The Art of Self-Explaining: Four Techniques to Help You Learn

By Harvard Business Review
November 3, 2017

Maybe you’re taking an online class for CME. Or implementing a new technology. Talk to yourself – out loud – and ask yourself questions. It will make a difference. 

In the modern economy, there are few skills more important than the ability to learn. Organizations may pay for training or reimburse educational courses, but the skill of gaining skills is rarely taught.

Self-talk may not be cool to do in public, but it slows us down — and when we’re more deliberate, we typically gain more from an experience.

One effective but often underestimated learning strategy is self-explaining.

Here’s how to employ self-explaining in your own learning.

Talk to yourself. Self-talk is not cool to do in public. But talking out loud to ourselves is crucial to self-explaining and generally helpful for learning. It slows us down — and when we’re more deliberate, we typically gain more from an experience.

Ask “Why?” Self-explaining can give voice to impulses of curiosity that may otherwise remain unexplored. It’s about asking ourselves the question, “Why?” If we really know a topic, “why” questions aren't that hard. It’s when we don’t know something that “why” questions become more difficult — and create a way to develop an area of expertise.

Summarize. Summarizing is a simple way to engage in self-explaining, since the act of putting an idea into our own words can promote learning. The next time a person gives you a set of detailed instructions, take the time to verbally repeat the directives. By reciting everything back, you’ll have taken the necessary steps to summarize that knowledge, and you’ll be far more likely to remember the information.

Make Connections. One of the benefits of self-explaining is that it helps people see new links and associations. Seeing connections helps improve memory. When we’re explaining an idea to ourselves, we should try to look for relationships. That’s one of the reasons that a tool like mnemonics works. When we spot links in an area of expertise, we can gain a richer understanding.

Copyright 2017 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate.

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