They’ve Got Some ‘Splainin’ to Do

Joe Norden Education

explanation engenders understanding

Whenever people get together they inevitably communicate ideas of some sort to each other. The process is so natural we rarely give it any thought. However, the very activity of articulating an idea one has in mind can help engender a stronger understanding of the idea, particularly if that idea is a complex one.

Educational researchers have taken notice of this phenomenon, particularly one named Michelene “Micki” Chi, a professor in cognitive science at Arizona State University. Chi has done some of the most important and interesting work on “explaining,” and how it can help students process knowledge to their academic enrichment.

“[Students asked to explain] are engaged in the process of actively constructing what they are learning.”Michelene Chi, PROFESSOR AT ARIZONA STATE UNIVERSITY

Chi and her colleagues found that when two groups of students were presented with the same material, but one group was singled out and prompted to explain lesson concepts, the “explainer” group almost always knew the material better than the students who received standard educational treatment; in many cases, explainers dramatically outperformed their non-explaining peers. Chi was able to demonstrate that “explainers” did a great deal more than simply elucidate concepts to themselves and their peers. They were, in Chi’s words, “engaged in the process of actively constructing what they are learning.” Simply put, they were processing content in a dynamic way, rather than the passive way in which they were used to receiving information.


This process of integrating information can be facilitated by asking students critical questions about content that’s been covered, in order to instigate a conversation about the knowledge involved. That conversation ideally would lead to more students actively explaining the ideas contained in their lessons. Here’s Professor Chi from a recent interview: “Another example is a strategy called ‘self explaining.’ That is, if I’m reading a text I can try to explain what that [text] means to me. Without any feedback from anybody, I can just explain what that means to me. In the process of explaining, you actually look to learn something.”

Chi also cites other scholars such as Noreen Webb, whose work in studying mathematics and computer science learning in small groups reveals even more support for explaining as an academic enhancing activity. Webb essentially found that it’s better to give than to receive–explanations, that is. Her subjects who gave elaborate explanations achieved high marks academically, whereas those who received elaborate explanations got very little positive gain from the activity. Another interesting finding from Webb: Elaborate explanations are the ones that actually work–not short, superficial explanations. Thus, detailed and thorough explanations are effective, but not so much the quick and sketchy ones.

For Webb, the explainer “has the opportunity to reorganize and clarify material, to recognize misconceptions, to fill in gaps in her own understanding, to internalize and acquire new strategies and knowledge, and to develop new perspectives and understanding.” Re-read that last sentence and you begin to realize the significance of students performing this activity, especially in terms of mastering complex content. Webb even goes so far as to suggest teachers provide instruction in explanation-type activities, along with opportunities to practice those behaviors.

So the results are in: Explaining is a highly beneficial practice that allows students to clarify problem areas, to deepen their knowledge, and to improve their overall academic performance. There’s definitely some ‘splainin’ to be done!