CATL Teaching Guides

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Brief Description

Self-explanation is the act of trying to explain how new information is related to known information or steps in a problem solving process. You study a segment of material and then try to explain how it is related to what you already know and other parts of the topic. Self-explanation does not mean that students simply recall an already fully formed explanation. The point of explaining is to engage students in the mental work of discerning how ideas are related to one another. Sometimes called sense making, this is the type of activity through which we construct understanding of concepts and ideas. Self-explanation is an excellent deep processing strategy because you:

  • practice recalling the material, i.e., retrieval practice

  • try to make sense of the topic by discerning connections among ideas

  • notice gaps in your understanding, which alerts you to aspects of the material you still need to clarify or learn


  1. Informal writing in class. Pause during class and ask students to write an explanation of a new concept or idea in class.

  2. Minute paper. At the end of class ask students to explain the most important ideas from the class period. 

  3. Think-pair-share activity. Pose a question to the class. Ask students to write an explanation [one minute] then share their ideas with a classmate.

  4. Small group discussion. Assign groups a short list of concepts to explain. Collect a written copy of their ideas.

Tips to Implement Self-Explanation Effectively  

  • Understanding is not an all-or-none achievement. There are degrees of understanding that vary from underdeveloped, fragmented, and superficial to well developed, coherent and deep. Explaining will not automatically transform students’ understanding, but it can move them toward better understanding of concepts and ideas. Better means more coherent and deeper.

  • Discuss how explaining is different from automatically producing a correct answer. The goal is to develop better understanding of the topic.

  • Describe what you mean and want students to do when they explain a concept, idea, issue, etc.

  • Model the process of explaining. Show students how you would try to explain an unfamiliar concept.

  • Show examples of underdeveloped, confused, fragmented and well developed explanations as well as non-explanations.

  • Intervene with feedback and guidance if students are really stuck and confused about a concept.

  • Give feedback to the entire class. After informal writing, pair-share or small group work use students’ explanations to identify progress and gaps. Give constructive feedback in the moment, in class.

  • Overusing the technique could make class excessively repetitive and tedious. 


  • 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, 4–58.  

Cerbin, W. (2015). Self explanation. In Teaching Improvement Guide. University of Wisconsin at La Crosse Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning. Retrieved from