Elaborating on Elaboration

Every now and again the longer-toothed of us teachers will happen across an old hard drive containing folders from the early days of our teaching careers. When I stumbled across one such folder recently, I found a lesson plan which structured the lesson, literally, to the minute.

10.15am: Introduce causes of WWI

10.17am: Students complete card sort

10.22am: Go through answers

10.25am: Students work in pairs to decide on order of importance

On so on.

I can’t say I remember what this plan looked like in reality, but I have a strong suspicion my best laid plans probably went awry. Looking back, one of the key problems with how I was teaching at this point in my career (we are talking before Twitter was even invented here) was an undue focus on pace. It was a case of getting through the curriculum rather than ensuring it was understood and remembered. I skimmed over the surface of learning rather than delving into the depths.

In the example given, students could sort through the cards taking a variety of shortcuts and never really think beyond the absolute basics of the knowledge they contained.

As time has gone on, and my experience and understanding of the research evidence surrounding cognitive science has grown, my practice has changed. I now spend more time knocking ideas about, looking at the same content from different perspectives and encouraging students to think hard about what I teach them. Essentially, what I am describing here is the strategy of elaboration.

A specific form of elaboration linked to learning is called elaborative interrogation. You will find references to elaborative interrogation in lots of places across the research-evidence jungle. Most notably perhaps in the seminal paper by John Dunlosky, Strengthening the Student Toolbox which rates it as having “moderate utility” (I’ll return to why that is later). In simple terms elaborative interrogation is ensuring that when students are presented with factual information they are prompted to respond to a “why” question connected to it. This then forces the student to build on the factual information by clarifying relationships with existing knowledge.

My card sort activity above would have left this process to chance. Some may have asked themselves these “why” questions and thereby gained the benefit of them, deepening their understanding and preparing them for the next phase of learning. Others may simply have sorted the cards in the simplest way possible, thinking little about the content as they did so. There would probably also be some in a smaller third group, who would have asked themselves why questions, but, crucially, come up with the wrong answers. In this case the process would actually be damaging because those misconceptions would have ended up embedded in students’ memories. This phenomenon is one of the reasons why Dunlosky holds back a bit when rating it as a strategy.

However, elaborative interrogation is not the only version of elaboration connected to learning. We can use a variety of different strategies to achieve this in our classrooms and force our students to think around the knowledge and build those precious connections with existing knowledge. Here are some to try:

  1. Elaborative questioning: As described above, asking the “why” question as a follow up. Then asking another question starting “and how does that affect…”. And then probably another two like that.
  2. Continuums: Wouldn’t work in every subject but you can put whatever you like at either end and get students to place knowledge at point of their choosing along it. Make sure you ask for justifications.
  3. Concept maps: This means different things to different people, but to me it means placing several chunks of knowledge on a page, for example quotes from various Shakespeare plays, and then finding all the connections you can between them.
  4. Explain it back to me: Give the correct answer and then ask students to explain back to you why the answer is correct.
  5. Different perspectives: Present the same information in a variety of different ways. For example read a text aloud, look at some images connected to it and then watch a short video. Each format will encourage different connections to be made.
  6. Use stories and analogies: These, judiciously used, will help students to build the links to existing knowledge that will aid their elaborative interrogation.

Posted by Chris Runeckles

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