Exploring the Concept of “Self-Explanation Questions”

One way to help ensure deeper understanding of content by learners is to drill into their thinking behind their multiple choice answers. This technique is called “self-explanation.”

In this technique, the learner is required to review a worked out step. The learner is asked to answer a question about the next step or the current step in a process and then identify the underlying principle, concept or rationale behind the step.  This process requires the learner to identify the principle that supports the step demonstrated or question answered in the process.

Here is an example of an initial question from a pharmaceutical sales course where the learner is learning the right sales model.  After the learner answers the first question, they are presented with the self-explanation follow up question.



Which of the following responses is correct based on the questions asked by the Doctor?

1)      Yes, the contraindications need to be monitored?

2)      Let me recap the contraindications for you before I leave.

3)      So let me explain, in detail, the known relative contraindications.

4)     Thank you, I know your time is short. I will just leave these samples & go.


Self-Explanation Question

In this instance, why is it important to review the contraindications?

1)      Provides the doctor with an opportunity to give you more details.

2)      Establishes that you are listening actively to her issues.

3)      Let’s you tailor your questions to match the benefits of the product.

4)     Demonstrates your knowledge of the product and disease state.

Self-Explanation questions encourages learners to process the underlying principles behind a process or a model by having them identify the rationale behind each step in a process. It helps ensure that they know the model behind the activities.

So don’t just ask a multiple choice question and move on. Ask a multiple choice question and then ask the learner “Why” they chose the answer that they chose.


Clark, R.C., & Mayer, R. E. (2011) E-Learning and the Science of Instruction. 3rd Ed. Pfeiffer. 231-233.

Atkinson,  R.K., Renkl, A., & Merrill, M.M. (2003) Transitioning from studying examples to solving problems: Effects of self-explanation prompts and fading worked out steps. Journal of Educational Psychology, 95(4), 774-783.

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Karl Kapp
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