Learn How to Study Using... Elaboration

Learn How to Study Using... Elaboration

By: Megan Smith & Yana Weinstein

This is the second post in a series designed to help students learn how to study effectively. You can find the first post here. The purpose is to provide students with a resource that can help them take charge of their own learning. Today’s post is about using elaboration (particularly elaborative interrogation) – a method for studying that strengthens a student’s understanding and retention of the information that they are trying to learn. 

What is Elaboration and Elaborative Interrogation?

The term elaboration can be used to mean a lot of different things. However, when we are talking about studying using elaboration, it involves explaining and describing ideas with many details. Elaboration also involves making connections among ideas you are trying to learn and connecting the material to your own experiences, memories, and day-to-day life.

Elaborative interrogation is a specific method of elaboration. The word interrogation means to question. So, when you use elaborative interrogation, you ask yourself questions about how and why things work, and then produce the answers to these questions (1). The specific questions that you ask yourself will depend, in part, on the topics you are studying (e.g., how does x work? Why does x happen? When did x happen? What caused x? What is the result of x? and so on).

How should you use the elaborative interrogation technique?

So, as a student, how should you go about using elaborative interrogation while you study? There are a few different things you can do right now:

  • Start by making a list of all of the ideas you need to learn from your class materials. Then, go down the list and ask yourself questions about how these ideas work and why. As you ask yourself questions, go through your class materials (e.g., your textbook, class notes, any materials your teacher has provided, etc.) and look for the answers to your questions.

  • As you continue to elaborate on the ideas you are learning, make connections between multiple ideas to-be-learned and explain how they work together. A good way to do this is to take two ideas and think about ways they are similar and ways they are different.

  • Describe how the ideas you are studying apply to your own life experiences or memories. In addition, as you go through your day, take notice of the things happening around you and make connections to the ideas you are learning in class. Doing this will engage an additional process that is highly effective: spacing learning over time. A post about learning how to study using spacing is forthcoming!

  • So far we have suggested using elaborative interrogation as you study your class materials. At the start, you can definitely use your class materials to help you and fill in gaps as you elaborate. However, ideally, you should work your way up to describing and explaining the ideas you are learning on your own, without your class materials in front of you. In other words, you should practice retrieval of the information! (For a detailed post about how to practice retrieval see Learn How to Study Using… Retrieval Practice.)

That’s a lot of information! The way you ask yourself elaborative questions will depend on the topic you are studying. To make this strategy more concrete, there are examples from math, science, and history at the end of this post!

What happens when you practice elaborative interrogation?

Asking yourself a number of why and how questions will encourage you to produce explanations for the ideas you are learning, and to integrate the new material you are learning with the things you already know or have experienced.

Integrating new ideas with what you already know helps you to organize the new ideas, making them easier to bring to mind later on (2, 3) – like when you need to answer exam questions, or need to use the information in a different class or a real-life situation.

Engaging in elaborative interrogation also encourages you to think about relationships between different ideas, and understanding how two ideas are both similar to one another and how they are different from one another can improve your understanding of the material.

What should you do after you use elaborative interrogation?

After using elaborative interrogation, you should double-check your class materials to make sure that you correctly described and explained the ideas. Then, a bit later, keep practicing elaborative interrogation (and integrating the strategy with retrieval practice). The idea is to keep adding new connections and details so that you fully understand the ideas, their connections, and how they are different from one another. You can even try explaining the concepts to a classmate or friend, and see if they can ask you any additional how and why questions!

Specific examples of elaborative interrogation from Math, Science, and History

Here are some examples from a few different subjects you might be studying (math, science, and history). The specific questions you ask, and how you break the ideas down, will depend on what you are studying!

Example from Math

Imagine you are studying calculus. The topic is “derivatives”. How do derivatives work? Well, they are the rate of the change. How does that work? You take a look at one point, then you take a look at a prior point, over some interval. And then you take the difference divided by the interval. As that interval approaches zero, you have the instantaneous rate of change. Why does this happen? Because “instantaneous” means that the interval is nothing.

