Explanations are an important part of instruction and learning. The Cambridge Dictionary defines an explanation as, “the details or other information that someone gives to make something clear or easy to understand.” Researchers differentiate between generic explanations and instructional explanations. The latter take place in an educational context and are intended for the purpose of teaching.
At their best, instructional explanations integrate new information with prior knowledge. They also help people make proper generalizations that consolidate knowledge into principles and theories.
During the early stages of learning, we use explanations to introduce new concepts. In the intermediate phase of learning, explanations help correct misconceptions by restructuring the learner’s knowledge. These are known as revising instructional explanations. In order to gain higher levels of mastery, however, practice becomes a more critical instructional strategy and explanations are subordinate in importance (Wittwer& Renkl, 2008).
What can go wrong with explanations?
Even though explanations are commonly used in instruction, research shows they often have no positive effects on learning outcomes. Two reasons for their ineffectiveness are:
- the explanations are not presented in a way that clarifies specific misunderstandings (Sanchez & García-Rodicio, 2013), and
- the explanations are not integrated into helpful learning activities (Roelle, Müller, Roelle, & Berthold, 2015).
I reviewed the literature to understand how we can generate better explanations that improve understanding and contribute to learning. Here is a summary of what I found.
Make Explanations Adaptive
To generate an effective instructional explanation, start with the audience rather than the content. Part of understanding the audience includes understanding their prior knowledge and their mental models. This can help you correct common misunderstandings and close information gaps.
In eLearning, interactive exercises and questions can point to gaps in knowledge that can be corrected through context-sensitive responses, remedial activities or consequences in a scenario. You can also allow learners to to request additional help. Perhaps they can select phrases that are confusing or select terms that need defining. The goal is to help learners construct a coherent mental structure of the information.
Point Out the Flaws in Understanding
Another strategy, called a marked explanation, has been shown to improve retention and transfer. In this approach, you state what the person’s specific gap or misconception is prior to giving a revising explanation. Essentially, the marked explanation serves as a warning message that shows the flaw in the person’s thinking and guides attention to the corrected explanation (Sánchez & García-Rodicio, 2013).
A marked explanation as feedback in a customer service example might be, “You see that there are several good techniques to handling an irate customer, however, what you did not notice was that the person was also upset because she has been a loyal customer for ten years. In that case, you should be managing the call as shown below.” The bold text points out the flaw in the person’s thinking or actions and guides the learner to the correct approach.
Enable Active Processing
Find a way for the learner to be active and engaged as he or she processes an explanation. Passive learning, such as only reading or listening to an explanation, fails to promote deep understanding. If you provide ways for the learner to use the explanation in a task, it enables additional processing. Some ways to get learners involved are listed below.
- Use the explanation to solve a problem.
- Ask learners to determine the rationale for an explanation.
- Withhold some of the explanation and prompt learners to infer the withheld information.
Promote a Self-Explanation Strategy
Self-explanation is an approach to active processing that requires learners to explain new concepts to themselves. These self-explanations differ from explanations one would provide to others, because they are informal and may be incomplete and fragmented. Self-explanations help people resolve their misunderstandings. (See Chamberland & Mamede, 2015).
In an eLearning environment, learners can be prompted to explain something to themselves or they can type their own explanation into a text field and view it later, perhaps with the goal of revising the explanation as they acquire more practice. This approach requires a certain level of metacognition for learners to monitor and revise their misconceptions.
One study examined the effects of self-explanation on medical students’ diagnostic reasoning. Medical students diagnosed a set of clinical cases, including four cases in a less familiar topic and four in a more familiar topic. Some participants generated self-explanations and others did not. The researchers found that self-explanations had a positive effect on learning when the topic was complex and less familiar to the learner. When the topic was familiar, self-explanation showed no positive benefit. In addition, they found that the benefits of self-explanations are enhanced when they are combined with listening to other self-explanation examples (Chamberland & Mamede, 2015.).
- The Art of Explanation by Lee Lefever (not research oriented but valuable)
- How to Make Better Explanations (my podcast interview with Lee Lefever)
- Explorable Explanations