One more from ICLS: The Role of Explanations

July 7, 2010 at 7:10 am 2 comments

I forgot one of the points that I wanted to make from ICLS last week. There were a set of posters from the University of California at Berkeley (Joseph Jay Williams, Tania Lambrozo), U. Texas-Austin (Christine Legare and Leigh Plummer), and New York University (Bob Rehder) asking the question, “Where exactly does explaining help with learning, and where doesn’t it?”

One of hot areas of research in recent years in learning sciences has been the self-explanation phenomenon. Better students tend to explain to themselves what they just read, as a way of monitoring their learning (“Did I get that?”) and as a summarizing activity (“I think that said…”). Weaker students don’t self-explain on their own, but a really interesting feature of this is that all students can be prompted to self-explain, and that does lead to learning benefit. Kate Bielaczyc (now in Singapore, was at Harvard) and Mimi Recker (now Department Chair at Utah — I got to chat with her at ICLS last week) showed that this works in CS, too. But they’re among the few who have tried it in CS, and these new studies make me wonder how far it would work in Computer Science.

These new studies are finding that self-explanation has great benefits (better recall, better chance for transfer), but it also has some weaknesses. “While explaining promotes discovery of regularities, it can impair learning of other information, such as memory for details” (from Williams and Lambrozo). “Explanation may be especially useful for learning some kinds of information (i.e., information about causal functions or mechanisms) and less useful for learning other kinds of information (i.e., memory of individual features)” (from Legare, Lombrozo, and Plummer).

On the one hand, computer science is hard to get transfer and is all about the causal relations. Self-explanations sound great! On the other hand, CS is also a lot about detail, and if self-explanations lose detail, that might hurt our students (e.g., when learning syntax?). It’s always hard to make predictions in learning — our theories just aren’t that strong. It is a really interesting direction to explore further: How do self-explanations help in learning about computing, and are there places where they don’t help?

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Thoughts on ICLS 2010: From reading poetry, to CS as infinite science Are Storytellers The Best Programmers?

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Darrin Thompson  |  July 7, 2010 at 10:25 am

    Wow. That explains my entire career both as a student and in the workforce.

    I’ve never had patience for a lot of “unrelated” details, to the point that I tend to dismiss that kind of information as useless. I’m always explaining the world I see to myself. To cope with details I’ve always made up mechanisms to try and fit those details into some framework I’ve already learned. Otherwise they fall right out of my head.

    (See? I’m doing it all right now.)

    That really is an amazing finding.

    As a practicing programmer, I must concur with your opinion that this sandbox stands to gain a lot though self-explanation.

  • […] well.  On the other hand, “storytelling” is a form of self-explanation that relates to Darrin’s recent comment about how important that’s been for him in his experience as a professional software […]


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