Who needs a teacher – the power of self-explanation

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 entitled, 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 that 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 process does help because it forces the student to recognise links between the knowledge or skills they have already learned and identify 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 prior to 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 exactly the same. If you ask someone “why that makes 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 only just have 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, requiring the learner to assemble the component parts of process or argument in their head, challenge the conclusions and ask further questions to narrow the gap in their understanding. One last point, we also know that more effective learners (although you may think they are just really smart) are likely to engage in self-explaining naturally.

Learning requires effort – desirable difficulty
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. Compare, trying to explain something to re-reading the textbook or highlighting key words. My guess is that you would much rather re-read or highlight, but they are both far less effective learning techniques.

The greater the difficulty, the greater the glory.
Marcus Tullius Cicero

This is yet another example of what Robert Bjork’s referred to as desirable difficulty (Bjork, 1994; McDaniel & Butler). 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 which I have written about before. 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
The key point is not about the difficulty of learning but the effectiveness of the methods used to learn, and developing 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 saying it out loud, find the answer and then attempt to explain it again.

A little more difficult of course but you will be learning and not just sitting there thinking you are.

My thanks to John Eaton for his observations on this topic and for the fab picture of Less Dawson.