Generating explanations increases learning

iStock_000008669788XSmallResearch has revealed that students develop a deeper understanding of material if they explain it to themselves as they are studying. Students who spontaneously generate more explanations score twice as high on tests as those who give fewer explanations.

Studies have also revealed that this is a skill that can be taught. Other research indicates that the format of the information influences learning. A recent study at the University of Nottingham, England, examined the effectiveness of this metacognitive strategy when information was provided to students in two different formats: text and diagrams.

Equal numbers of college-age students were presented with information about the human circulatory system in text and diagrams and were prompted to verbally explain the new material to themselves as a strategy to help them learn it. Researchers were looking to see if students learned more about the structure and function of the human circulatory system from diagrams or text and whether they learned more when they explained the material to themselves while studying it.

Researchers also examined whether students generated more explanations when they studied diagrams or text, and if self-explanation was more beneficial for learning from diagrams or from text. The diagram format included 13 diagrams that consisted of pictures with brief text descriptions. One fundamental difference between the two formats was that the graphic representations provided more detailed information than the plain text version.

Students were given both a pre- and posttest. The tests consisted of 10 explicit questions that could be answered by directly referring to the text or diagrams and six implicit questions that required students to integrate information. Four questions required students to infer new knowledge from the material they had studied. During the study time, students were prompted to explain aloud if they were silent. Immediately after studying the material, students took a posttest.

The two groups did not differ on their pretest scores. Students who generated more explanations performed better on the posttest. Students in the diagram format generated significantly more explanations than those studying the text, and spent significantly less time studying. Students given information about the human circulatory system in diagrams learned more than those given text. Eighty percent of the answers diagram students gave on the posttest were correct, compared to 56 percent correct from text students. Diagram students performed better, particularly on the more difficult questions.

Diagrams may reduce memory load

These researchers suggest that diagrams may reduce memory load and cognitive effort. Diagrams may free the limited resources of learners to engage in constructive learning. Researchers speculate that diagrams may limit abstractions and possibly also reduce misinterpretations of the material. Students indicated that the colorful diagrams were more interesting than the text.

In summary, students who studied diagrams produced more explanations and learned more . However, most students did not spontaneously use the strategy when studying. But with prompting and practice, students were able to use the strategy to improve their performance. The results of this study are consistent with existing research showing that self-explanation is an effective metacognitive strategy and that graphic representation can be beneficial for increasing the use of self-explanations to boost learning.


“The Effects of Self-Explaining When Learning With Text or Diagrams”, Cognitive Science, Volume 27, Number 4, August 2003, pp. 669-681.

Published in ERN September 2003 Volume 16 Number 6

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