no longer comes as a surprise. Of course I’m talking about teaching. The dreadfully exhausting and time-consuming, yet strangely pleasant activity that stands at the core of the academia itself.
I suppose each and every one of us has had a hand at this. Whether it’s about helping a younger sibling get to know the world just a tad better, assisting a friend with homework or instructing a fresh colleague. The process is immediately rewarding when met with success. Even ego-boosting at times. Is there anything not to enjoy about seeing a happy face of a person who finally “gets it” and knowing that you had a part in the amazing process of discovery? But that’s just the instant gratification part of the story that probably keeps us eager to engage in the activity. Yet a much more important part occurs silently in the background.
The concept of “learning by teaching” is well known and has been a topic of multiple papers both in popular and in scientific literature. However, the underlying mechanisms are still a matter of discussion and provide food for thought for behavioral scientists. But one thing is clear – the teacher has to constantly perform at the ever-advancing frontier of his/her personal knowledge in order to reap the maximum benefits to himself. Fortunately, there seems to be a limitless supply of eager students willing to test the intellectual capacity of the teachers as proper explanations of even the simplest subjects often require vast background knowledge. Furthermore, each newly learned thing does indeed amalgamate with prior knowledge and finds its way to be incorporated into the lectures.
As for other benefits, there’s a plethora of social and life skills that also get developed during teaching activities, especially in situations where students are participating in active discussions with the teacher. Examination of students expands this even further by introducing the need to create fair and well-rounded problems and to maintain the highest level of attention and professional integrity during grading. No wonder that in some universities teaching is a mandatory part of PhD studies!
What if teaching is not a part of your PhD? Fortunately, there are many (probably too many) opportunities to spread knowledge. From encounters with younger colleagues to chat rooms and social media – it is our responsibility to disseminate knowledge in the most comprehensive form for every audience imaginable!
Vidmantas Bieliūnas, KU Leuven
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