Explain It To Me: The Beneficial Effects of Explaining for Memory
By Carolina Kuepper-Tetzel
Last week, I attended the European Association for Research on Learning and Instruction (EARLI) conference in Aachen, Germany, and got to listen to many interesting and new findings. One of the talks introduced me to an interesting research question that is potentially applicable to authentic studying situations for students: When studying a text, should students pretend to explain the main ideas to someone, engage in retrieval practice, or does it not make a difference? In a recently published study, a group of researchers tackled this question (1) and compared explaining against retrieval practice when learning a text. In addition, they were interested when the learning activity (explaining versus retrieval practice) should take place, i.e., at the end of studying two related texts or between studying two related texts. Let’s first think about why and how these learning conditions may differ from each other.
Explaining versus Retrieval Practice
The main difference between these two learning activities is that if you are asked to explain an idea to someone else, you add ‘social presence’ as a component. Retrieval practice does not necessarily come with that component. Explaining requires you to organize and elaborate on the ideas that you are trying to convey to your audience. Depending on your audience, you will have to provide more details and, thereby, engage in deeper processing of the information. On the other hand, if you are asked to simply retrieve ideas from a text, you may be less likely to engage in elaborate structuring or re-organization of the material – at least not to the same extent as preparing an explanation to someone else. (Quick thought experiment: Imagine yourself in these two scenarios, explaining versus retrieval practice. What would you do differently or would it not matter at all?)
As a counterargument to any difference between these two learning strategies: It could simply be that explaining mainly involves retrieval processes and if that is the case, one would not expect any differences between these two conditions. Thus, either way it is an interesting point to investigate, right?
Learning Activity Between or After Studying Two Related Texts
In a scenario where you are asked to study two related texts (the first text introduces the main ideas of the topic in a more abstract way and the second text is more concrete and adds examples), it could be interesting to know whether explaining or retrieval practice should be done after reading the first text (in-between condition) or after reading both texts (after-study condition). Engaging in explaining or retrieval practice in-between the two texts could result in beneficial metacognitive monitoring: Students may realize where their knowledge gaps are and have the chance to close those when they continue learning about the topic in the second text.
Outcomes of the Experiment
Lachner and colleagues (1) created an experiment (Experiment 2) in which they tested these different hypotheses against each other. They had students study two related texts and asked them to either a) explain the main ideas to a fictitious person or b) write down everything they remember (written retrieval practice). In addition, they had students engage with either of these activities between reading the two texts or after reading both texts (in-between versus after-study conditions).
They found that students performed best in the ‘in-between explaining’ condition, followed by the ‘in-between retrieval practice’ condition, followed by the ‘after-study explaining’ condition, and followed by the ‘after-study retrieval practice’ condition. Thus, engaging in any of the two study activities between two texts proved to be very beneficial. Furthermore, explaining outperformed retrieval practice, which indicates that explaining, indeed, seems to engage different, and conducive processes for knowledge build-up and maintenance compared to retrieval practice alone.
Interestingly, the authors conducted another experiment (Experiment 1) in which they had students do oral retrieval of the main ideas. In that experiment, they did not find a difference between explaining and retrieval practice. Thus, there seems to be something about ‘thinking aloud’ that triggers organizational processes for knowledge acquisition. Retrieval practice in itself – as we have seen in the first experiment presented here – is not the decisive driving factor, but something about ‘social presence’ and the associated deeper organization of knowledge that takes place when we explain ideas to someone else seems to hold the key of the effects revealed in their study.
Conclusion and Outlook
This exciting line of research is still at the beginning and should be further investigated. As the authors point out, it would be great to test these hypotheses in an authentic classroom setting with authentic material. They have started doing this and have recently published research they conducted with primary pupils, where they compared three conditions with each other: explaining via video, summarization, and restudying (2). They found that learning performance was enhanced for both the explaining via video and summarization conditions, compared to restudying, and that pupils enjoyed explaining via video more than the other activities. Here, they did not include a retrieval practice condition, which could have been interesting, too.
To conclude, ‘social presence’ and the resulting organizational and elaborative processes when explaining ideas from a text to someone else seem to be important factors for the benefits of explaining as a study strategy.
(1) Lachner, A., Backfisch, I., Hoogerheide, V., van Gog, T., & Renkl, A. (2019, July 18). Timing Matters! Explaining Between Study Phases Enhances Students’ Learning. Journal of Educational Psychology. Advance online publication.
(2) Hoogerheide, V., Visee, J., Lachner, A., & van Gog, T. (2019). Generating an instructional video as homework activity is both effective and enjoyable. Learning and Instruction, 64, Advance online publication.