Although retrieval practice and spaced learning may be more well-known, elaboration is an instructional strategy worth our attention. Elaboration strategies refer to the many ways of connecting prior knowledge to what someone has newly learned. This has the potential to make the new material more memorable and meaningful.
We all know that new learning requires a foundation of prior knowledge. Elaboration techniques give people opportunities to make the connections stronger. In the book Make It Stick, the authors write, “The more you can explain about the way your new learning relates to your prior knowledge, the stronger your grasp of the new learning will be, and the more connections you create that will help you remember it later.” (Listen to my conversation with one of the authors of Make It Stick.)
Elaboration strategies are based on well-known (though not always agreed upon) theories of learning.
- Active learning or active processing produces the most powerful and flexible learning.
- There are varying levels of processing new information. Superficial processing involves simply reading or listening with no further processing. Deep processing makes learning more meaningful. It involves integrating new information with prior knowledge or connecting concepts to one another (Eysink and Da Jong, 2012).
- Learning is a constructive sense-making activity that involves building meaningful knowledge structures that can be applied to new situations (Fiorella and Mayer, 2016).
- To retain new information in memory, the learner must engage in a cognitive restructuring of the material (Fiorella and Mayer, 2016).
Learner-Generated versus Instructional Elaboration Strategies
Elaboration strategies can be learner-generated or instructional. An example of a learner-generated strategy is when a learner names a condition when a specific programming procedure should be used. An instructional elaboration provides an example of a condition when a specific programming procedure should be used. Instructional elaborations are directly in the training, such as examples, analogies, and reflection questions.
Much of the research seems to favor learner-generated elaborations over instructional elaborations because they tend to have the strongest results. Learner-generated strategies take advantage of the learner’s prior knowledge, are better timed, and they can be more memorable than instructional elaboration strategies (Eysink & de Jong, 2012).
It’s important to select a strategy that will work for the knowledge level of the learner and to time it correctly in the learning journey.
Selected Elaboration Strategies
What follows are several evidence-based elaboration strategies that have the potential to promote deeper and more meaningful learning. Much of the research has been done in synchronous learning environments, so I suggest some ways to use these strategies in eLearning.
Self-explanation requires a person to state or write a concept in their own words. This is an active learning strategy one can use while learning individually or in a group. “The more you can explain about the way your new learning relates to your prior knowledge, the stronger your grasp of the new learning will be, and the more connections you create that will help you remember it later” (Brown, Roediger & McDaniel, 2014).
In a classic study (Chi et. al., 1994), university students were learning about the circulatory system. They were assessed by answering complex questions. Those who generated a large number of self-explanations (high explainers) increased their understanding more than low explainers. High explainers also achieved the correct mental model of the circulatory system, whereas low explainers did not.
Here are some ways you might make this and learner-created examples (below) work in eLearning:
- Present users with a prompt to explain a concept. Provide an input field where they can enter their self-explanation. For example, in a course that teaches how to solve a technical problem, prompt learners to self-explain each step of the solution. At the end of a lesson, display all of their explanations and provide an option to save or print.
- Create a partial explanation with fill-in-the-blank spaces where key terms or ideas are omitted. Prompt the learner to fill in the blanks.
- Teach self-explanation as a valuable learning strategy. Then encourage users to self-explain, when appropriate, at different points in an asynchronous lesson.
2. Learner-created Examples
In this strategy, learners are prompted to generate concrete examples of a concept. They may generate examples found in the external world or use personal examples. Learners will require feedback to ensure that their examples are accurate. Thus, in eLearning, it may be helpful to first provide a set of accurate and inaccurate examples and ask the learner to select the ones that match the concept.
Another approach is example comparison. This involves presenting a concept definition along with an example that demonstrates the concept’s critical features. Then prompt learners to compare additional examples and non-examples with the original. This encourages the audience to focus on the critical features of the concept, which facilitates understanding it.
3. Elaborative Interrogation
Despite its scary name, elaborative interrogation is a sound strategy that can facilitate learning It refers to asking why and how questions that, when answered, help a person connect new information to previous knowledge. Why? Because when a person generates answers to these questions, they are encouraged to draw on their existing knowledge. Ideally, this creates links with existing information, facilitating memory and understanding. Examples of the types of questions to ask or embed in eLearning are:
- Why would this fact be true?
- What are examples that confirm your interpretation?
- How are these concepts related? How are they different?
- Why would you take this action under this condition?
This strategy is most appropriate for a target audience with some relevant prior knowledge. And because those with little previous knowledge may answer questions incorrectly or have difficulty answering them, learners should have a way to check their answers.
4. Cooperative Learning
In cooperative learning, people may work together in groups to complete a task or they may form a group to discuss a topic and hear varied viewpoints. Cooperative learning also includes peer-to-peer instruction. These types of interactions often have positive learning outcomes (Slavin, 2016). Although there is no agreed-upon explanation, it appears that learners are augmenting and developing their understanding of a topic by actively processing the information during discussions and interactions.
There is no one answer as to when elaborations will have the greatest impact. This is dependent on the strategy and on the prior knowledge of the target audience. For low knowledge learners, research points to using elaboration strategies like self-explanation during initial learning to improve comprehension and to help learners form coherent mental representations (Roelle & Nückles, 2019). On the other hand, elaborative interrogation and cooperative learning may be a strategy that fosters deeper learning further along in the process.
- Brown, P.C., Roediger, H. & McDaniel, M. Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, Harvard University Press, 2014.
- Catrambone, R. and Mashiho Y. Acquisition of procedures: The effects of example elaborations and active learning exercises. Learning and Instruction, 16, 2006.
- Chi, M., Leeuw, N., Chiu, M, and Lavancher, C. Eliciting Self-Explanations Improves Understanding. Cognitive Science, 439-477, 1994.
- Eysink, T.S.H. and de Jong, T. Does Instructional Approach Matter? How Elaboration Plays a Crucial Role in Multimedia Learning. The Journal of the Learning Sciences, October-December, 21: 4, 583-625, 2012.
- Fiorelli, L. and Mayer, R.E. Eight Generative Learning Strategies. Educational Psychology Review, 28:717–741, 2016.
- Hannon, B. Differential-associative processing or example elaboration: Which strategy is best for learning the deﬁnitions of related and unrelated concepts? Learning and Instruction 22, 2012.
- Kalyuga, S. Knowledge elaboration: A cognitive load perspective. Learning and Instruction, 19:5, 402-410, 2009.
- Roelle, J., & Nückles, M. Generative learning versus retrieval practice in learning from text: The cohesion and elaboration of the text matters. Journal of Educational Psychology, 111:8, 1341–1361, 2019.
- Slavin, R.E. Instruction Based on Cooperative Learning in Handbook of Research on Learning and Instruction, 2010, Rutledge.