Encouraging Self-Explanation Among Your Learners

I was a physics major in college. During my junior year I took a course in electromagnetic theory (E&M).  To say it was difficult would be an understatement. The professor seemed so smart and I seemed so, well… not so smart. I remember talking to my professor one day after class and he said something that has stuck with me ever since. He told me that he never really understood E&M until he taught it. At the time I was an undergraduate and had no teaching experience at all but since then I’ve done a lot of teaching and, of course, he was right. Anyone who has ever taught can relate to this. To figure out how best to explain something to someone else you first have to explain it to yourself.

Learning theorists have noted this as well and have done a lot of research in the learning technique that is usually called “self-explanation.”  As its name implies, in self-explanation learners, rather than just reading the material (or highlighting or underlining – wastes of time both), learn best when they explain the material to themselves.  It is generally thought that this process works because through self-explanation learners are taking newly presented material and assimilating it into their existing knowledge structures (schema).  There are many research papers documenting this phenomenon.  Here is one.

Some learners self-explain naturally. Others need to be encouraged to do so. How can you as a trainer or instructional designer encourage self-explanation among your learners? Here are some ideas for your courses:

  • Rather than just stating something as a fact try to include “why” type explanations.
  • Pose questions along the lines of: “How would X explain Y?”
  • Provide scaffolding by tying new ideas to ideas you have previously taught.
  • “Spiral” your courses by from time to time looping back to previously covered material.
  • Pose problems that require your learners to make predictions based upon what they have learned.
  • Encourage your learners to paraphrase, in their own words, what they have learned.

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