Nov 19, 2013 by Norene Wiesen

learning by explaining

If you want to master something, teach it.Or so the saying goes. But is the platitude based in fact? Can students really learn better by explaining? The evidence says yes.

The Self-Explanation Effect

Research shows that coming up with an explanation can help students learn more effectively than having an explanation handed to them (Fonesca and Chi, 2010). For example, when two groups of learners study the same material but only one group is tasked with explaining it (the other group engages in alternative tasks or spends an equivalent amount of time studying), the explainers typically outscore the non-explainers on a post-test (Lombrozo, 2013).

How Explaining Helps Students Learn

How does explaining yield these results? Hypotheses abound:

  • It translates explicit knowledge into implicit know-how.
  • It integrates new information with prior belief.
  • It helps learners identify and fix knowledge gaps.
  • It resolves potential inconsistencies.
  • It engages learners in deeper processing.
  • It reinforces the use of successful strategies over unsuccessful alternatives (Lombrozo, 2013).

There’s recent evidence, as well, that explaining may be easier than predicting. Preschoolers in one study, for example, were able to explain another person’s behavior more accurately than they were able to predict it (Legare, Wellman, & Gelman, 2010).

Why Does Explaining Help Learning?

One theory says that explaining sheds light on causal relationships and causal mechanisms. For instance, when a group of children was asked to explain how an unfamiliar mechanical toy worked, the explainer group showed a greater understanding of the toy’s mechanics than did children in another group that was invited to simply observe the toy. However, the explainer group did not have any greater awareness than the observer group when it came to details that weren’t relevant to the toy’s workings—such as the toy’s colors (Legare and Lombrozo, unpublished data, cited in Lombrozo, 2013).

An alternate theory suggests that explaining helps learning because it requires the learner to relate a specific property or event to more general principles or patterns. In studies of category learning, learners who were tasked with explaining were more likely to discover patterns underlying the category structure than learners who were given alternate tasks (Williams and Lombrozo, 2010). This theory also predicts that explaining can sometimes impairlearning when the material being explained is not strongly rule-based—and recent findings confirm this prediction (Williams, Lombrozo, & Rehder, 2010).

Much is still unknown about the role of explanation in learning, but it’s clear that explaining engages the brain in a way that other tasks do not. Perhaps some of the benefit comes from the fact that explaining something clearly and accurately demands more evolved language skills than those required when simply receiving an explanation. Students who improve their language skills, as with Fast ForWord, are likely to be better explainers and learners—and that sounds like a pretty big win in the classroom.


Fonesca, B.A., & Chi, M.T.H. (2010). Instruction based on self-explanation. In R. Mayer & P. Alexander (Eds.), The handbook of research on learning and instruction (pp. 296-321). Oxford, UK: Routledge.

Lombrozo, T. (2013) Explanation and abductive inference. In K.J. Holyoak & R.G. Morrison (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of thinking and reasoning (pp. 260-276). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Legare, C.H., Wellman, H.M., & Gelman, S.A. (2009). Evidence for an explanation advantage in naïve biological reasoning. Cognitive Psychology, 58(2), 177-194. doi:10.1016/j.cogpsych.2008.06.002

Williams, J.J., & Lombrozo, T. (2010). The role of explanation in discovery and generalization: evidence from category learning. Cognitive Science, 34(5), 776-806. doi:10.1111/j.1551-6709.2010.01113.x

Williams, J.J., Lombrozo, T., & Rehder, b. (2010). Why does explaining help learning? Insight from an explanation impairment effect. In S. Ohlsson & R. Catrambone (Eds.) Proceedings of the 32 ndAnnual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society(pp. 2906-2911). Austin, TX: Cognitive Science Society. Retrieved from

Related reading:

The Question Formulation Technique: 6 Steps to Help Students Ask Better Questions

Teaching Inference as a Reading Strategy: The What, the How, and the Why