Sixth grade teacher Sanam Cotton, like all good instructors, wants to do what’s best for her students, and so approaches new classroom techniques with healthy skepticism. When learning sciences researchers arrived at Soulsville Middle School and High School Charter in Memphis, Tennessee to coach teachers on elaboration strategies, she had doubts.

Cotton was concerned these techniques wouldn’t be applicable in a classroom with students of different learning levels and experiences. But Cotton soon realized that elaboration “ends up sparking a good amount of inquiry,” and “becomes a tool you can use every day in your classroom.”

Elaboration is the process of making meaningful connections or associations to a particular idea or concept. The process requires one to think about how ideas, concepts, experiences or prior knowledge are related to the new lesson or idea. While elaboration sounds complicated, it’s a simple process that can be easily adapted across contexts and effective for all learning levels.

Elaboration is essential for teaching and learning new concepts, and can set the stage for long-term learning. In order for our brains to process information and cement it in our memories, our neural networks need to connect new knowledge to old networks. When that connection is made, research shows there is a distinct learning advantage. Information is retained more quickly, and for longer. 

This is because if our brains are able to synthesize information, drawing new connections between ideas, we’ll be better positioned to recall that information and make new connections in the future. Elaboration is an encoding technique— a way of helping new information stick into our long-term memories.

While elaboration sounds complicated, it’s a simple process that can be easily adapted across contexts and effective for all learning levels.

Although almost any form of elaboration is better than none, deeper, more meaningful elaborations offer more benefits than superficial elaborations. In other words: connections based on meaning and purpose tend to be stronger than connections based on appearance or characteristics. In this foundational study, when people were asked questions about the meaning of the word–forcing them to make deep connections to the word–they were better able to remember and retain information. Elaborations on the shape or sound of a word still improved retention but to a lesser degree.

Performing elaboration doesn’t require significant training, in fact our brains were made to do it. Our memories form through neural network connections. Elaboration is just a technique that facilitates a process our brains have perfected. As such, research suggests that students can easily learn to elaborate on their own, without formal instructionIn this study, students were told about several elaboration strategies, including creating a visualization, a sentence that illustrates the concept, or to make up a story about the idea being taught. Over the course of several weeks, students who were initially trained in these techniques remembered more than students who were not trained on the techniques, even when the elaboration group was not specifically prompted to elaborate. 

Even though our brains are built for elaboration; prompting students to elaborate with precise, meaningful elaborations can also improve memory for the material. In the classroom, teachers can augment their teaching with elaboration by (1) tying new concepts back to other material in the lesson through analogies (like the one between respiration and photosynthesis) and (2) draw connections between what students bring into the classroom and the new material.

Such elaboration techniques work because the approaches help people structure and contextualize information. Not only is information easier to remember when it is linked to something you already know, but elaboration that is meaningful also helps students build organized knowledge, making it easier to remember that information in the appropriate context or when cued.

Another method of prompting elaboration is through asking “how” and “why” questions. Teachers who begin review of recently learned information through such questions instigate their students to think deeply about what they’ve learned and the battery of information they learned alongside that material. Through this recall, the connections are reanimated, strengthened, and variegated.

Not only is information easier to remember when it is linked to something you already know, but elaboration that is meaningful also helps students build organized knowledge, making it easier to remember that information in the appropriate context or when cued.

Soulsville offers a phenomenal case study on the power of elaboration. Even before researchers coached the teachers on specific techniques, the instructors found that they were already engaging basic elaboration processes in their lessons. 

Math teacher Tatiyana Webb explains that she used the associations students have made in music classes, of which the school is renowned, to make their math lessons “click.” For example, she drew connections between finding the angle and hypotenuse of a triangle to the pitch of a physical triangle that students play in percussion, making their work in math relevant to their broader experiences.  

