Assisting self-explanation prompts are more effective than open prompts when learning with multiple representations (Berthold, Eysink, & Renkl)

Berthold, K., Eysink, T. H. S., & Renkl, A. (2008). Assisting self-explanation prompts are more effective than open prompts when learning with multiple representations. Instructional Science, 37(4), 345-363. 

The authors compared the effects of two types of self-explanation prompts as help procedures for integrating and understanding multiple representational worked-out examples. Probability theory was chosen as the learning domain and procedural knowledge (problem-solving) and conceptual knowledge (knowledge about the rationale of a solution procedure) were assessed as learning outcomes.

The participants learned about probability theory under three conditions: (a) open self-explanation prompts, (b) assisting self-explanation prompts, or (c) no prompts (control group).

Method (in brief):

The worked-out examples demonstrated the application of four principles when determining probabilities in the cases of (a) order relevant, (b) order irrelevant, (c) with replacement, and (d) without replacement. The principles were instantiated by four pairs of isomorphic worked-out examples. Participants (N = 62; university students) would watch a worked-out example, a multi-representational solution procedure that utilized simultaneous flashing and color coding to promote integration between representations. At the end of the procedure, a colored freeze image was presented. For the “open self-explanation” condition, participants received six open questions (ex: “Why do you calculate the total acceptable outcomes by multiplying?”) per worked-out example. For the “assisting self-explanation” condition, participants received the same six questions per worked-out example. However, for the first example in each isomorphic pair, participants were also presented with fill-in-the-blank self-explanations [e.g., ‘‘There are ___ times ___ branches. Thereby, all possible combinations (os, ob, or, …) are included.’’]. This support was withheld for the subsequent example in the pair. The control condition received no prompts but were given a free-form text box to type in notes. Pre and post tests were administered to measure procedural and conceptual knowledge.


Overall, the provision of assisting self-explanation prompts was effective for enhancing high-quality self-explanations and both procedural knowledge and conceptual understanding. Both types of self-explanation prompts fostered procedural knowledge. This effect was mediated by self-explanations directed to domain principles. Conceptual knowledge was particularly fostered by assisting self explanation prompts which was mediated by self-explanations on the rationale of a principle. Open prompts were only capable of eliciting self-explanations that the learners were capable of but did not spontaneously generate—such as the principle-based self-explanations. In contrast, the highly demanding rationale-based self-explanations could only be elicited if, in the initial worked-out examples, the fill-in-the-blank self-explanations provided the learners with the pieces of information that they needed to integrate and to conceptually understand the multi-representational examples. Because assisting self-explanation prompts are time-consuming to develop, they should be considered for use only if understanding the learning content is slightly out of reach for learners without assistance.

Interesting background/discussion:

Chi et al. (1994) found that spontaneous self-explanations were not as effective as self explanations that were enhanced by prompting (see also, e.g., Atkinson et al. 2003b; Schworm and Renkl 2007). Prompts are requests that require the learners to process the to-be-learned contents in a specific way (Renkl 2005). They elicit self-explanation activities that the learners are capable of but do not implement unpremeditated (Pressley et al. 1992).

However, even if prompted, the use of high-quality self-explanations remains far from optimal, indicating that it is difficult for some learners to engage in this activity (Chi et al. 1989; Renkl 2002; Roy and Chi 2005). Sometimes, learners are not able to self-explain a specific solution step. Furthermore, self-explanations can be fragmented (Roy and Chi 2005). Finally, some learners provide only partially correct or even incorrect self-explanations (Renkl 2002). These deficits in the self-explanations can lead to incomplete or incorrect knowledge that, at worst, can severely impede further learning. Thus, relying only on self explanations has several disadvantages—even when self-explaining is elicited by prompts.

Prompts that include some form of instructional assistance (see Koedinger and Aleven 2007) are a promising starting point. Kirschner et al. (2006) and Klahr and Nigam (2004) advocate to provide the learners with more assistance relative to more open approaches (see Anderson et al. 1998). A benefit of giving assistance or information is that learners receive correct information that is communicated efficiently (Koedinger and Aleven 2007). Thereby, errors and floundering (if not complete failure) can be substantially reduced.


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