Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
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

Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunLove the work but not the job? Bad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? This ebook looks at what we can do to get more out of life at work. It helps you get moving again! Read Go For It! Sometimes It's Easier If You Run, filled with tips and techniques for putting zing into your work life. Order Now!

Footnotes

Comprehensive list of all citations from all editions of Point Lookout
[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

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrendPtoGuFOkTSMQOzxner@ChacEgGqaylUnkmwIkkwoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

This article in its entirety was written by a 
          human being. No machine intelligence was involved in any way.Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

This article in its entirety was written by a human being. No machine intelligence was involved in any way.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:

The Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill BridgeTen Reasons Why You Don't Always Get What You Measure: III
The phrase "You get what you measure," has acquired the status of "truism." Yet many measurement-based initiatives have produced disappointing results. Here's Part III of an examination of the idea — a look at management's role in these surprises.
A single-strand knotTangled Thread Troubles
Even when we use a facilitator to manage a discussion, managing a queue for contributors can sometimes lead to problems. Here's a little catalog of those difficulties.
A portrait of Matthew Lyon, printer, farmer, soldier, politicianHow to Foresee the Foreseeable: Recognize Haste
When trouble arises after we commit to a course of action, we sometimes feel that the trouble was foreseeable. One technique for foreseeing the foreseeable depends on recognizing haste in the decision-making process.
Orient quad, photo by George H. Van NormanHow to Deal with Holding Back
When group members voluntarily restrict their contributions to group efforts, group success is threatened and high performance becomes impossible. How can we reduce the incidence of holding back?
The fictional logo of the fictional paper company, Dunder MifflinMonday Morning Minute Message Madness
As a leader of a large organization, if you publish a "Monday Minute Message" to help employees identify with the organization as a whole, there are some practices that might limit the effectiveness of the program. Six suggestions can be helpful.

See also Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness and Critical Thinking at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

The Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill BridgeComing May 29: Rescheduling: Project Factors
Rescheduling is what we do when we can no longer honor the schedule we have now. Of all causes of rescheduling, the more controllable are those found at the project level. Attending to them in one project can limit their effects on other projects. Available here and by RSS on May 29.
A switch in the tracks of a city tramwayAnd on June 5: The Reactive Rescheduling Cycle
When the current schedule is no longer viable, we reschedule. But rescheduling is unlike devising a schedule before work has begun. People know that we're "behind" and taking time to reschedule only makes things worse. Political pressure doesn't help. Available here and by RSS on June 5.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrendPtoGuFOkTSMQOzxner@ChacEgGqaylUnkmwIkkwoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500-1000 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at X, or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.