Using EXPLANATION to Promote Robust Learning during Lecture

As a learning activity, the act of explaining involves articulating the meaning of a concept, idea, solution or other type of subject matter to oneself or another person. As one scholar notes, trying to explain, can be a potent learning process

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, 2016, Counter-intuitive findings from the science of learning)

How explaining supports robust learning. Explaining is a sense making activity in which students analyze new information, relate it to prior knowledge, look for connections between ideas, and build mental representations or models of the material. It involves a deliberate effort to express the meaning one to oneself or another person.

During lecture students may not have a deep grasp of the subject, but episodes in which they try to explain the new material pushes their understanding forward. In this way, explaining is a way to develop deeper learning. Explaining also helps students monitor and recognize gaps in their understanding. Being aware of what you don’t know is an important step in rethinking, revising, and expanding one’s understanding.

Five Strategies to Promote Deeper Processing through Explaining

These may be familiar strategies, as they are used widely in higher education. Each one can be used during lecture to involve students in explaining course material.

  1. Think-Pair-Share. The instructor stops lecturing and: 1) poses a question to students about the topic at hand, 2) gives students a few minutes to think and form a response (sometimes write the response), and then 3) asks students to share their ideas with a classmate. Instructors can use clickers to do pre and post tests of students’ understanding of the concept in question.
  2. Minute Paper. Students, usually at the end of a class, take a few minutes to summarize or comment on the important concepts from the class period.
  3. Predict – Explain – Observe – Re-explain. The instructor 1) describes a case, experiment, demonstration, or scenario, 2) asks students to predict and explain the outcomes or results, then 3) presents, demonstrates or describes the actual results and 4) asks students to reconcile their predictions with the actual outcomes.
  4. Concept mapping. Students individually or in small groups create concept maps of selected topics or concepts. A concept map is a graphical representation in which nodes identify certain facts, features or concepts. The lines between the nodes indicate how the concepts are related.
  5. Draw a diagram to illustrate content or a concept. Ask students to draw a sketch or graph to illustrate specific content or concepts. The instructor should downplay artistic skill – the point is to depict the concept visually in a meaningful way.

Guidelines for Using EXPLAINING Strategies

Whether these strategies are effective in lecture depends on how they are implemented. To enhance their effectiveness, instructors should take these things into consideration:

  • Pre-training. If you plan to use in-class exercises during lecture, then prepare students for these episodes. In the syllabus or a handout, describe and explain the purpose and procedures. For example,
    • Discuss how explaining is different from automatically producing a correct answer. The goal is to develop better understanding of the topic.
    • Describe what you mean and want students to do when they explaina concept, idea, issue, etc.
    • Model the process of explaining. Show students how you would try to explain an unfamiliar concept.
    • Show examples of underdeveloped, confused, fragmented and well developed explanations as well as non-explanations.
    • Describe how participation will contribute to students’ course grade.
  • Use prompts, questions or tasks that induce explaining as a cognitive activity. Ask students to explain, compare and contrast, interpret, paraphrase, restate in their own words, categorize and explain, justify, predict, provide evidence, defend, integrate, critique. Key is that students try to make better sense out of the material they are learning by organizing new information, comparing it to prior knowledge, integrating it with prior knowledge, making inferences to fill in missing information, and so forth.
  • Pose thought-provoking questions and tasks. Use tasks that involve key course concepts. Tasks and questions that are too easy do not need to be explained. Tasks that are always too difficult may produce frustration and a sense of futility.
  • Students’ prior knowledge of the topic. Explaining may not be a productive experience for students who are very unfamiliar with a topic. They may know so little that they have no basis for explaining anything about the topic. However, instructors can calibrate their questions to take students’ prior knowledge into account.
  • Low stakes. Emphasize that the purpose of the task is to develop better understanding of the material. To support that view, students’ performance should be ungraded or very low stakes, e.g., receive participation credit for good faith effort.
  • Include some of the in-class tasks and questions on subsequent exams. This emphasizes that being able to explain the material is a key measure of learning in the course. Moreover, it also conveys the idea that the in-class episodes are practice for the test.
  • Give feedback. Because these tasks are done in class, instructors can give group feedback, e.g., collect a few examples of students’ explanations-in-progress and discuss them, highlight strengths and shortcomings, ask the class to elaborate on them, or compare them to their own explanations.
  • Use feedback from students to plan subsequent instruction. Students’ explanations provide a glimpse into their developing understanding of the subject matter, what they understand, don’t yet understand, misconceptions, and gaps. You can use this feedback to plan subsequent instruction, and decide what you should do next, and what students should do next.
  • Avoid overusing the technique. Use the technique strategically to promote deeper learning at key points in the lecture. Overuse can make class excessively repetitive and tedious. Have you ever heard students say, “If I have to answer one more [expletive] clicker question, I’ll drop this class.”


Cerbin, W. (2015). Self explanation. In Teaching Improvement Guide. University of Wisconsin at La Crosse Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning. Retrieved from

Chi, M. T. H. (2017). Counter-intuitive findings from the science of learning. AERA Knowledge Forum Research Fact Sheet. Retrieved from Centennial/AERAKnowledge-Forum/Cluster-1

Chiu, J.L. & Chi, M.T.H. (2014). Supporting self-explanation in the classroom. In V. A. Benassi, C. E. Overson, & C. M. Hakala (Eds.), Applying science of learning in education: Infusing psychological science into the curriculum. Retrieved from

Fonseca, B. & Chi, M.T.H. (2011). Instruction based on self-explanation. In R. Mayer & P. Alexander (Eds.), The Handbook of Research on Learning and Instruction. London: Routledge Press.

Fiorella, L. & Mayer, R.E. (2015). Learning by self-explanation. In Learning as a generative activity: Eight learning strategies that promote understanding. NY: Cambridge University Press.

Schwartz, D.L., Tsang, J.M., Blair, K.P. (2016). S is for self-explanation: Going beyond the information. In The ABCs of how we learn: 26 scientifically proven approaches, how they work, and when to use them. NY: W.W. Norton and Company.

Wieman, C. et al. (2009). Clicker Resource Guide: An Instructors Guide to the Effective Use of Personal Response Systems (Clickers) in Teaching. Retrieved from

Wieman, C. and associates, (2013). What not to do: Practices that should be avoided when implementing active learning. Retrieved from

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