You learn better when you explain to yourself

Waves on Pinnau in Mölln. By Uwe Glessmer

I just read a really interesting article on explaining to yourself as a mechanism for learning by Tania Lombrozo. We have talked about peer instruction being valuable because explaining to others helps both the “others” and the explainer, and it’s really common to hear student tutors say that they only understood something really well when they had to explain it to students they were tutoring. In fact, many people I know use putting someone in the position of having to explain something to make themselves (or their students, if they appoint them as tutors) understand better, and studies show it works. But explaining to yourself?

The author describes research on how, why and when explaining leads to new learning. You should go check out the original blog post, too, but here is what I am taking away from it: When you explain, you are looking for general pattern.

The author cites research that shows that explaining to yourself is not the best strategy for all kind of learning outcomes — only for those that are related to the causal effects you were explaining to yourself. For other details, it might be a better strategy to just observe, or describe what you are seeing.

How is this relevant for our teaching? There are several ways.

Explaining to themselves is a strategy we can recommend to our students. I remember studying for my oral examinations at Vordiplom (now equivalent to Bachelor) level. I used to come up with questions and try and answer them late at night when I couldn’t go to sleep (Why is the Atlantic ocean more salty than the Pacific ocean? This kind of stuff). Those were questions that I didn’t know the correct answer of at the time (and some of my questions there might not be an answer) and it definitely helped me when I was then asked what geometry of sound receivers I would use if I were to build an array for SOFAR floats, and it made me feel safer going into the exam, knowing that I had answered all questions that I could come up with previously as well as I could.

And of course you can just tell students that they will have to teach about a topic, since anticipating having to teach already leads to improved learning. Then you can reflect later on how thinking they would have to teach led them to use different learning strategies, and whether they might want to use those in the future even when they were not expecting having to teach.

I even see a similar effect with having a blog. Now, when I take pictures of water somewhere, I observe pretty carefully, anticipating that I will write about what I saw and that someone might ask questions about it. That definitely makes me put a little extra effort into observing and thinking about what might be going on there!

Check out the original blog post on explaining to yourself as a mechanism for learning by Dr. Lombrozo — there is a really nice example in there that I definitely want to use in future workshops to make that exact point. You will enjoy it, too!

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