Let’s Get to Work with Productive Learning Strategies: Self-Explaining

Paul A. Kirschner, Mirjam Neelen, Tine Hoof & Tim Surma

This blog is the third one in a series of eight blogs, originally written by Tine Hoof, Tim Surma & Paul Kirschner, and published on excel.thomasmore.be.

In 2015, Richard Mayer and Logan Fiorella published their book ‘Learning as a Generative Activity’ describing eight generative learning strategies. They’re called generative (also productive) because they allow/force learners to ‘remould’ the subject matter and based on that, create their own output, such as a summary or a drawing. In other words, as a learner, you generate/produce something yourself based on and that goes further than what you’ve learned. In addition to mapping,  Mayer and Fiorella also discuss summarising, drawing, imagining, self-testing, self-explaining, teaching, and enacting.

Each strategy prompts learners to apply Mayer’s Selection, Organising, and Integrating (SOI) memory model. These strategies ensure that the learner engages with the new subject matter in a ‘cognitively active’ manner. In the first blog (on summarising) you can read more about why this is important when studying. 

SOI Model

What is self-explaining?

Self-explaining as productive learning strategy means that while studying/learning you’re asked or required to explain to yourself what you’re learning, thus activating relevant prior knowledge and integrating and organising the new information. In other words, you have to try to explain what’s going on in a learning text, concept, diagram, worked example, step-by-step plan, etc. Remember, self-explaining is more than just paraphrasing or copying something; after all, neither generates a new product. In fact, self-explaining requires you to think fairly deeply about the new information (for example explaining to yourself why a principle works, how iambic pentameter creates a different feeling than another rhyme pattern, why certain events lead to passing a specific law, and so forth) and involves relating the new information to your prior knowledge (How does this tie in with what I already know?). According to Garvin Brod (2020):

…asking students to generate explanations during learning activates relevant prior knowledge and facilitates integration and organization of new information. This strategy further encourages elaboration of the new information, such as processing similarities and differences among elements of the to-be-learned content. Such processing has been shown to be beneficial for memory. Furthermore, asking students to provide explanations is supposed to prompt them to generate inferences that go beyond the given information and to revise their mental models.

self explaining a

Self-explaining is related to another often discussed study strategy namely elaborative interrogation. Both strategies encourage learners to think about how the new material relates to what they already know, but elaborative interrogation is specifically about someone asking questions about what they’re learning where they must come up with answers (Brod, 2020; Dunlosky et al, 2013). What’s the acceleration in free-fall after 10 seconds? Is this poem a sonnet? What’s the price if the inflation is 6%? When would X, Y or Z happen? And so on.

Teacher: … and what happens to the ice in your hand?

Student: The ice melts.

Teacher: Why does the ice melt once it’s in your hand?

 The teacher’s “why” question stimulates the student (turns her or him on) to think about heat transfer; to go beyond the fact that the ice is melting.

Why does self-explaining work?

As with other productive learning strategies, learners who use self-explaining as a study or learning strategy go through the SOI model. They generate a new ‘product’ with the subject matter they’re learning (the product being an explanation) by explaining the main ideas from an information source such as a lesson or a book to themselves. By looking for explanations and thus thinking deeply about the meaning of the new subject matter, they activate relevant prior knowledge, so that the new information can be better organised and integrated (Chi et al, 1994).

Pupils who use this strategy do so on their own or after some ‘nudging’ by the teacher. When teachers encourage learners to self-explain, they essentially trigger the same cognitive principles as when they’re questioning learners during a lesson. We know from studies that effective teachers ask many deep questions about the subject matter and involve the entire class when they do so (Good & Lavigne, 2017; Kyriakides & Creemers, 2008; Rosenshine, 2012). Deep questions stimulate learners to search for and think about the information in a text they’re reading, a video they’re watching, a diagram or graph they’re studying … and to link it to what they already know.

How does self-explaining work?

