But he had an advantage. Ross is a learning researcher, and he’s familiar with the effective, but often underestimated, learning strategy known as self-explaining. The approach revolves around asking oneself explanatory questions like, “What does this mean? Why does it matter?” It really helps to ask them out loud. One study shows that people who explain ideas to themselves learn almost three times more than those who don’t.
To help him outperform his younger colleagues, Ross asked himself lots of questions. He would constantly query himself as he read through the assigned texts. After each paragraph, after each sentence, he would ask himself: “What did I just read? How does that fit together? Have I come across this idea before?”
By the end of the course, Ross had found that, despite his relative inexperience and unfamiliarity with computers, he could answer many questions that the other students couldn’t and understood programming in ways that they didn’t. “I sometimes had the advantage,” he told me. “I was focused on the bigger picture.”
In the modern economy, there are few skills more important than the ability to learn. Around the globe, learning is highly predictive of future earnings. Companies may pay for training or reimburse educational courses, but the skill of gaining skills is rarely taught.
Here’s how to employ self-explaining in your own learning:
Talk to yourself. Self-talk has a bad reputation; muttering to ourselves often seems to be a sign of mental distress. It’s not cool to do in public. But talking to ourselves is crucial to self-explaining and generally helpful for learning. For one thing, 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?” Now, if we really know a topic, “why” questions are not that hard. If I asked you a why question about the town that you grew up in, the answer would come pretty easily. It’s when we don’t know something that why questions become more difficult — and create a way to develop an area of expertise.
To illustrate the practice, let’s examine a query like, “Why are there waves?” Some of us can bumble our way to a basic answer. Maybe something like: “Well, waves have to do with the wind. When wind blows across the top of the water, it creates ripples of water.”
But then comes the inevitable follow-up: “Why does the wind lift the water?” or “Why are there waves when there’s no wind?” Here we draw a blank. Or at least I do, and so I start searching for some sort of answer, spinning through the internet, reading up on how energy moves through water. In the end, I’ve learned much more.
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.
You probably have had this experience in your own life. Recall, for instance, a time when you read an article in a magazine and then detailed its argument for a friend. That’s a form of summarizing — you’re more likely to have learned and retained information from that article after you did it.
For another illustration, imagine that you recently wrote an email describing your thoughts on a documentary that you saw on Netflix. In doing so, you fleshed out the idea and engaged in a more direct form of sensemaking. So, all in all, you’ll have a richer sense of the movie and its themes.
You can do this in your own life. The next time a person — your boss, your spouse, a friend — gives you a set of detailed instructions, take the time to verbally repeat the directives. By reciting everything back, you’ll have taken 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. We’re better able to remember the colors of the rainbow because we’ve created a link between the first letter of the names of the colors and the acronym ROYGBIV.
When we spot links in an area of expertise, we can gain a richer understanding. This helps explain why Brian Ross had such success using self-explaining. As he learned about computer programming, he tried to explain ideas to himself, relying on different words or concepts. “A lot of what you’re doing in self-explanation is trying to make connections,” Ross told me. “Saying to yourself,”Oh, I see, this works because this leads to that, and that leads to that.'”
Self-explaining should go into the learning tool kit of workers today, as the economy places new demands on making connections and adopting new insights and skills. AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson says technology workers need to learn online for at least five hours per week to fend off obsolescence. They might want to find a solitary place to do so, where they don’t feel abashed about talking out loud to themselves.
Self-talk also helps us think about our thinking. When we’re engaged in a conversation with ourselves, we typically ask ourselves questions along the lines of: “How will I know what I know? What do I find confusing? Do I really know this?” Whether we hit the pause button while listening to a podcast or stop to reflect while reading a manual, we develop skills more effectively by thinking about our thinking.