Learning Strategy 5: Self Explanation 

Robert Harris
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.

Self-Explanation Questions

Questions like these are useful to track your problem solving process:

  1. What information do I  need to know in order to solve this problem?
  2. Where can I find this needed information?
  3. Has this already been solved or answered?
  4. Do I have all the parts or information I need?.
  5. What should I do next?
  6. What would be another example of this?
  7. Does that sound right?
Self-Explanation Statements

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:
  1. I need to be clearer on that.
  2. I don't understand that.
  3. Now I get it.
  4. Wait, I think I'm doing this wrong.
  5. I bet I can use these examples to help me understand the general principle.
  6. That didn't work. Why not?
  7. I did that right. Oh, that's the problem
  8. 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.
  1. 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]
  2. Well, what do I need to know in order to answer this question? [begins to identify needed variabless]
  3. Well, how heavy is the cannon ball? [asks for data; told, "22 pounds."]
  4. 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."]
  5. 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]
  6. So then, what else do I need to know? I guess I need to know how fast a cannon ball sinks. [identifies another variable]
  7. I have no idea. [pauses to reframe problem and data need]
  8. How can I guesstimate a cannon ball's sink rate? [plans for an estimate rather than an exact number]
  9. What about when a golf ball hits a water trap. How fast does it sink? [using an analogy to  help thinking]
  10. 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 analogy]
  11. But suppose I toss the cannon ball into a ten-foot deep water trap. How fast would it sink? [thinking outside the box]
  12. In my mind's eye, I see, Splash, sink, sink, sink, thud. That's maybe two or three seconds. [imaginatively constructed value for the second variable]
  13. 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]
  14. So, 15,000 feet divided by 5 is 3000 seconds. Divide by 60 seconds in a minute and we get 50 minutes. [answer 1]
  15. 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]
  16. 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]
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.


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

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.

High Performance Learning

To take Self-Explanation to the next level, try one of these.
  1. 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 document.
  2. 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.

VirtualSalt Home
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 System
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

Copyright 2013 by Robert Harris | How to cite this page
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About the author:
Robert Harris is a writer and educator with more than 25 years of teaching experience at the college and university level. RHarris at virtualsalt.com