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Want More Thoughtful Students? Get Them to Ask These Questions.

In our last post, we introduced you to John Dunlosky’s study of learning techniques—what works, and what does not. (If you missed that one, go back and read up on the two most efficient approaches!) Dunlosky’s team looked at a range of ways to learn—and, while it’s always a good idea to put those Big Two practices into play in your classroom, the other methods are worth examining, too.

Basically, because our students always have a finite amount of time for studying and learning, we want to help them be as efficient as possible. And, as we’ve mentioned before, students tend to choose easy-but-relatively-ineffective practices when left to their own devices. (Dr. Ian Kelleher, here at the CTTL, once had a student who created incredibly detailed sets of flashcards for every test—and, after putting the pieces together, finally commented “If I hadn’t spent so much time making those flashcards, I would have had time to study!”)

Thus, it’s always a good idea to use highly effective strategies like practice testing (prompting students to actively recall information, rather than just passively rereading) and distributive practice (spacing your practice sessions out, letting some rustiness set in between them). But that doesn’t mean that the techniques that scored a bit lower in Dunlosky’s study should be ignored. Read on to learn more about two approaches that scored “moderately effective” in the study, but can be very useful in the classroom. (Hint: they both involve asking good questions.)

Elaborative Interrogation and Self-Explanation

Elaborative interrogation involves involves getting students to generate an explanation for an explicitly stated fact. To do this, they need to make connections between new and old information, and to think about differences and similarities between related ideas. This helps make the new information stick as it becomes integrated with existing prior knowledge.

To guide students toward elaborative interrogation, we can encourage them to  ask “why” questions:

  • Why is this or that true?

  • Why does it make sense that…?

  • What are the reasons for it?

  • Why would x be true of y, but not of z?

  • Or, simply: Why?

Creating a culture of “why” in the classroom helps create more discerning, thoughtful students—and, in a world of increasing information from potentially dubious sources, helps them parse through data with better judgement as they grow.

Self-explanation guides students to create their own internal dialogue as they learn, and then to actually explain some aspect of their processing. Like elaborative interrogation, it helps students integrate their new learning with what they already know.

To do so, ask them to ask questions that will help them tell a story about how they’re working through the material at hand, and how it connects to their prior knowledge and skills:

  • How does this relate to what I already know?

  • Why am I doing this and not that?

  • What strategies am I using to learn this material, and why?

  • How did I get to this answer? And what did I already know that helped me?

  • How did I move from this idea to that one?

As well as forcing students to put their own thinking process into words, self-explanation helps them communicate their own methods and decisions to others, opening up space for reflection and sharing strategies with each other.

Helpful Classroom Tools

Here are a couple of tools for putting elaborative interrogation and self-explanation into practice with your students. We’ve found them helpful in our own classrooms!

  • Visible Thinking is a rich resource, including a variety of practices and routines for helping students think more deeply (for example, See Think Wonder).

  • Harvard’s Project Zero, which created Visible Thinking above, has a ton of other resources to peruse.

  • Mind Mapping is a helpful tool to help students make connections between ideas.

As you’ll note, these strategies are all about questions that prompt connections between new ideas and previous learning. By encouraging that interconnectedness, we are more likely to build learning that is durable, usable and flexible.

We also hope that encouraging your students to ask and answer their own questions will keep you inquisitive about your own processes and methodologies, too! Teaching is an ever-evolving profession—which keeps things interesting, right?—and we’re always curious about new tools or approaches that help students learn. If you have a great resource to share, please drop it in the comments. We always love to hear from you!

As teachers, we’re always trying to activate new and different neural pathways for our students. The CTTL team does that for other teachers with Neuroteach Global, bringing back similar-but-unrelated-ideas throughout the process to help you make new connections that can come to life in the classroom.