Do children learn more from self-explanation than extra practice?

Explaining a rule or concept to yourself forces you to think deeply about it. Plenty of studies have shown this has benefits, both in terms of improving the understanding of relevant concepts and aiding the skill or process in question. Unfortunately, as Katherine McEldoon and her colleagues argue in their new paper, most of these studies are flawed because they failed to control for the extra time spent on self-explanation. So a typical study has compared, say, 30 minutes practice against 30 minutes practice plus time spent on self-explanation. This means any apparent benefit of self-explanation could just be due to extra time spent on studying.

McEldoon’s team attempted to avoid this shortcoming. Sixty-nine children, average age 8.8 years, were split into three groups. All had previously struggled with the focus of the study – mathematical equivalence. One baseline group received 50 minutes instruction and practice on solving mathematical equivalence problems (e.g. 6 + 3 + 4 = 6 + _). Another group received the 50 minutes instruction and practice, but they were also prompted to explain why answers to the questions were right or wrong. A final “additional practice” group acted as controls – they received the 50 minutes instruction and practice, and they spent extra time on solving more equations to control for the time taken by the second group on self-explanation. Right after this, and again two weeks later, all the children completed a test of their conceptual understanding and skill at mathematical equivalence problems.

The children in the self-explanation condition showed superior conceptual knowledge compared with the other children, in terms of their knowledge of equation structures (tested with questions like ““Is 8=3+5 true or false?”) but not their understanding of the equals symbol. Their advantage over the additional practice group didn’t actually reach statistical significance, though power calculations suggested this could be due to the small sample sizes.

In terms of actual problem solving skill on mathematical equivalence items, the self-explanation group did not differ significantly from the other two conditions. The highest scores were actually achieved by the additional practice group.

Lastly the researchers looked at what’s known as “procedural transfer” – the ability of the children to apply themselves to new versions of the mathematical equivalence problems that involved subtraction and the blank being in different position. Here the researchers said the self-explanation group “performed somewhat better” than the other two groups. That is, their scores were higher, but the difference did not reach statistical significance – again possibly due to the samples being too small.

Unfortunately, these results just aren’t clear cut enough to provide any solid take-out messages for teachers or parents. More research with larger samples is needed. McEldoon and her colleagues concluded that their findings suggest “self-explanation prompts have some small unique learning benefits, but that greater attention needs to be paid to how much self-explanation offers advantages over other uses of time.”


McEldoon KL, Durkin KL, and Rittle-Johnson B (2013). Is self-explanation worth the time? A comparison to additional practice. The British journal of educational psychology, 83 (4), 615-32 PMID: 24175685

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

5 thoughts on “Do children learn more from self-explanation than extra practice?”

  1. While I agree that for me at least, the best way to really learn something is to explain it to someone else – all is relative, it is almost certainly different for others 🙂

  2. This study is a fascinating way to understand Piaget’s theory of development. Being that these children are in the third stage of their cognitive development, their though process is becoming more rational and he or she should have the ability to develop logic. Although this study did not show significant difference between the two learning types, I believe a child’s way of learning can be best understood by their personal stage of development.

  3. I think this article really shows how children develop through the years they spend in the world. Piaget had a theory that children do not gain information as they mature, but instead they develop new understandings of the world they live in as they progress through each of the stages in their life.This shows that a child who grows up in an environment with more stimulating opportunities would develop faster than a child who did not have the same opportunities. As a child takes in new information from experiences, they will start to change the way they think so they can gain this new knowledge easier.

  4. I feel the theory that this article proposes is very rock solid and when applied to other aspects of cognitive learning and understanding, it can be seen that they operate on the same principal. when one fully understands the functions and operational outcomes of a subject, then ones memory retrieval and academic statistics will improve in such aspect. so it would make sense that as children move through the later stages of piaget's development system would begin to display the cognitive capacity to understand situations fully on thier own and thus have better retention of the information.

  5. This is a good article explaining how children learn and develop their knowledge. I agree with the Piaget theory when he says that children develop a new understanding of the world with each progressive stage. The children in the article are in the concrete operational stage where children of all different cultures will progress at the same speed, however, heredity and environmental differences could differ children of process of knowledge. Therefore, even though the stages are applied to all children in the different stages, individual variation can take place in the rate of cognitive development.

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