Pupils can fairly easily use self-explaining as a study strategy. For example, when going through a worked example, they can explain the rationale behind the steps to themselves. Or, when they read a text, they can explain to themselves how the text connects to what they already know. In this blog, a student describes how she uses self-explanation during math class to calculate the average of five numbers. She explains the successive steps to herself: adding the five numbers and dividing by five. You might compare this to what a teacher does when modelling. If you don’t want to read that blog, here are the images she uses:

Self-explaining also offers students the opportunity to monitor their own learning process (Do I really understand what it says here? How did I arrive at this answer?) and to uncover any misconceptions in their existing knowledge schemes (Does this new information link to what I already know about this topic? Where does it conflict?). In that light, self-explanation also has a metacognitive function (Bisra et al, 2018). Despite all of its advantages, secondary school students seldom appear to apply self-explanation as a strategy when they study (Dirkx et al, 2019).

As a teacher, you can focus on more effective use of self-explanation by explaining the strategy to your students, discussing the benefits, modelling it to them, and guiding their practice using it during a lesson. A teacher who models self-explaining, thinks aloud about the steps they take during a solution process or reads a paragraph of a text and pauses to explain the information to themselves, linking it to their prior knowledge. You can read general guidelines for teaching learning strategies in this article by Hoof, Surma, Muijs, and Kirschner (2020).

Possible limitations

Self-explaining with the learner having little or no knowledge of a particular topic seems impossible. Yet the literature on this is not unequivocal. According to Fiorella & Mayer (2016) this strategy is also suitable for learners with little prior knowledge, while Dunlosky and colleagues (2013) report that learners indeed need domain-specific prior knowledge to generate qualitative explanations. The more knowledge learners have in the domain in question, the better they’ll be able to use the strategy (Willingham, 2014). As a teacher, you can support learners with less domain-specific prior knowledge by, for example, offering them questions on the basis of which they construct their own explanation (Bisra et al, 2018).

This strategy is especially useful with high school students and up. The effectiveness is variable among younger students (Brod, 2020).

Scientific evidence

Fiorella & Mayer (2016) refer to 54 studies examining self-explanation as a productive strategy. In 44, the strategy had a (moderately) positive effect. Dunlosky and colleagues also recognise the advantages of self-explaining, although they argue that more research is needed into, for example, the long-term learning benefits and the type of learning materials (Dunlosky et al, 2013).


Bisra, K., Liu, Q., Nesbit, J. C., Salimi, F., & Winne, P. H. (2018). Inducing self-explanation: A meta-analysis. Educational Psychology Review, 30(3), 703–725.

Brod, G. (2020) Generative learning: Which strategies for what age? Educational Psychology Review.  

Chi, M. T. H., de Leeuw, NK, Chiu, M.-H., & LaVancher, C. (1994). Eliciting self-explanations improves understanding. Cognitive Science, 18, 439-477.

Creemers, B. P. M., & Kyriakides, L. (2008) The Dynamics of Educational Effectiveness: A Contribution to Policy, Practice and Theory in Contemporary Schools. London, United Kingdom: Routledge.

Dirkx, K. J. H., Camp, G., Kester, L., & Kirschner, P. A. (2019). Do secondary school students make use of effective study strategies when they study on their own?. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 1-6.

Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M. J., & Willingham, D. T. (2013). Improving students’ learning with effective learning techniques: Promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14(1), 4-58.

Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M. J., & Willingham, D. T. (2013). What works, what doesn’t. Scientific American Mind, 24(4), 46-53.

Enser, Z. & Enser, M. (2020). Fiorella & Mayer’s Generative Learning in Action. Woodbridge, United Kingdom: John Catt Educational Ltd.

Fiorella, L., & Mayer, R. E. (2016). Learning as a generative activity: Eight learning strategies that promote understanding. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Good, T. L., & Lavigne, A. L. (2017). Looking in Classrooms. New York, NY: Routledge.

Hoof, T., Surma, T., Muijs, D., & Kirschner, P. A. (2021, 4 januari). Supporting students to become self-regulated learnings: Teaching metacognition matters. Geraadpleegd van https://theeducation.exchange/supporting-students-to-become-self-regulated-learners-teaching-metacognition-matters/

Rosenshine, B. (2012). Principles of instruction: research-based strategies that all teachers should know. American Educator, 36(1), 12-39. 

Willingham, D. T. (2014). Strategies that make learning last. Educational Leadership, 72(2), 10-15.


6 thoughts on “Let’s Get to Work with Productive Learning Strategies: Self-Explaining

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