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Self-explanation during revision: What, why and how

Self-explanation during revision: What, why and how

3 min read
  • Study skills & exam prep
  • The science of learning

We love looking for evidence-based revision tips (you can find lots of them on our revision guide page). There are plenty of good strategies out there, and even more inefficient ones.

But one effective study technique that is often forgotten is self-explanation. Find out what it is, why it works and how to use it in this blog…

What is self-explanation?

Self-explanation has two simple steps: students ask themselves questions about what they have learnt, then explain the answer to themselves.

If students have pre-existing knowledge about a subject, self-explanation allows them to integrate the new elements they have just encountered with it. This helps them fill gaps, reorganise information and make stronger connections, all of which subsequently improves student understanding and learning.

Self-explanation questions can include the following:

  • “How does this step relate to the previous one?”
  • “Why is this true for X but not for Y?”
  • “Why would this be the case?”
  • “What motivated this character to do that?”

What does research say on self-explanation?

Self-explanation has been shown to be a beneficial learning technique by previous studies.

In one particular study, participants were asked to learn about the cardiovascular system. They were split into two groups: a self-explanation group and a control group. The self-explanation group were given open ended questions (e.g. ‘Could you explain how blood vessels work?’), while participants in the control group were not. The researchers found that when they were tested later, those in the self-explanation group did significantly better.

Despite self-explanation being widely investigated, it wasn’t until recently that a study brought together the results from numerous (64) research reports, supporting the effectiveness of self-explanation as a learning technique and offering ways to maximise its potential. Let’s take a closer look at this research…

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Why is self-explanation effective?

This study explored some of the benefits of self-explanation. It confirmed some of the known benefits (i.e. encourages students to engage in the material, aids later recall and prompts meaningful associations with previously learnt materials).

A rather fascinating and surprising finding from this review found that self-explanation by itself is better than self-explanation + an explanation from someone else. This may be because this supplementary information hindered students from fully engaging in their self-explanation.

Perhaps more importantly, the researchers also found self-explanation to provide beneficial outcomes for most school subjects and topics. Therefore, it seems that teachers across the curriculum should be looking to integrate and give students the opportunity to use self-explanation in their lessons. It is worth noting that other research has suggested that self-explanation is more beneficial for subjects such as science and maths, as it is particularly suited to subjects that require reasoning or problem solving.

How can teachers maximise the effectiveness of self-explanation?

Teachers can help students develop their self-explanation abilities by choosing and giving them prompts/question stems/structure to use. The questions listed at the top of the blog are a good starting point for this.

Evidence suggests that we should avoid using multiple choice self-explanation prompts (i.e. where students have to choose a self-explanation from a list), as this is does not promote as much learning as when self-explanations are generated from open questions. This is because open questions encourage students to use their own words to explain concepts and enables them to elaborate.

Final thought

Self-explanation is a less well-known but very effective way for students to study and learn. By getting them to actively make sense of and engage with material, they form new connections, which subsequently enhances learning.

By teaching students how to learn, we increase the chances that they actually will.

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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