Introduction to Self-Explanation

A student is working on several math problems on a chalkboard

Contributed by Maria Valadez Ingersoll, Ph.D student at BU URBAN Program

(3 minute read)

Have you ever noticed a student who seems to master a formula in one example but struggles to apply that same formula to a different situation? A subtle skill that many students struggle to master is transferring what they learn in class or on practice problems to new scenarios. This limitation in knowledge transfer becomes evident when students are tasked to apply what they’ve learned to other examples or more complex and in-depth tasks that appear on exams or in subsequent units. As a student, I fell into this pitfall many times in introductory chemistry and mathematics courses. I memorized the steps to solve an example problem correctly through rote repetition believing that it would equip me to solve new problems that followed the same patterns or rules. Yet each time I came across a version of the pattern in a new scenario in an exam or in the following chapter, I got confused and faltered. My mistake, and what many students experience, was not understanding the why of the problem, just the how.

Students like myself fail to learn the mechanics needed to solve a problem or, in a humanities context, needed to form an argument in a paragraph. One tool that educators can encourage to promote contextualized learning over memorization of steps is self-explanation.

Self-explanation is the process by which a learner explicitly describes what each step of a task (math problem, biology experiment, analytical argument, etc) is accomplishing. A few questions that students can answer when self-explaining are: What is my goal for this step? What are the principles that I have learned that apply to this step? Are there any exceptions that can be made in this scenario? How exactly am I going to move to the next step? Self-explanation should promote the student to put into words why they are moving from point A to point B instead of just doing it, which will allow the student to contextualize the processes behind the learning and apply those processes to other scenarios.

Before we proceed with some examples of how you can implement self-explanation in your classroom, it is important that we understand a little bit about the research. Let’s explore how researchers have developed the reasoning behind self-explanation and how they have implemented it in classrooms. The following study, along with many others, is discussed in Chapter 6 of James M. Lang’s book Small Teaching.

A study performed by a group of researchers in 1989 attempted to address the disconnect between understanding example problems and applying principles to new scenarios (Chi, Bassok, Lewis, Reimann, and Glaser 1989). When physics students are provided with example problems, those who are prompted to write clear explanations of the reasoning behind each step (by answering questions similar to those provided in paragraph two of this blog post) consistently perform better when they apply their knowledge to new problems than those students who do not write explanations. This study is a great example of how just completing practice problems does not guarantee that students understand certain concepts, but when prompted to self-explain during practice, they are better able to retain a contextualized understanding of the methods used to achieve their goal and can therefore better apply their knowledge to new scenarios.

The principle of self-explanation can be applied across the disciplines of academia and beyond! Make sure to tune into the blog in the next few weeks as we explore examples of applying self-explanation in the classroom from humanities to STEM!