Enhancing worked examples with self-explanation

When using worked examples, it’s really easy to assume that students are engaging with them without making sure that they really are. Reading about using worked examples recently, I came across the self-explanation effect. Although mentioned in Dunlosky’s (2013) ‘Strengthening the Student Toolbox’ (see also, Dunlosky et al. (2013)), alongside interleaving, as a “strategy with much promise”, it had not previously caught my attention. As I explored what makes an effective worked example, the priority of ensuring students engage meaningfully with them emerged. This seems obvious, but I had frequently modelled worked examples in my lessons, or provided them as part of a set of practice problems, without directing students’ attention towards thinking about them productively. Self-explanation provides a route to meaningful engagement with worked examples.

The ‘worked-example effect’ is a cognitive load strategy which can be used to reduce the cognitive load imposed by complex problems by first studying worked examples (Sweller et al., 2019). Benefits from the worked-example effect require more than simply sharing, or modelling, worked examples with students. I regularly model solution procedures step-by-step when teaching quantitative chemistry, and had considered this to be using ‘worked examples’. However, the ‘worked-example effect’ really refers to an extra stage of studying examples, after instruction but before independent practice (Lovell, 2020), and which is thought to facilitate the development of secure, automated schemas (Paas & van Merrienboer, 1994). In my experience students tend to dive straight into problem solving without really studying a worked example, unless explicitly made to do so. Self-explanation is one strategy (alongside faded examples, and example-problem pairs) which can be used to promote meaningful engagement with worked examples.

What is self-explanation? Key research findings

Self-explaining involves generating an explanation for oneself in order to make sense of the learning material (Chi, 2020). The aim of self-explanation prompts in the context of worked examples, is to promote engagement with them (Booth et al., 2014; Busch et al., 2008; Chi et al., 1989). Prompts can be used to encourage students to explain why certain principles apply to a problem. Self-explanation is thought to support schema construction, which can lead to reduced intrinsic load during independent problem solving, due to information becoming ‘chunked’ (Joo et al., 2020). When solving problems, students are prone to memorising steps without necessarily understanding the purpose of each step (Siegler, 2002). Self-explanation encourages them to generate inferences about steps, which facilitates understanding of the principles involved in solving the problem (R. K. Atkinson et al., 2003). There is some evidence that higher performing students often use, and benefit from, self-explanation instinctively (Ionas et al., 2012), suggesting that encouraging self-explanation may particularly benefit lower performing students.

Why I decided to encourage self-explanation

Some observations I have made in my own classroom which made self-explanation attractive:

  • Students have a tendency to rote learn the procedural steps required to solve particular problem types, not surprising, as strategies are often introduced in an algorithmic manner. I have seen this in the context of mathematical problems in chemistry and physics, but similar scenarios may exist in other areas, for example, following a formulaic pattern in writing an extended written response.
  • Students often struggle to transfer familiar procedures to unfamiliar problems, due to a lack of understanding regarding why they need to take certain steps, or include particular details.
  • When stuck on a problem, students frequently struggle to articulate, or identify, why.

What might self-explanation look like in practice?

My focus was on teaching mathematical problem solving in KS4 and 5 chemistry. I made a few small changes to my usual practice, of modelling a worked-example under the visualiser, before setting students off on independent practice.

  • Following modelling of a worked example, I put a similar example on the board and gave students time to study it independently, and then discuss in pairs, with a focus on making sure they understood why each step had been taken.
  • I then cold-called students to explain certain steps, chosen to highlight particularly important procedures, concepts, or common errors.
  • When starting independent practice, rather than just have a worked-example at the top of the page but saying nothing about it, I encouraged students to study the example, make sure they understood it, and then to refer back to it if they became stuck when completing a practice problem later on.

