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Students as altruistic teachers improve both wellbeing and learning

ESL students on a writing course made more progress when students taught each other altruistically, without apparent reward, according to a study with Iranian undergraduates, by Javad Zare, Khaijeh Delavar and Ali Derakshan at Kosar, Kharazmi and Golestan Universities, Iran.

Over the last couple of decades, interest in the new field of ‘positive psychology’ has grown as both psychology and medicine increasingly ask not just why people are unwell, but also what contributes to wellbeing? One of the offshoots of this movement is the ‘well-becoming through teaching/ giving hypothesis’ proposing that teaching, for its own sake, leads to decreased self-focus and increased wellbeing as well as more successful teaching.

To test this experimentally, Zare and colleagues recruited 130 Iranian undergraduates from three universities all with a B1 level of English (as based on the CEFR) who were enrolled on a course to improve their writing summary skills; an especially useful skill for academic study.

The students were split into two groups of 65. Both groups followed exactly the same course of 12 sessions, each following the familiar menu of teacher presentation, then an hour of practice exercises and production of written summaries of a longer text. In the intervention group, each student was instructed to teach another student what they had just learnt about writing. In the control group, these exercises and writing assignments were carried out in pairs without any peer-to peer instruction.

All students were tested on their writing skills (using the Pearson Test of English (PTE) Summarize Written Text test) prior to the course and after completion. Results showed a significant improvement in test scores for the intervention group and that the effect size was large.

Qualitative data collected from question prompts after sessions, and from 25 semi-structured interviews, shed light on the role of positive emotions experienced by the intervention group. Thematicanalysis converged on five main elements: self-esteem, gratitude, connectedness & community, happiness, and compassion. These can clearly be seen in the students’ own words below.

An improvement in self-esteem was reported by 84% of students: ‘I felt happy because I found that teaching others helped me notice my own capabilities.’

Gratitude, was mentioned by 76% of students: ‘We had great moments together. This was the most enjoyable class that I’ve ever had and I’m really grateful.’

On connectedness & community: ‘At first, I didn’t really care about them. But when I helped someone learn it felt so good, I decided to help more. Later on, it became more like a responsibility for me. I felt I had to do it for the group.’

Happiness: ‘I remember I felt so happy the first time I answered my friend’s question.’

Compassion: ‘I have never been so generous in learning. For the first time, I was supposed to teach others without any rewards as an assignment. I learnt to be generous. At first, it didn’t feel special, but later, I even looked for the other students who needed my help.’

The idea that teaching a skill or topic is an effective way to improve learning is not new, but this study tackles a particularly difficult emotional component to pin down: altruism. The motivation for altruism is generally viewed as being an internal reward of some kind, and there are signs of this in the student responses quoted above. Such a process of internal reward should not be seen to invalidate altruism, but merely as an explanatory mechanism; the saying still applies that ‘virtue is its own reward.’

Altruistic teaching of this kind is a step beyond more ordinary collaborative work, and the authors indicate that students in the intervention group were given some initial instruction in how to go about teaching their peers.  The large effect size and positive student experiences suggests that the initial investment in setting up this kind of peer-to-peer teaching is well worth the effort.

The only considerable downside to the general sense of teaching – as seen regarding other ‘helping’ professions – being altruistically motivated, is the prevailing view that practitioners are so rewarded by ‘the territory of shared taskbased joy and wonder’ that they require less material remuneration than less altruistic professionals.


  • Zare, J., Delavar, K.D. and Derakhshan, A. (2023) The impact of altruism on the emotions and English summary writing skills of L2 learners: An intervention study in the light of positive psychology, Language Teaching Research, https://doi.org/10.1177/13621688231151632
Image courtesy of Library
Gill Ragsdale
Gill Ragsdale
Gill has a PhD in Evolutionary Psychology from Cambridge, and teaches Psychology with the Open University, but also holds an RSA-Cert TEFL. Gill has taught EFL in the UK, Turkey, Egypt and to the refugees in the Calais 'Jungle' in France. She currently teaches English to refugees in the UK.
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