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Press release

  • 1 March 2007

The educational benefits of watching others learn

Watch me first: students Charlene Whitehead and Scott Bissett puzzle out a problem with Dr Richard Cox

Watch me first: students Charlene Whitehead and Scott Bissett puzzle out a problem with Dr Richard Cox

A fun way to understand how we learn by watching others learn will be on offer at a special exhibition in Hove.

Dr Richard Cox, a cognitive scientist in the representation and cognition research group at the University of Sussex, is demonstrating the value of what is known as 'vicarious learning' at Hove Town Hall on 16 March as part of a national Festival of Social Science.

With the aid of wooden and computer puzzles, he and his colleagues will be giving visitors the opportunity to find out for themselves the benefits of learning by watching others. There will also be an explanation of how vicarious learning is now being used in education.

Dr Cox, who led a team that developed a computer system to help trainee speech therapists, says: "The traditional model of learning is that of direct instruction of students by tutors. There is obviously value in this type of learning, but students also learn well from listening to and observing fellow students who are a little further down the learning track than they are.

"These students are often better at explaining the subject matter in ways that are meaningful, and tend not to use the dense jargon that experts sometimes do. Students empathise with the kinds of mistakes their fellow students make and their senior students peers can explain things in terms that they understand."

Dr Cox and colleagues at the Universities of Sheffield, Newcastle and Edinburgh, are currently comparing the education dialogue of `students with students' and `students with tutors' to measure learning outcomes. With an increasing emphasis on e-learning (which is mostly computer-based), this essential dialogue between students, others students and tutors is becoming lost. Dr Cox says it is this aspect of education that his PATSy computer system addresses, with opportunities for students to watch videos of conversations between students and tutors.

His studies, and those of his colleagues, show that students who listen to tutor-student dialogues subsequently ask more `deep-level' questions than those who listen to monologues (tutorial discourse). And that vicariously overhearing dialogue that includes question-asking results in higher engagement with learning.

The Social Science Festival, with events across the country, runs from 9-18 March and is being organised by the Economic and Social Research Council to celebrate the research of some of the country's leading social scientists and to demonstrate how their work makes a difference to all our lives.

The ESRC Festival of Social runs alongside National Science and Engineering Week, co-ordinated by the BA (British Association for the Advancement of Science), in order to highlight just how integral the social sciences are to the wider world of science and engineering.

Notes for editors

  • 'Vicarious learning: learning by watching other people learn', 10.00am-4.00pm, Hove Town Hall, Hove.  For further information, telephone: 020 8542 7622




  • University of Sussex press office: Jacqui Bealing and Maggie Clune, tel 01273 678888, email:




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