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Improving Student Learning with Effective Learning Techniques: Elaborative Interrogation (Part 1)

The achievement gap among students is widening, although there are major strides in the educational systems to bridge the gaps. From my experience as an educator and educational leader, one of the chief factors affecting student achievement is learning techniques. I am talking about the learning techniques that can be reasonably taught to students so that they can independently use it in the same or different contexts at a later date. Many students use ineffective learning techniques that if trained with more effective one can improve their achievement. Many teachers help students to use ineffective learning techniques because they do not know about effective techniques due to their ubiquity (Dunlosky et al., 2013).

A comprehensive review of the literature by Duosky et al. (2013) offered  recommendations for the utility of learning techniques to improve educational outcome. The review yielded 10 learning techniques that are labelled as low utility, medium utility, or high utility. The utility level (degree and scope of effectiveness) was based on the generalizability (educational contexts)  and promise for improving student learning.

In this post series, I will be discussing each learning technique in terms of

  1. General description of the technique and why it should work.

  2. How general are the effects of this technique?

  3. Effects in representative educational contexts

  4. ssues for implementation

  5. Overall assessment

The 10 learning techniques are

2017-07-15_14-05-34Dunlosky et al. (2013

The authors identified generalizability of these techniques' impact on four categories of variables:

  1. materials

  2. learning conditions

  3. student characteristics

  4. criterion tasks

The authors also stressed the importance factual knowledge not as an ultimate objective but as a prerequisite for deep learning in a subsequent stage - one thing that the new fad into critical thinking in education has overlooked. Therefore, improving student retention of knowledge is essential for reaching other learning targets. They state that “if one does not remember core ideas, facts, or concepts, applying them may prove difficult, if not impossible”.

So, let's begin with the first learning technique in this post.

Elaborative Interrogation

Explanatory questioning is extremely significant to promote learning, an ample body of evidence suggests. In particular, research has shown that answering “Why?” questions -embedded in elaborative interrogation and self-explanation techniques- can facilitate learning.

Description and Why it should work

Elaborative interrogation , such as asking “Why wasn't action performed?”,  boosts memory recall. The key to elaborative interrogation  is "prompting learners to generate an explanation for an explicitly stated fact."

A typical format was followed in most studies for EI prompting "Why would this fact be true of this [X] and not some other [X]?

The predominant conceptual report of elaborative interrogation effects is that elaborative interrogation enhances learning by supporting the integration of new information with existing prior knowledge.


Learning conditions

Although most studies have involved individual learning, elaborative-interrogation effects have also been shown among students working in dyads or small groups.

Student Characteristics

Elaborative interrogation can be generalized to all learners however the extent to how it affects young learners is not clear. Student prior knowledge has significant impact on the EI strategy.


Effects in Educational Contexts

Mostly,  elaborative interrogation enhance learning in representative educational contexts with few studies conducted outside a laboratory setting. One particular study (Smith et al., 2010) conducted a study on undergraduates enrolled in a Biology course. The study was situated during class meetings in the adjoining lab section. Students completed an assessment of verbal ability and prior-knowledge exam over relational but indistinguishable material to the target one.

In the ensuing weeks, learners were given long and complex texts taken from a chapter in the textbook. For 50% of the learners, 21 EI prompts were "interspersed" throughout the text "roughly one prompt per 150 words" , each incorporating a paraphrased statement from the text followed by "Why is this true?" . The other students were only instructed to study the text on their own pace, without any prompts. El students then completed a T/F questions about the material (none were the same as the EI prompts). Performance was better for EI groups than control groups 76% versus 69%, “even after controlling the prior and verbal ability”.

Implementation Issues

There are two advantages to EI :

1- It requires minimal training for students to learn it. Teachers can start with EI prompts interspersed in the text, or text explanation, and gradually let the students come up with their own EI prompts.

2- The EI is "reasonable with time demands". It does not take a lot of time on part of the teacher to prepare the prompts at the outset nor training the students to derive their own EI.

However, EI is  limited to "discrete factual statements". It is not clear to what one should ask the why questions for more intricate outcomes. It work great with  fact lists but elaborating on facts incorporated in lengthier texts requires teachers to guide students on the kind of content to focus on to be productively executed.

Overall Assessment: Medium Utility

The authors assessed EI as medium utility primarily because of it generalizability issues. Studies suggest that it is most effective with factual knowledge and especially with students who have low domain knowledge. Also, benefits for comprehension and long delays need more research and is not clear in earlier studies.

Next post will discuss Self-explanation learning technique.

Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M. J., & Willingham, D. T. (2013). Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14(1), 4–58.

Smith, B. L., Holliday, W. G., & Austin, H. W. (2010). Students’ comprehension of science textbooks using a question-based reading strategy.

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