Self-explanation (elaborative interrogation) and the Feynman technique are the final tools for better information synthesis. When we are forced to try to explain concepts through self-inquiry, we will quickly discover what we do know and what we don’t know at all. These are called blind spots, and they are far more common than you might like to think. Can you explain why the sky is blue or how gravity works? Probably not off the top of your head, even though you think you understand those concepts. The Feynman technique is an offshoot of self-explanation that helps find blind spots as well, with an added component of using an analogy to explain what you think you know. This is probably the most powerful tool because it instantly makes you feel ignorant—a positive thing in the realm of learning.
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Self-explanation sounds simple, but there is a method to the simplicity. It’s more than merely thinking out loud. It involves explaining and articulating information to establish a baseline of knowledge and blind spots.
Blind spots are when we don’t realize what we don’t know. But with self-explanation, you will quickly learn what you don’t understand, and it might be far more than you expected. Here’s how it can sometimes show itself in real life.
If you’ve been around small children under age seven or so, you may have witnessed (or experienced, if you’re a parent) a phenomenon we call “the why chain.” This is when kids ask an initial question about the world—say, “Where does rain come from?”—and, after hearing our answer (“From clouds”), continue down a path of relentless questions to get at a definitive, ending answer (“Why don’t the clouds hold in the rain?” “Why can’t the clouds just fall to the earth still shaped like clouds?” “Why don’t the clouds on a sunny day let rain go?”).
Yes, this line of questioning can be a recipe for tedium. But it’s reflective of a child’s innate capacity for endless curiosity for a definitive answer. (For parents, of course, this point usually comes a lot earlier.)
Elaborative interrogation has something in common with that childlike inquiry, except it relates to more advanced topics that adults are (hopefully) liable to investigate. Simply put, elaborative interrogation is an effort to create explanations for why stated facts are true. This is what drives home comprehension, as well as what you don’t comprehend.
In elaborative interrogation, the learner inquires about how and why certain concepts work. Nothing is safe from this inquiry. They go through their study materials to determine the answers and try to find connections between all the ideas they’re learning about. Can you answer simple questions or at least understand what the answer is likely to be?
“Why” questions are more significant than “what” questions, which primarily relate to the natures of identification and memorization. A line of “why” questions elicits a better understanding of the factors and reasons for a given subject. We can memorize all the parts of a flower—the petal, the stamen, the pistil, the receptacle, and so on—but the names alone mean nothing to us. We have to ask what each part of a flower does and why that role is integral to its lifespan.
This method is effective because it’s simple and anyone can apply it easily. Elaborative interrogation does, however, require some existing knowledge about the topic to generate solid questions for yourself.
Elaborative interrogation could proceed like this, and suppose you are learning about the Great Depression of the 1930s:
• The first thing you’d ask would be, well, what was it? It was the biggest worldwide economic breakdown in the history of the industrialized world. • What caused the Great Depression? A few key events, like the stock market crash of October 1929, the failure of over 9,000 banks, declines in consumer spending, high tax on imports from Europe, and drought conditions in the agricultural sector. • Let’s talk about the stock market crash. Why did it happen? Some experts were concerned about margin-selling, declines in the British stock market, out-of-control speculation, and some questionable business practices in the steel industry. • Margin-selling? What was that? How did margin-selling work, and why was it a problem? Margin-selling (or margin-trading) is when an investor borrows money from a broker to buy stock. So many investors used it that most stock purchases were bought with this borrowed money. It worked so well that the stock prices went up—and when the asset bubble popped, prices fell off. Since the investor had no funds to repay the loan, both the broker and the investor had no profit to show for it.
And the chain of interrogation goes on from there. You use your study materials to obtain the answers to the “why” and “how” questions. Once you’ve sufficiently established those answers, you go back to the other aspects of the Great Depression and the stock market crash and determine how each aspect related to one another. How did margin-selling affect the banks? How did margin-selling relate to the decline in consumer spending? Did the drought affect the trade issues with Europe?
The overall point of elaborative interrogation is to make sure there are no holes in your understanding. If you can survive your own questioning, it’s likely you can survive tests, exams, and when other people ask you to teach them. You can start with the journalistic questions (who, what, where, when, why, how), then move on to contextual questions (how did this happen and what happens after) for a good, thorough start to understanding.
The range of topics for which you can use elaborative interrogation is practically limitless. For example, math students can use it to break down advanced calculations and establish patterns that might help in higher-level math topics. If you’re studying human biology, you can use the technique to determine the specific conditions that lead to medical conditions like high cholesterol or heart arrhythmia. Even students of literature can use the technique to study motifs, trends, and themes in a particular author’s work.
Elaborative interrogation, when you think about it, is a form of self-explanation. You are quizzing yourself and then putting yourself on the spot as to whether you can answer or not. You should be able to see how this lets you know where you lack comprehension and facts. Having knowledge is of course important to learning, but sometimes not having blind spots is just as important.
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Peter Hollins is a bestselling author, human psychology researcher, and a dedicated student of the human condition. Visit https://bit.ly/peterhollins to pick up your FREE human nature cheat sheet: 7 surprising psychology studies that will change the way you think.
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