Self-Explanation and Its Role in Problem-Solving
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Self-Explanation and Its Role in Problem-Solving


Imagine standing in front of a giant maze, with numerous paths leading in different directions. This maze represents a complex problem you're trying to solve. Now, imagine having a magical compass that can guide you through this maze, illuminating the correct path and helping you understand why other paths lead to dead ends. This magical compass is akin to the process of self-explanation - a cognitive strategy that can significantly enhance our problem-solving abilities.

The Concept of Self-Explanation

Self-explanation is like having a conversation with oneself. It's like being both the teacher and the student, explaining concepts and ideas to yourself as if you were explaining them to someone else. It's a process of making sense of information, connecting new knowledge with what we already know, and identifying gaps in our understanding.

To illustrate, let's consider the metaphor of a jigsaw puzzle. Each piece of information we encounter is like a puzzle piece. Self-explanation is the process of examining each piece, figuring out how it fits with the other pieces we've already placed, and identifying where we might need more pieces to complete the picture.

The Role of Self-Explanation in Problem-Solving

In the realm of problem-solving, self-explanation acts as a bridge, connecting the problem at hand with our existing knowledge and understanding. It's like a detective piecing together clues to solve a mystery. The detective doesn't just gather clues; they analyze each one, figuring out how it fits into the overall picture and what it reveals about the case.

When we encounter a problem, we don't just look for a solution. We try to understand the problem, break it down into smaller parts, relate it to what we already know, and then synthesize all this information to come up with a solution. This is where self-explanation comes into play. It helps us understand the problem, identify the gaps in our knowledge, and guide our learning process to fill these gaps.

The Benefits of Self-Explanation

The benefits of self-explanation are like the fruits of a well-tended garden. Just as careful gardening yields a bountiful harvest, the practice of self-explanation can lead to improved learning, better problem-solving skills, and enhanced comprehension.

One of the key benefits of self-explanation is that it promotes deep learning. Instead of merely memorizing facts, we understand them at a fundamental level. It's the difference between knowing the route to a destination and understanding the map. The former might get you there, but the latter gives you the flexibility to find alternative routes and navigate unfamiliar terrain.

Techniques to Improve Self-Explanation Skills

Improving self-explanation skills is like learning to play a musical instrument. It requires practice, patience, and the right techniques. Here are a few strategies:

  • Elaborative interrogation: This involves asking yourself "why" questions. For example, if you're studying the water cycle, instead of just memorizing the steps, ask yourself why each step occurs.
  • Self-questioning: It involves asking yourself questions about the material you're learning. This could be questions about the meaning of a term, the implications of a concept, or the steps in a process. It's like being a detective interrogating a suspect, trying to get to the truth of the matter.
  • Summarization: This involves summarizing the material in your own words. It's like retelling a story. You're not just repeating the story verbatim; you're interpreting it, understanding it, and then conveying it in a way that makes sense to you.
  • Teaching others: This is a powerful way to improve your understanding of a subject. When you teach something, you have to understand it well enough to explain it to others. It's like being a tour guide in a city. You need to know the city well enough to show others around and answer their questions.

Case Studies and Examples

To further illustrate the power of self-explanation, let's look at some case studies and examples.

In a study titled "An effective metacognitive strategy: learning by doing and explaining with a computer-based Cognitive Tutor" by Vincent Aleven and Kenneth R. Koedinger, they found that students who explained their steps during problem-solving practice with a Cognitive Tutor learned with greater understanding compared to students who did not explain steps. The explainers better explained their solutions steps and were more successful on transfer problems. This research demonstrates that the benefits of self-explanation can be achieved in a relatively simple computer-based approach that scales well for classroom use. You can read more about this study here.

In the realm of health professions, self-assessment, which is closely related to self-explanation, has been identified as a vital aspect of professional self-regulation. In a paper titled "Self-Assessment in the Health Professions: A Reformulation and Research Agenda" by Kevin W. Eva and Glenn Regehr, they argue that the roots of the problem in the self-assessment literature involve a failure to effectively conceptualize the nature of self-assessment in the daily practice of health care professionals. You can read more about this paper here.


In conclusion, self-explanation is a powerful tool in our cognitive toolbox. It's like a Swiss Army Knife for the mind, helping us understand, learn, and solve problems more effectively. By practicing and improving our self-explanation skills, we can navigate the maze of knowledge with greater ease and confidence.

For a visual understanding of self-explanation and problem-solving, you can watch these YouTube videos:

  1. Problem Solving and Action Plans in DBT and CBT by Self-Help Toons
  2. Problem-solving as self-care by Anna Freud
  3. Learn Problem Solving Skills - Building a Sense of Self in Adolescents by Fortis Mental Health and Behavioural Sciences

Remember, the journey of understanding and problem-solving is not a sprint, but a marathon. It requires patience, persistence, and a lot of self-explanation. So, keep explaining, keep understanding, and keep solving problems. The world needs more problem solvers.

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