Elaboration and generation

This is part four in a series of posts covering insights from cognitive science into teaching and learning, and in particular the strategies that can lead to stronger retention and deeper learning. In this post I cover elaboration and generation.

What is elaboration?

Elaboration is the process of giving new material meaning, or finding additional layers of meaning, by expressing it in your own words and connecting it with what you already know. It can involve explaining it to someone else in your own words, or explaining how it relates to your life outside of class. In fact, the more you can explain about the way your new learning relates to your prior knowledge, the stronger your grasp of the new learning will be, and the more connections or mental cues you create, which will help you remember it later. A powerful form of elaboration is to discover a metaphor or visual image for the new material

What is the evidence of it’s effectiveness?

Dunlosky et al in their paper “Improving Students’ Learning with Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions from Cognitive and Educational Psychology,” stated that they felt Elaboration showed ‘a lot of promise’. They did not give the technique the highest marks because they felt there needed to be more research done, however it was also noted by Dunlosky that many other cognitive scientists are more convinced of elaboration’s effectiveness. Additionally, Dunlosky admits he uses it with his students, suggesting he is more enthusiastic than the conclusions recorded in the study indicate. In fact, in one experiment where students learned to solve logical-reasoning problems, final test performance was three times better (about 90 percent versus less than 30 percent) for students who used elaboration techniques during practice than for those who did not (Berry 1983).

Why is elaboration effective?

Elaboration pushes students to actively process the content they are
focusing on by simply asking the question ‘why’? to themselves when they are studying. If they take the time to develop answers to their ‘why?’ questions the new material will likely be integrated with their prior knowledge. To a certain extent it is a form of retrieval practice as students are required to call upon facts and concepts they have previously learned to make sense of the new knowledge they have been introduced to. In the process students will start to consider relationships between events, concepts or processes, as well as underlying principles. They don’t even have to come up with exactly the right explanation, but trying to elaborate on why a fact may be true, can still benefit understanding and retention.

How can teachers and students use elaboration?

  • When reading about photosynthesis a student should pause and ask why a plant would convert carbon dioxide and water into sugar and try to explain how this new information is related to known information.
  • Writing exercises that require students to reflect on past lesson material and relate it to other knowledge or other aspects of their lives
  • If they are solving a problem they might be instructed to ask themselves, “Why did I just decide to do X?” (where X is any move relevant to solving the problem at hand). And if they were reading a text, they might be instructed to ask, “What does this sentence mean to me? What new information does the sentence provide, and how does it relate to what I already know?”
  • Adopting these techniques could also can boost the effectiveness of re-reading, which Dunlowsky class as a ‘low utility’ activity, if pauses are taken after paragraphs to consider meaning and links with other content areas.

What is generation?

Generation is an attempt to answer a question or solve a problem before being shown the answer or solution. As a result of having made the initial effort, you will be more astute at gleaning the substance and relevance of the reading material, even if it differs from your expectation. For example, simply filling in a missing word in a text results in better learning and memory of the text than simply reading a complete text. Experiential learning is a form of generation: You set out to accomplish a task, you encounter a problem, and you consult your creativity and storehouse of knowledge to try to solve it.

How can class teachers and students use generation?

  • Have students wrestle with trying to solve a problem before coming to class where the solution is taught
  • Exercise that require students to generate short statements that summarize the key ideas of recent material covered in a text or lecture
  • Before reading new class material students could try to explain beforehand the key ideas you expect to find in the material and how they expect they will relate to your prior knowledge. Then read the material to see if you were correct
  • Students could try to solve math or Physics problems they know will be covered in a class beforehand even if they have not been instructed to do so.
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