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Small teaching approach: Self-Explaining


Self-explaining is based on the theory that when students explain out loud what they are doing while completing a learning task, they become better problem solvers and gain a more complete understanding of underlying principles. Self-explanation is an effective way to promote mindful learning when practicing new skills. It may help students identify misunderstood concepts and gaps in their knowledge — allowing opportunities to correct them.

How to use this approach

Justify Solution – When students submit an answer to a problem or complete an assignment, ask them to justify their approach or articulate the reasons for their decisions. This type of reflective question added to the end of an assignment will prompt self-explaining. Use Peer Instruction – Use a student response system to ask questions or solve problems independently. After voting, ask students to justify their answer to their neighbor. Students are allowed to re-vote. Find student volunteers to share their thoughts on how they answered the question with the class. Think Aloud – Students can share their thinking with peers using activities like Think-Pair-Share. Additionally, asking students to explain their thought processes and engage in a dialogue is more effective than directly explaining a concept.


Scaffold Self-Explanation — Align self-explanation with students' understanding of the material. Students learning a new concept may not have the space for elaborate explanations. Increase self-explanation opportunities as students’ competencies grow. Point to Principles — Self-explanation helps students connect abstract ideas, such as theories and principles, to concrete actions, such as practicing and problem-solving. Creating opportunities where these connections are explicitly explored to help students verbalize their reasoning and approaches. Utilize Peer Power — Instructors don’t have to be the sole listeners of student thinking. The process of explaining the rationale to someone else offers value. Ask a few students to share their conversations with the whole class and provide feedback on their explanations.

Quick Tips

  • Create reflection points for student self-explanation within online activities. Short questions about students' rationale for problem-solving approaches can be worked on at various steps in an assignment.
  • Have students explain their approaches when working on problems on the board, performing lab experiments, or demonstrating a cognitive skill.
  • Couple peer instruction with personal response systems to create an activity cycle of think-pair-share.
  • When facilitating in-class practice sessions, circulate and ask students to explain their actions and why.
  • Push students to connect their knowledge and the principles and theories they use to complete a particular task.


Lang, James M. Small teaching: Everyday lessons from the science of learning. John Wiley & Sons, 2016. pp. 86-98.

Keywordssmall, teaching, understand, explainDoc ID117980
OwnerTimmo D.GroupInstructional Resources
Created2022-04-14 12:06:07Updated2024-04-16 12:49:07
SitesCenter for Teaching, Learning & Mentoring
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