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Volume 21, Issue 17;   April 28, 2021: The Self-Explanation Effect

The Self-Explanation Effect

by

In the learning context, self-explanation is the act of explaining to oneself what one is learning. Self-explanation has been shown to increase the rate of acquiring mastery. The mystery is why we don't structure knowledge work to exploit this phenomenon.
Two people engaged in pair collaboration

Two people in a pair collaboration. As they exchange views, they're likely to engage in self-explanation. Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko from Pexels.

The self-explanation effect is a phenomenon long known to the education community. [VanLehn 1992] [Chi 1994] Researchers have found that learners achieve a better grasp of new material faster when they explain it to themselves as they're learning it. The effect is also observed when the learners explain to themselves what they've learned after they're exposed to the material. Even more striking, self-explanation is more effective than attending lectures, taking notes, writing summaries, or reading or re-reading.

Given the clear evidence for the validity of the self-explanation effect, what is perhaps most surprising is how infrequently it's used in organizations. Below are three-and-a-half suggestions for exploiting the self-explanation effect in organizational settings.

Workplace education
Training and professional education in the workplace provide perhaps the most direct analogs to what the education community has discovered. In organizations, however, the accelerating trend toward "online training" has led to a divergence from classroom-based education. For the most part, online training consists of computer-driven presentation of material followed by a computer-based multiple-choice quiz intended to measure the learner's mastery of the material. So-called eLearning is therefore largely solitary and quiz-oriented.
By removing When learners explain what they're
learning to themselves in their own
words they reach higher levels
of mastery faster than they
can with other methods
the social components of education and by relying on multiple-choice quizzes to measure mastery, eLearning in the workplace has reduced the need for learners to express in their own words what they've learned. Therefore, in most cases, what self-explanation does occur is a result of the learner's initiative alone.
Restructuring workplace eLearning to induce more self-explanation could lead to increased levels of mastery and greater retention of the knowledge acquired in workplace education. Experiential training, activity-based learning, and significant face-to-face classroom components are reliable methods for inducing self-explanation behavior.
Size of meetings
Meeting size affects the incidence of self-explanation behavior because of the time available for articulating explanations. For example, in a one-hour meeting attended by 15 people, the average time available for contributions to discussions is four minutes per person. For a five-person one-hour meeting, the average time available is 12 minutes. If we deduct from the meeting duration 10 minutes per hour for overhead, the respective average times available per person would be 3.3 minutes and 10 minutes, respectively. In the larger meetings, many people speak very little or not at all, because time isn't allocated evenly.
Ironically, holding large meetings to save time tends to have the opposite effect. It tends to increase the need for meetings, in part, because it allows less time for self-explanation. A pattern of smaller, shorter, more focused meetings makes more time available for people to articulate their views or to inquire about the views of others. Because self-explanation is a likely precursor to articulation, smaller meetings tend to accelerate the pace of grasping the essence of the issues at hand.
Task teams
In task teams, when work is allocated to individuals, much of the work of the task is executed in a solitary manner. Self-explanation tends to be suppressed unless the members of the task team engage in self-explanation on their own initiative. What explanations do occur tend to result from the need to report status or seek help.
Contrast this to a mode of working where all effort is carried on in twos or threes. In work organized in this way, the need for each member of the task team to communicate with the other members creates an almost continuous need to engage in self-explanation. What each one learns by doing this is then shared with the others. The cumulative effects of frequent self-explanation in this context might account, in part, for the effectiveness of pair programming. [Rodríguez 2017]

Last words

The above three suggestions illustrate how to exploit the self-explanation effect in the context of knowledge work where the work in question produces the output of the organization. But I promised three-and-a-half suggestions, so here's the half bit: self-explanation can be just as helpful when the purpose of the work is improving the organization itself. Activities such as change management, strategy development, training design, reorganization design, policy development, and acquisition planning come to mind. Try explaining to yourself why your organization might consider exploiting the self-explanation effect in just one of these activities.

A final caveat: some of the above suggestions are fundamentally social. They're more difficult to implement in the context of epidemics like COVID-19. Use with care. Go to top Top  Next issue: Pre-Decision Discussions: Facts  Next Issue

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Footnotes

[VanLehn 1992]
Kurt VanLehn, Randolph M. Jones, and Michelene T.H. Chi. "A model of the self-explanation effect," The Journal Of The Learning Sciences 2:1 (1992), 1-59. Available here. Back
[Chi 1994]
Michelene T.H. Chi, Nicholas De Leeuw, Mei-Hung Chiu, and Christian LaVancher, "Eliciting self-explanations improves understanding," Cognitive Science 18:3 (1994), 439-477. Available here. Retrieved 12 April 2021. Back
[Rodríguez 2017]
Fernando J. Rodríguez, Kimberly Michelle Price, and Kristy Elizabeth Boyer. "Exploring the pair programming process: Characteristics of effective collaboration," Proceedings of the 2017 ACM SIGCSE Technical Symposium on Computer Science Education 2017. Available here. Retrieved 12 April 2021. Back

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