Example from Science (Biology, Neuroscience, Psychology)

Imagine you are studying neural communication, maybe in a biology, neuroscience, or psychology class. How does neural communication work? Well, if we look at one neuron, the dendrites receive messages from many other neurons, and then the messages converge in the soma. If there is enough of a positive charge within the soma, then an action potential will occur, and an electrical signal is sent down the axon. When the signal reaches the terminal buttons, neurotransmitters are released into the synapse where they communicate with the dendrites of the next neuron. Why does this happen? The neurotransmitters are chemicals that allow neurons to communicate with one another. Overall, the pattern of activation among different neurons (which neurons fire, how quickly, what neurotransmitters they release) determines the message in your brain. 
Now, imagine that you want to break neural communication down further. You might then ask, how does the axon work? The axon is a long tail-like structure that produces the electrical signal. How does the signal travel? The axon is covered in myelin sheath, a fatty substance that insulates the axon. The myelin sheath works like the rubber around the cord of an electrical appliance, and it serves to make the electricity travel faster. Why have myelin sheath? Because we need our neurons to be able to send signals quickly, since we need to be able to react quickly, make decisions quickly, move quickly, perceive feeling in our skin quickly, etc.
Make sure to compare ideas to learn how they are similar and different. For example, an axon and terminal buttons are both parts of a neuron; however, the axon sends an electrical signal while the terminal buttons release chemicals. Both Schizophrenia and Parkinson’s disease are related to the neurotransmitter dopamine, but Schizophrenia is the result of too much dopamine while Parkinson’s disease is the result of too little dopamine. 
Also, try to make connections to your own memories or experiences, and compare ideas to learn how they are similar and different. We already made the connection from myelin sheath on axons to the rubber on cords to electrical appliances. Here is another example: a family member or close friend who suffers from Schizophrenia disease is suffering from too much dopamine. This means that too much dopamine is being released, by the terminal buttons, into the synapse. A doctor could give them a drug to reduce the dopamine in their brain, called a dopamine antagonist. If too much of this drug is used, the patient might begin developing symptoms similar to Parkinson’s disease. How would a dopamine antagonist work? … continue asking yourself elaborative questions!

Example from History

Imagine you’re studying World War II, and specifically the attack on Pearl Harbor. You could ask yourself, how did this attack happen? On December 7, 1941, the Imperial Japanese Navy attacked the United States Naval Base at Pearl Harbor. The attack included Japanese fighter planes, bombers, and torpedo planes. Why did this happen? The Japanese intended to destroy the United States’ Pacific Fleet so that it could not interfere with Japanese operations. Here you could also ask another type of question: What was the result of this historic event? Well, Japanese casualties were light, while they damaged eight U.S. Navy battleships. The Arizona was among those that the Japanese sunk, and was not raised from the shallow water. U.S. aircrafts were also destroyed, and 2,403 Americans were killed (1,178 were injured). Why is this event important? The day after the attack, Roosevelt delivered his Infamy Speech, the United States formally declared war on Japan, and Japanese-Americans were then relocated to internment camps. You could then go on: how did the U.S. enter the war? How did the Pearl Harbor attack lead up to the release of the atomic bomb? How did the war end? And so on.  There are so many ways to explain the idea and add details!


(1) McDaniel, M. A., & Donnelly, C. M. (1996). Learning with analogy and elaborative interrogation. Journal of Educational Psychology, 88, 508-519.

(2) Willoughby, T., & Wood, E. (1994). Elaborative interrogation examined at encoding and retrieval. Learning and Instruction, 4, 139-149.

(3) Hunt, R. R. (2006). The concept of distinctiveness in memory research. In R. R. Hung & J. B. Worthen (Eds.), Distinctiveness and memory (pp. 3-25). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

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