How self-explanation helped my students

When I started to encourage self explanation, I noticed some changes in my classroom:

  • Students were able to tackle practice problems with greater independence. Previously when starting practice problems there would be a flurry of questions from students who weren’t sure how to proceed. I now found that students were more confident to have a go, and try to work their own way through a problem.
  • Students were better able to articulate their difficulties. Rather than simply saying, I’m stuck with Question 2, they were able to say exactly where they had become stuck, or ask a more specific question to aid their understanding.
  • Students became more confident in ‘having a go’ at more complex problems. They were not always successful, but appeared to be thinking harder and more productively.

Encouraging self-explanation has been a simple adjustment to make in my classroom which has led to richer dialogue with, and between, students, and greater independence in problem solving. It’s a strategy that I will continue to use in teaching quantitative chemistry, and which I would also like to apply to other areas such as explanations linking structure-property relationships for different materials, where being able to explain links between different ideas is key.

To find out more about my use of self-explanation with worked examples, watch this video from the EEF ‘Voices from the classroom’ series.


Atkinson, R. K., Renkl, A., & Merrill, M. M. (2003). Transitioning from studying examples to solving problems: Effects of self-explanation prompts and fading worked-out steps. Journal of Educational Psychology, 95(4), 774–783. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-0663.95.4.774

Booth, J. L., McGinn, K. M., Young, L. K., & Barbieri, C. (2014). Simple practice doesn’t always make perfect: Evidence from the worked example effect. Policy Insights from the Behavioural and Brain Sciences, 2(1), 24–32.

Busch, C., Renkl, A., & Schworm, S. (2008). Towards a generic self-explanation training intervention for example-based learning. Proceedings of the 8th International Conference of the Learning Sciences.

Chi, M. T. H. (2020). Self-explaining expository texts: The dual processes of generating inferences and repairing mental models. Advances in Instructional Psychology, 5, 161–238.

Chi, M. T. H., Bassok, M., Lewis, M. W., Reimann, P., & Glaser, R. (1989). Self-explanations: How students study and use examples in learning to solve problems. Cognitive Science, 13(2), 145–182. https://doi.org/10.1207/S15516709COG1302_1

Dunlosky, J., (2013) Strengthening the student toolbox. American Educator, Fall issue, 12-21. https://cpb-us-w2.wpmucdn.com/sites.wustl.edu/dist/e/1431/files/2019/04/Dunlosky-Ame-Ed_Study-Strategies-to-Boost-Learning-196c2oq.pdf

Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M. J., & Willingham, D. T. (2013). Improving students’ learning with effective learning techniques: Promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14(1), 4–58. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1177/1529100612453266

Ionas, I. G., Cernusca, D., & Collier, H. L. (2012). Prior knowledge influence on self-explanation effectiveness when solving problems: An exploratory study in science learning. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 24(3), 349–358. http://www.isetl.org/ijtlhe/

Joo, H., Lee, J., & Kim, D. (2020). Advancing the design of self-explanation prompts for complex problem-solving. International Journal of Learning, Teaching and Educational Research, 19(11), 88–108. https://doi.org/10.26803/IJLTER.19.11.6

Lovell, O. (2020). Sweller’s Cognitive Load Theory in Action. John Catt Educational Ltd.

Paas, F., & van Merriënboer, J. J. G. (1994). Variability of worked examples and transfer of geometrical problem-solving skills: A cognitive-load approach. Journal of Educational Psychology, 86(1), 122–133. https://doi.org/10.1037//0022-0663.86.1.122

Siegler, R. S. (2002). Microgenetic studies of self-explanation. In N. Garnott & J. Parxiale (Eds.), Microdevelopment: Transition processes in development and learning (pp. 31–58). Cambridge University Press.

Sweller, J., van Merriënboer, J. J. G., & Paas, F. (2019). Cognitive architecture and instructional design: 20 years later. Educational Psychology Review, 31(2), 261–292. https://doi.org/10.1007/S10648-019-09465-5

Image: explain project by Erik Arndt from Noun Project


2 thoughts on “Enhancing worked examples with self-explanation

  1. Thank you for this article! My students are currently struggling with quantitative chemistry, and I’ve been struggling with how to support them in solving problems independently. It’s always a challenge to carve out time to teach a new strategy, but it sounds like this will pay off in the long run.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s