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2.3 (Self-)explanation

When one pair member is more knowledgeable than the other, we understand easily than the latter learns from the former. What is more surprising is that the more able peer does also benefit from collaborative learning. It is now well documented that providing an explanation improves the knowledge of the explainer himself, even more sometimes than the explainee's knowledge. This effect is known in the cognitive science literature as the self-explanation effect. Chi et al [6] showed that asking students to explain aloud some physics examples (problems already solved), they proceduralize their declarative knowledge of physics, make explicit some implicit problem solving steps and thereby become later more efficient in solving similar problems. In the experiments, the explanations are rather artificially produced: the students are asked by the experimenter to do so. In collaborative learning, explanation occurs naturally or spontaneously. Similar effects have been observed in what we would call 'hetero-explanation' (by opposition to self-explanation).

However, Webb [7] observed that the cognitive benefits are restricted to elaborated explanations. Less sophisticated messages from the explainer do not produce effects. This confirms that the effect of explanation is related to the cognitive activity of building the explanation. We do not have knowledge of the cognitive effects of the other steps of hetero-explanation, mainly tailoring the explanation to the listener, and delivering the explanation. The current view is however not to consider the elaboration and delivery of explanation as two separate steps. Explanation is viewed as an interactive process in which two partners try to understand each other. These interactions influence the explanation generation from the very beginning. In some cases, one can say that explanation is built by the two partners (see section 2.8).

This dimension is important for the development of peer tutoring activities in distance education. Since the more able peer does also benefit from collaboration, it may be interesting to mix students from different levels, for instance from different academic years. Such activities can be credited to both students. This approach requires however that the problem to be solved by the partners keeps a certain complexity even for the more skilled peer. The interesting explanation is not the straightforward message. It involves some reflective activity from the explainer to articulate and integrate various pieces of knowledge.

ICCAI 95 article - 08 FEB 95
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