This self-guided tutorial explores how to use self-explanation as a learning strategy. It includes:

  1. an explanation of how and why self-explanation enhances learning
  2. examples of self-explanation
  3. how to use self-explanation effectively

Self-Explanation Explained

What do you do when you are reading new course material and you don’t understand it? In that moment you might reread the information, skip over it, or pause and try to think it through. If you pause and try to think it through, you engage in something that researchers might call self-explanation.

Self-explanation involves trying to make sense of new information by relating it to what you already know and making inferences to fill in any missing information. You probably engage in some form of self-explanation without realizing it whenever you think about the meaning of information during a lecture, read a text, or look at a diagram or graph. Self-explanation can be a potent learning strategy, and you can use it to your advantage in studying by explaining new material to yourself or to someone else.

Why and How does Self-Explanation Improve Learning?

  1. Self-explanation helps you revise and expand what you know about the subject matter. You elaborate and establish new connections among ideas. You build a better understanding or a mental model of the topic. Better understanding helps you remember, use and apply knowledge more flexibly to new situations.
  2. Explaining helps you identify gaps in your understanding so you can fill in missing information. Think of it this way. While explaining an idea to yourself or another person, you may get stuck or realize what you are saying doesn’t make sense. That is a clear indication that you don’t fully understand the idea; something is missing. You can go back to the material and search for the missing pieces.

As one researcher asserts

Even if learning materials are inadequate (such as not perfectly sequenced, with much missing information), students can learn, in fact even more effectively, if they try to explain the materials to themselves. Doing so allows them to infer the missing information, synthesize the presented information even if it is out-of-sequence, and so on. This has been coined the self-explanation effect. (Chi, 2017, p.1)

Initially, you may not have a deep grasp of new material, but trying to explain it pushes your understanding forward. Explaining is a way to develop deeper learning. Explaining also helps you monitor and recognize gaps in your understanding. Being aware of what you don’t know is an important step in rethinking, revising, and expanding your understanding. 

Research has shown that higher achieving students engage spontaneously in self-explanation as they read and study. They generate inferences about the material, connect the new information to their own prior knowledge, and monitor their comprehension. For instance, one study found that skilled readers detected 9 times as many comprehension failures as unskilled readers did. In other words, they noticed when they did not understand what they were reading 9 times as often as unskilled readers. Effective readers tend to self-explain as they read. (Chi, Bassok, Lewis, Reimann, & Glaser, 1989).

Even very high achieving students can benefit from self-explanation. A study with medical students found that students who were prompted to generate self-explanations of cases were better able to diagnose unfamiliar cases than students who were not instructed to generate self-explanations (Chamberland et al., 2011).

Based on a meta-analysis of 64 research studies involving 6000 participants, Bisra, Liu, Nesbit, Salimi, & Winne (2018) concluded

Our findings have significant practical implications. The foremost is that having learners generate an explanation is often more effective than presenting them with an explanation. Another major implication for teaching and learning is that beneficial effects of inducing self-explanation seem to be available for most subject areas studied in school, and for both conceptual (declarative) and procedural knowledge. The most powerful application of self-explanation may arise after learners have made an initial explanation and then are prompted to revise it when new information highlights gaps or errors. (Bisra et al., 2018, p. 720)

On a personal note . . .
Many times in teaching I realized my explanation of a concept or idea made no sense or was flawed in some way. Listening to oneself can be an enlightening experience.

Examples of Self-Explanation

Labeling “self-explanation” as a learning strategy makes it sound like it is something new that students have never done and need to learn. However, self-explaining involves mental activities that we all engage in when we read, watch or listen to new information. In the broadest sense, self-explanations are attempts to make sense of and construct meaning of new information.

We construct new meaning through a number of processes such as:

  • Comprehension monitoring. We track our understanding as we take in new information, and notice when we don’t understand something, e.g., you sense that a passage you are reading does not make sense to you, or that you don’t know the meaning of a word and therefore don’t understand a sentence.
  • Making inferences. In order to interpret new concepts and ideas we need to predict or infer meaning based on our prior knowledge. We do this all the time in reading literature, e.g., we infer a character’s internal emotional state based on her behavior or we expect certain events to take place based on our experience in similar situations. We also make inferences in learning technical information as we will see below.
  • Connecting new information to prior knowledge. Our knowledge develops as we connect and integrate new information with our prior knowledge, i.e., we connect new information to what we already know about the topic. If we don’t connect new information to relevant prior knowledge, we end up with isolated bits or facts that do not have much meaning and tend to be forgotten.

Self-explanation involves trying to give an account of new ideas, concepts, processes, etc. As discussed previously, the act of trying to explain expands an individual’s knowledge and also reveals gaps in understanding. 

