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Should Students Explain Their Thinking? Not Always, Research Says

When students explain incorrect thinking they could very well be cementing their own misunderstandings, according to a recent literature review. 

Bethany Rittle-Johnson, a psychology professor at Vanderbilt University, looked at  85 peer-reviewed studies on self-explanation, or the process of generating explanations to make sense of new information. She found that while prompting self-explanation is generally good practice and can improve learning, there are some caveats.

"If kids are just off explaining their own thinking without guidance, then they can be spending their time essentially justifying stuff that's wrong," she said. 

That's because self-explanation "seemed to focus students' attention on their preexisting theories ... and may have reduced attention to new information and evidence that contradicted their theories," the research review states. 

Instead, students should likely stick to explaining things they know are correct—or things they know are incorrect. 

"The general recommendation is you get kids to explain right information, that's step one. And then it can be helpful to tell kids [that] something is wrong and have them explain why it's wrong," Rittle-Johnson said. "That's different than me getting a wrong answer and explaining to you why it's right."

While the research review referred to all subjects, self-explanation is typically associated with math class. The Common Core State Standards for math, which the majority of states are using, ask students to "make sense of problems" and "construct viable arguments." Because of this, many teachers have put more emphasis on having students explain the thinking behind their problem-solving, whether that's through classroom discussions or in writing on assignments. 

Rittle-Johnson said she doesn't want to dissuade teachers from encouraging self-explanation, but she does want them to pay attention to what students are explaining and how. 

"Explaining why correct stuff is correct and incorrect stuff is incorrect, that kind of thinking tends to get kids in a more productive space," she said.

The review was published online last month in the journal Psychonomic Bulletin and Review


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