Make it meaningful! Elaboration

Basic idea:

Meaning is crucial to learning. If we don’t understand clearly what something means, why it’s important or how it fits with other things that we know, then we’re far less likely to remember it. Think of being introduced to someone at a party. Remembering a name is far easier if we have a network of other facts to link it to (“he’s Cathy’s work colleague”, “she complains about his loud typing in the office” “his wife is a lawyer” etc). This process of adding layers of meaning to a piece of information is called elaboration, and it leads to much more effective recall.

As a related point, elaboration helps us to explain why skills can’t be effectively taught without also teaching subject knowledge. Without a framework of knowledge through which the importance of a skill can have be understood, the skill is meaningless. It also tells us why knowledge is important even when students have access to tools such as Google. Finding the right search terms, or knowing what information to look for, is an elaborative process; it requires a solid knowledge base and understanding of the problem to start with. We can’t find the answer unless we know enough to understand the question. Also, we won’t remember the answer unless we can fit it into the framework of what we already know (i.e. elaborate)!

Suggestions for practice:

  • Encourage students to make links between different concepts. Ask students to explain the links between new information and what they already know.
  • Ask students to explain concepts in their own words, or in a manner different to the way the material was presented
  • When revising, students should avoid of highlighting or copying out texts. Encourage more creative notes which rephrase the information, or ‘elaborative interrogation’ – where students generate explanations for facts from the course.
  • ‘Advance organisers’ can be simple and useful ways to fit new knowledge into a wider context

Further reading:

Make it meaningful! Elaboration

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