Strategy 5: Self Explanation
Version Date: February 27, 2014
Self-Explanation is the practice of thinking out loud. You talk to
yourself as you work on a problem, in order to force a conscious
awareness of the process your mind
is going through. You ask questions, work on specific answers, try
different solution paths, comment on mistakes, identify changes in
approach, and so forth. As the name implies, you are explaining to
yourself what you are doing and thinking.
Like Self-Monitoring, Self-Explanation is a technique of asking
questions in an effort to further your understanding about what your
brain is doing. Perhaps one way to describe both techniques is
that your mind is watching (monitoring) your brain. Whereas
Self-Monitoring keeps an eye on how well you are learning something,
Self-Explanation keeps an eye on the process of working out a solution
to a problem.
Questions like these are useful to track your problem solving
- What information do I need to know in order to solve this
- Where can I find this needed information?
- Has this already been solved or answered?
- Do I have all the parts or information I need?.
- What should I do next?
- What would be another example of this?
- Does that sound right?
While you work through a problem, you can not only ask questions to
guide your thinking, but you can also make statements that tell
yourself what you're thinking. Here are some examples:
- I need to be clearer on that.
- I don't understand that.
- Now I get it.
- Wait, I think I'm doing this wrong.
- I bet I can use these examples to help me understand the general
- That didn't work. Why not?
- I did that right. Oh, that's the problem
- Oh, hey, this might work.
Example: The Sinking Cannon Ball
When I used to interview prospective employees, a favorite question of
mine was, "Suppose you are on a boat in the middle of the ocean. You
throw a cannon ball overboard. How long will it take to reach the
bottom of the ocean?" The question, of course, is designed to reveal
the candidate's attitude toward problem solving. Candidates who said,
"I have no idea," Or "I don't know and I don't care," were allowed to
explore opportunities at other employers. Those willing to work on the
problem, even though they couldn't get an accurate answer, were
continued in the list of possible hires.
That aside, here's how a Self-Explanation session might go while
working on this problem.
Note that this answer is likely quite inaccurate, but is demonstrates
how to expose your thinking about a problem so that you can "watch
yourself think" as you go along.
- Let's see. The problem is, Estimate how long it will take for a
cannon ball to reach the bottom of the ocean. [restates the problem]
- Well, what do I need to know in order to answer this question?
[begins to identify needed variabless]
- Well, how heavy is the cannon ball? [asks for data; told, "22
- Okay, and what else? Oh, how deep is the ocean? I could look that
up on the Web, but the depth probably varies, so how deep is the
ocean where the ship is? [asks for data; told, "15,000 feet."]
- Okay, and so, hmm. Wait. It doesn't matter how heavy the cannon
ball is, since it will sink at the same rate regardless of weight.
[realizes that previously identified data is irrelevant]
- So then, what else do I need to know? I guess I need to know how
fast a cannon ball sinks. [identifies another variable]
- I have no idea. [pauses to reframe problem and data need]
- How can I guesstimate a cannon ball's sink rate? [plans for an
estimate rather than an exact number]
- What about when a golf ball hits a water trap. How fast does it
sink? [using an analogy to help thinking]
- A golf ball is much less dense than a cannon ball, so would
likely sink more slowly, or even float, so that's no good. [rejects
- But suppose I toss the cannon ball into a ten-foot deep water
trap. How fast would it sink? [thinking outside the box]
- In my mind's eye, I see, Splash, sink, sink, sink, thud. That's
maybe two or three seconds. [imaginatively constructed value for the
- So, then, let's say the sink rate for the cannon ball is five
feet per second (two seconds to go ten feet). [variable defined]
- So, 15,000 feet divided by 5 is 3000 seconds. Divide by 60
seconds in a minute and we get 50 minutes. [answer 1]
- That seems like a long time for so heavy an object, even given
that it's sinking in salt water, which is more bouyant than fresh
water. [uses face validity test]
- So, I'm going to say it will sink faster--twice as fast, and go
10 feet per second, giving 25 minutes as my final answer. [answer 2]
Self-Explanation brings your thinking to the surface of consciousness
where you can watch it and examine it as you go along. In this
interactive process, you pay attention to your
- back and forth, question and answer self talk
- proposed definitions, solutions, and answers, followed by
evaluation and commentary of each
- acceptance, modification, or rejection of steps, solutions, and
- change from one tack to another, as you abandon dead ends or
realize new, promising pathways
- iteration, cycling, recusive, looping, revisiting previous
questions and steps as new ideas arrive
For people who like to talk or who are used to exploring ideas,
Self-Explanation is usually easily learned. For those who are normally
quiet and a bit introverted, this technique takes some time to get used
to. But practice improvess performance, and the payoff is better
learning and better understanding of your own thought processes.
To take Self-Explanation to the next level, try one of these.
- DIctate into a voice recorder or otherwise record your self
conversation and then type it up so you have a written copy for review.
Go through it and add other thoughts and solutions and ideas to the
- Pair up with a friend of classmate and work out the problem
together, sharing ideas, tagging on to each other's thoughts, helping
each other along. Evaluate the quality of the process and the solution
to determine how well it worked.
Learning Strategy 1: Mnemonics
Learning Strategy 2: Paraphrasing
Learning Strategy 3: Summarizing
Learning Strategy 4: Self Monitoring
Learning Strategy 5: Self Explanation
Learning Strategy 6: Mental Rehearsal
Learning Strategy 7: Self Assessment
Learning Strategy 8: The SQ3R Reading Method
Learning Strategy 9: Note Taking
Learning Strategy 10: The Leitner Flash Card
Learning Strategy 11: Maintaining Interest
Learning Strategy 12: Conversation
Learning Strategy 13: Group Interaction
Learning Strategy 14: Idea Mapping
Learning Strategy 15: Drawing Pictures
Learning Strategy 16: Study Cycles
Learning Strategy 17: Sleep and Rest
Learning Strategy 18: Fluency / Automaticity
Learning Strategy 19: Learning Strategy Checklist
Learning Strategy 20: Asking Questions
Learning Strategy 21: Idea Linking
Learning Strategy 22: How to Use a Book
Learning Strategy 23: Active Listening
Learning Strategy 24: Close Reading
Learning Strategy 25: Fluency / Automaticity
Learning Strategy 26: Power Thinking
Learning Strategy 27: Planning for Learning
Learning Strategy 28: Outlining
Learning Strategy 29: Analogies
2013 by Robert Harris | How
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About the author:
Harris is a writer
and educator with more than 25 years of teaching experience at the
and university level. RHarris at virtualsalt.com