Below is an example from a study in which 8th grade students read about the circulatory system and thought out loud as they did so. Here is a very small segment from one student who is self-explaining a short passage in the text. The text passage was

The septum divides the heart lengthwise into two sides. The right side pumps blood to the lungs, and the left side pumps blood to the other parts of the body. 

Below is the transcript of a student who self-explains the passage.

So the septum is a divider so that the blood doesn’t get mixed up. So the right side is to the lungs, and the left side is to the body. So the septum is like a wall that divides the heart into two parts. . . it kind of like separates it so the blood doesn’t get mixed up (Chi, de Leeuw, Chiu, LaVancher, & Glaser, 1994, p. 454)

The student introduces the idea of the septum as a divider. That idea is an inference not stated explicitly in the passage. This example illustrates the kind of thinking that takes place with self-explanation. The student monitors their comprehension, makes new connections among ideas, infers missing information, and builds knowledge of the topic. Self-explanation is much different than simply reading and trying to remember what the text says.

Below is another example of self-explanation. Students read the short paragraph about why people feel cold when they have a fever and then try to puzzle it out.

People with a fever have a higher body temperature. The heat makes it difficult for bacteria to survive. The body heats up by constricting the veins close to the skin. Constricted veins carry less blood. Blood cools when it is near the surface of the skin. Without blood near the skin, people feel cold and shiver.

Figure S.1 shows the steps in the self-explanation process of one student. Initially, the student proposes that the heat might be caused by friction from narrower veins. However, the student recognizes this is not the case because there is less blood and therefore less friction. The student realizes that fever is not caused by the body producing more heat, but the result of restricting the cooling process.

Source: Schwartz, Tsang, & Blair, 2016, p. 237

This example illustrates that understanding is not necessarily a process in which a student automatically apprehends the meaning of new information. Instead the student needs to use prior knowledge to interpret new information and may need to piece together information through conjecture and inferences.

In a study with college students, researchers taught students to use 6 self-explanation strategies to interpret and explain new information. Figure 2 contains the strategies and gives examples of each from students who were trying to understand this sentence, “Mitosis guarantees that all the genetic information in the nuclear DNA of the parent cell will go to each daughter cell” (Macnamara, 2004).

Self-Explanation Strategies

Figure 2: Self-Explanation Strategies (Source: McNamara, 2004, p.3)

The researchers trained college students to use these strategies as they read science material. The strategies were especially helpful for low knowledge students, i.e., students who had very little background knowledge of the topics, but not for high knowledge students. This suggests that self-explanation is a bridge to better understanding when you are trying to learn unfamiliar material.

This example illustrates the multi-faceted nature of self-explanation. In this case six distinct processes are part of self-explaining. What they have in common is that they all contribute to helping you make sense of new information. This means that self-explaining is not a single unitary process in which you come up with a succinct explanation of a concept or idea. It also emphasizes that developing a grasp of new complex information may take time as you build or construct the meaning of concepts from various pieces of information.

Using Self-Explanation

How you can use self-explanation as an effective learning strategy

    • Write answers to questions for readings assignments.
    • Answer clicker questions in class.
    • Explain your ideas to a classmate and listen carefully to how others explain the same ideas.
    • Pause and self-explain when you don’t understand what you are reading. Develop a habit of pausing when you don’t understand new material. Try to explain your way through the difficulty. Talk it through out loud. If it still does not make sense, plan to get help from a classmate, a tutor or the instructor, or refer to additional sources for help.
    • Prepare to teach the material. When studying for exams, imagine teaching the material to someone. Present your explanations out loud or write out the main points and how you would present them. Research has shown that students improve their learning by preparing to teach material – even if they don’t actually have the opportunity to present it.
    • Take turns explaining course material to one another in study groups. Listen to your study partners’ explanations and compare them to yours. When you notice important differences, discuss these as a group and try to resolve discrepancies.

Potential limitations and problems with self-explanation 

You may not grasp complex new information quickly or all at once. Think of self-explaining as a strategy for building knowledge. However, there are some potential problems.

Your self-explanation is incorrect. If you are working on difficult concepts by yourself you may misunderstand or misinterpret some aspects of the topic and produce an incorrect explanation. Your explanation might make sense to you, but it might be incorrect. Try to confirm the accuracy of your explanations. To the extent possible, get feedback and check your ideas for accuracy.

Self-explaining slows you down. You may be able to cover more material by rereading and taking notes, but those activities are not as effective as self-explaining. The payoff with self-explaining is in terms of better understanding of the subject matter.

Self-explaining will not be very effective if you have very little knowledge of the material. You may not know enough to develop an explanation. In these instances, it is best to try to learn the new terminology or procedures, and then gradually start putting ideas together into short explanations, even if this involves a single sentence at a time. If you continue to have difficulty, it may be best to consult with your instructor, talk to a tutor, or ask a classmate who seems to have a better grasp of the information.