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Kaplan’s Head of Learning, Stuart Pedley-Smith’s study tips: The Power of Self-Explanation

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Stuart Pedley-Smith
By Stuart Pedley-Smith, Kaplan Head of Learning Link to Stuart Pedley-Smith's LinkedIn profile

One of the great skills of a teacher is that they explain things you don’t understand, that’s really helpful – right? Well, maybe not.

A meta-study titled, Inducing Self-Explanation, published back in 2018 concluded that it is better to ask a student to try and explain something to themselves, than for a teacher to do it for them.

Although, in fairness, the teacher’s explanation was better than no explanation, which might seem an obvious point. But it shows that the content is important and it’s not just the process. However, the self-explanation process does help as it forces the learner to recognise links between the knowledge or skills they have already learned while identifying the gaps in their understanding which need to be bridged.

In further defence of teachers, there is some evidence to show that the technique is more effective following an initial explanation, with the student asked to explain it to themselves afterwards.

In simple terms, self-explanation requires the learner to try to explain concepts, ideas and processes in their head to themselves before answering a question. However, there is a little more to it than that.

Self-explanation and elaborative interrogation

Elaborative interrogation is similar to self-exploration but not the same. If you ask someone “why does that make sense?” or “why is this true?” This is an example of elaboration, it generally relies on a specific chunk of prior knowledge that you are elaborating on.

Self-explanation is more generic in that you could ask “what does this mean to you?” or “explain what you have just read.” To answer these questions, there is no need for past knowledge as the paragraph may have only just been read. As a result, self-explanation is better suited to knowledge acquisition.

But for all intent and purposes, they are both techniques that force reflection, thus requiring the learner to assemble the parts of the process or argument in their head, challenge the conclusions and ask further questions to narrow the gap in their understanding. We also know that more effective learners (although you may think they are just really smart) will likely engage in self-explaining naturally.

Learning requires effort

If this process sounds like hard work, it is. Learning is not meant to be easy. It can be enjoyable and rewarding, but not necessarily easy. If you try to compare explaining a topic to re-reading the textbook or highlighting keywords, I guess that you would much rather re-read or highlight. Yet, they are both far less effective learning techniques.

Speech marks

“The greater the difficulty, the greater the glory.”

This is yet another example of what Robert Bjork referred to as desirable difficulty*. It is the idea that having certain difficulties in the learning process greatly improves long-term retention. Other examples include spacing, interleaving, and retrieval practice. It’s the effort and reflection that helps transfer the knowledge from short-term to long-term memory, and without that, it would be forgotten.

More effective ways of learning and developing confidence

The key point is not about the difficulty of learning, but the effectiveness of the methods used to learn and develop the confidence that when something is hard it’s probably a good thing. So, the next time you are asked a question that requires an explanation and you can’t give one, don’t jump straight back into the textbook to reread the entire chapter. Think and reflect on what it is you don’t understand, create a sentence that captures that lack of understanding, maybe even say it out loud, find the answer, and then attempt to explain it again.

Of course, it can be a little more difficult, but you will be learning and not just thinking you are.

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*(Bjork, 1994; McDaniel & Butler)

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