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Improving Student Learning with Effective Learning Techniques Part 2: Self-Explanation

Description and Why it should work

In the originative study on self-explanation, Berry (1983) explored its impacts on logical reasoning using the Wason card-selection task. In this task, a student might see four cards labeled “A,” “4,” “D,” and “3" and be asked to indicate which cards must be turned over to test the rule “if a card has A on one side, it has 3 on the other side” (an instantiation of the more general “if P, then Q” rule). Students were first asked to solve a concrete instantiation of the rule (e.g., flavor of jam on one side of a jar and the sale price on the other); accuracy was near zero. They then were provided with a mini- mal explanation about how to solve the “if P, then Q” rule and were given a set of concrete problems involving the use of this and other logical rules (e.g., “if P, then not Q”). For this set of concrete practice problems, one group of students was prompted to self-explain while solving each problem by stating the reasons for choosing or not choosing each card. Another group of students solved all problems in the set and only then were asked to explain how they had gone about solving the problems. Students in a control group were not prompted to self-explain at any point. Accuracy on the practice problems was 90% or better in all three groups. However, when the logical rules were instantiated in a set of abstract problems presented during a subsequent transfer test, the two self-explanation groups substantially outperformed the control group (see Fig. 2). In a second experiment, another control group was explicitly told about the logical connection between the concrete practice problems they had just solved and the forthcoming abstract problems, but they fared no better (28%).

As described above, students explain some aspect of their processing during learning. Self-explanation may augment learning by integrating information with existing prior knowledge.  Although it is conceptually similar to elaborative interrogation, self-explanation has been much more variable across studies, However, the a major concern is that self-explanation prompts variations are highly dependent on content, as they largely differ between content-free and content-specific.


Content-free self-explanation is easier for students to learn on their own while content-specific need specific structure form prompting and is specifically aligned to assessments. In a nutshell, teach students to independently use self-explanation prompts independently like in homework assignments  and keep content-specific prompts for in class or when teacher is there.

Learning conditions

Self-explanation is found highly effective with direct instruction and discovery learning. In term so moderating effect, retrospective self-explanation produced an effect compared to no self-explanation, but the concurrent self-explanation produced a higher effect than the retrospective one. This is important as it encourages what I call “on-action” and “in-action” explanations. However, when students were allowed to access explanations, the effect was drastically diminished. Most probably learners haven’t earnestly attempted answering self-explanation prompts before consulting provided explanations. This is why when I am approached by some parent or teacher on why I encourage students to “figure-it” out whilst reflecting-in-action, I tell them that this is the best way the student can learn.

Student Characteristics

Self-explanation has vertical effect, as it applies to young as well as older learners. However, generalizability on different levels of prior knowledge and/or ability needs more research. One study however found the same gain in both high and low level student groups from an explanatory text about circulatory system. Another study however, should that lower-skill level of grade 9 students had more gains than higher-level ones.


One of self-explanation strengths is that it is applied across different tasks and in different domains with increased student learning.It  facilitates the solving of various kinds of math problems, including simple addition problems for kindergartners, mathematical-equivalence problems for elementary-age students, and algebraic formulas and geometric theorems for older learners. It improves student teachers’ evaluation of the goodness of practice problems for use in classroom instruction. It helps younger learners overcome various kinds of misconceptions, It also improves children’s pattern learning and adults’ learning of endgame strategies in chess. Several studies have also shown self- explanation effects for learning from text, including both short narratives and lengthier expository texts.

Criterion tasks

Self-explanation effects have been shown on a wide range of criterion measures. It has effects on standard measures of memory, including free recall, cued recall, fill-in-the-blank tests, associative matching, and multiple-choice tests tapping explicitly stated information. Studies involving text learning have also shown effects on measures of comprehension, including  diagram-drawing tasks, application-based questions, and tasks in which learners must make inferences on the basis of information implied but not explicitly stated in a text.

Virtually every study has shown that self-explanation has an effect on near-transfer tests. Effect on far-transfer tests have been shown typically in math problems and pattern learning.

However, the durability of self-explanation is a real concern. Most of the studies on self-explanation included few minutes to one hour or post-activity criterion test. Only very few studies have shown effects in a 1 week delay in narrative reading and 2 week delay in learning geometric theorems. 

Implementation Issues

As noted above, self-explanation has a broad applicability in many tasks and acoss many domains. An advantage of self-explanation is that learners need minimal practice prior to completing the task. However, teachers need to give specific instructions and prompting especially for learners with low ability or low-skill as they have been found to paraphrase a text instead of analyzing it.

A significant issue with self-explanation concerns the time spent on it. Learners who use self-explanation spend significant time more than those who don’t.

Overall Assessment: Moderate Utility

Self-explanation has moderate utility of implementation. Further research is needed to establish the durability of these effects across educationally relevant delays and to establish the efficacy of self- explanation in representative educational contexts. Another issue is the over-demanding time learners need to spend in using self-explanation.

Berry, D. C. (1983). Metacognitive experience and transfer of logical reasoning. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 35A, 39–49.

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.

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