Elaboration: an effective strategy for learning

18 November 2018

One of the most important things to know about memory is that whenever we learn new information, it tends to stick better if we can connect it to what we already know. Pieces of information are not isolated, rather they are held in schemas, complex architectures of knowledge stored in long-term memory. We make sense of new things by placing them somehow within these representations.

We connect new information to old all the time. For example, I’m from Perth in Scotland. Not everyone knows where that is, but most people have a mental representation of Scotland, so ‘near Dundee’, ‘North of Edinburgh’ or ‘about an hour from Glasgow’ help people to understand.

Elaboration is a strategy whereby we consciously associate material we want to learn with previously learnt material.Here are a couple of ways that we can use elaboration as a study strategy. You can learn more about this strategy and others on our Maximising Memory and the Science of Learning CPD, starting in December.

How and Why

When studying, we can ask simple how and why questions to make sense of the material. This can literally be asking ‘how’ or ‘why’:

  • When did the First World War start? 3rd September 1914: Why?
  • Which rocks are formed from molten rock? Igneous. How?

These questions can become more subject specific:

  • When was the amendment to the Poor Law? 1834: How does Dickens explore this in A Christmas Carol?

In each case, we are encouraging a deeper explanation of the material. Not only does this help the initial understanding of the material, but it makes it much easier to recall and use in a particular context. While it helps to have some generic questions, we can ask very specific questions of specific information too. It must be noted that these questions are harder to self-generate and will depend somewhat on students’ knowledge of the material.

Sometimes answers are easy to find, or they need to be recalled – the Dickens example above might mean recalling from memory or finding examples in the text. When using this strategy, we have to be careful that the answers to the questions generated are correct, otherwise we can do more harm by allowing a misconception to form.


If we return to the concept of schema, it is the interconnectedness of ideas that makes them stick and gives them higher utility. We can use graphic organisers and other organisational structures to help make a concrete representation of these knowledge webs. If we think of the hierarchical way knowledge organisers are presented, or the way that flashcards sit in piles, it helps if we can move, process and connect this information.

We can connect two things we want to learn together: What has x to do with y? How does a help me to explain b? We can do this randomly or teachers can prepare the most relevant pairings. We can also organise groups of information into categories e.g. chronologically, in order of importance, in order of relevance etc. Again, we can have generic approaches in our subjects, specific ones given for a topic and/or have students organise themselves however they see fit.

The benefits from elaborative interrogation seem to be greater for those with greater prior knowledge.


Weinstein Y, Madan C, Sumeracki M (2018) Teaching the science of learning

Dunlosky J et al (2003) Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology

Reif F (2008) Applying Cognitive Science to  Education: Thinking and Learning in Scientific and Other Complex Domains. Massachusetts  Institute  of  Technology: Bradford  Books.


Posted on 18 November 2018
Posted in: Blog

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