Elaboration / Self-explanation

What it is

When using the strategy ‘elaboration’ or ‘self-explanation’, you need to connect new information to information you already knew, for example, to explain new concepts or relate concepts to each other. The easiest question to ask yourself while reading materials is ‘Why?’: “Why does it make sense that…?” or “Why is this true?” but also “How does it relate to what you already know?”. Importantly, this technique barely takes more time than simply reading a text. Students explaining concepts to each other also naturally use elaboration (within the PBL groups or studying with friends).

How to do it

While reading, channel your inner ‘inquisitive child’ (or baby brother/sister, niece, nephew; any child around the age of 4). While reading, wonder why the things you are reading are true, whether you already knew something about it, whether this new information relates to something you already know about or to something else you are reading, etcetera.

Describe how the ideas you are studying apply to your own experiences or memories. As you go through your day, make connections to the ideas you are learning in class.

Does it work, and why?

This strategy is moderately useful, mostly because it might depend on prior knowledge.

Inquisitive by nature, we are always looking for explanations for the world around us. A sizable body of evidence suggests that prompting students to answer “Why?” questions also facilitates learning. One study showed that an elaborative interrogation group answered about 72 percent correctly, compared to about 37 percent for the others (a group simply asked to remember a sentence and a group where the ‘why’ answer was provided but the participants did not actively ask the ‘why’ themselves).

Elaboration and self-explanation can be very powerful strategies to check whether you have understood a topic clearly or where potential knowledge gaps are. Try to use this strategy very actively, by for example explaining things to yourself or others without your notes, apply it during the tutorial groups or at home during your study sessions, while reading a text (ask yourself a question after each paragraph), watching a lecture (stop the lecture at several points and try to explain the concepts in your own words), or practicing for the exam (can you explain a learning goal to your friend).