Even though teaching practice often relies on fundamentals of elaboration, and most teachers utilize some forms of elaboration, meaningful and precise elaboration techniques can still be challenging to incorporate. Teachers have to invest their number one resource: time. Time to learn about their students’ backgrounds, time to permit students to make the connections necessary for elaboration, and time for students to articulate those connections are all necessary for full elaboration. This presents a challenge, as tight curriculum timelines and limited class time create downward pressure against elaboration techniques, despite their necessity. 

But the investment is worth it, as teachers at Soulsville found their students more engaged and performing better on tests. For example, teacher Tatiyana Webb gives students more time now to elaborate, via a one-minute “Stand and Talk” time where students talk about the concept, with each other, for a minute. Plus, elaboration techniques can still be worked into classrooms tight on time. Jesse Finafrock observed that elaboration “helps with engagement,” noting that elaboration can be worked in almost every activity without requiring a self-standing lesson.

Elaboration techniques aren’t just for the K-12 set. When cognitive psychologist Brian Ross signed up fro a computer science class at the University of Illinois, it had been decades since he had last considered himself a student. Ross, suddenly on the other side of the lectern, realized that his classmates were practiced in study skills he had lost in his years as a professor.  

To tackle the new material and readjust to his new role in the classroom, Ross adopted a method called self-explaining. The name itself is self-explanatory. After reading new information, he would prompt himself to explain the ideas he just read. So, for example, whether after a sentence or paragraph, he’d ask:: What did I just read? How does that fit together? Have I come across this idea before? In asking himself these questions, he was able to identify lapses in his understanding and would fill those gaps through online research. Essential to this practice was elaboration because he couldn’t simply restate what he had just read–he needed to build associations so he could explain the new concept with his own reference points, his own voice. “A lot of what you’re doing in self-explanation is trying to make connections,” Ross explained in Ulrich Boser’s Learn Better. “Oh, I see, this works because this leads to that and that leads to that.”  

While these questions didn’t lead to Ross becoming the best programmer in the course, they allowed him to develop a deeper understanding of the material. While other students were more proficient coders, Ross saw the connections between concepts the other students couldn’t and could thus answer questions that stumped the rest of his class.  “I sometimes had the advantage … I was focused on the bigger picture,” Ross clarified.

Ross’ elaboration technique was simple, and built from a strategy  one anyone can incorporate into their learning: simply asking  Why? When you have a deep understanding of a topic, it’s easy to explain why something is the way that it is. But “Why?” can be challenging to answer when we lack full understanding of a concept. For this reason, asking “why?” can help you develop the connective tissue around an idea that will strengthen your knowledge around a topic. 

For example, if someone asked you “why are there tides?” you’d likely be able to provide a cursory explanation: because of the gravitational pull of the moon. But if the same person were to follow up with a more targeted question about the moon’s effect on tides, you’d likely draw a blank (unless of course tides are a subject you already know a great deal about). To answer, you’d likely need to do some background research, even in a basic encyclopedia. Whether you like it or not, the why question pushed you to learn something new. 

In just this brief back and forth, you’ve learned quite a bit about your own thinking and knowledge. You now know exactly what you know about tides and where your knowledge on the subject stops. Asking and answering “why?” helps us reflect on our thinking and then develop more nuanced, complex understandings of the topic at hand. Asking “why?’ allows you to elaborate on your own, without the guidance of a trained instructor. 

Elaboration doesn’t have to take up a lot of time. Try giving students two minutes to write down how what they already know might relate to a new idea or problem. Or ask students about everyday examples that illustrate the concept. Any opportunity to relate the unfamiliar to the familiar is an opportunity for elaboration.

While elaboration might seem daunting, it is a process our brains were built for and it can be easily incorporated into how material is taught. Plus, it is highly adaptable to any learning environment, as learners bring their background and prior knowledge with them everywhere they go. All teachers have to do is harness it. ​
School: Soulsville MS/HS Charter School, Memphis, TN 
Teachers: Lynsey Kamine, Sanam Cotton, Jesse Finafrock (moved to Kirby Middle School), LaCardia Walker, Tatiyana Webb 
Researcher: Dr. Stephen Chew 

Author: Ulrich Boser