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Study: Self-explanations don’t always enhance math learning

Sometimes self-explanation isn't helpful. (iStock)
Sometimes self-explanation may be detrimental to learning. (iStock)

New research from Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of education and human development looks at the constraints of the popular practice of prompting students to provide self-explanation as a learning tool.

The paper, “Eliciting Explanations: Constraints on When Self-Explanation Aids Learning,” authored by Bethany Rittle-Johnson, professor of psychology and human development, and graduate student Abbey M. Loehr, was published by Psychonomic Bulletin & Review.

“Generating self-explanations in an attempt to make sense of new information is often a powerful learning technique,” Rittle-Johnson said. “However, we found that explaining one’s own solution methods or choices may reduce learning under certain conditions. Explanation prompts must be carefully designed to align with target learning outcomes.”

One constraint to self-explanation, the researchers found, is that in certain situations it reinforced the student’s pre-existing theories, which were often incorrect. That detour may have reduced attention to new information and evidence that contradicted their theories.

Read the paper.
Watch a video of Rittle-Johnson discussing math research.
Learn more about Rittle-Johnson’s research.