Journal article in Journal of Educational Psychology, Volume 112, Issue 4.

Access (paywall): Lachner et al. (2020) via

Scope of Paper

The paper presents the findings of two experiments conducted on university students in Germany (total N = 217).

The experiments investigate whether explaining during study improves learning outcomes compared with a) explaining after study, and b) retrieval practice.

Key Findings

The authors conclude that 'in-between' learning activities are more effective than afterstudy learning activities, and that explaining is more effective than written retrieval practice.

This is due to explaining in-between studying new material provides students with opportunities to self-monitor knowledge gaps.

More Detail

The study focuses on the learning activity of 'explaining', in which students are asked to explain material that they've just studied to peers or instructors.

This technique is part of the 'elaboration' strategy of learning described by Weinstein et al. (2016) in our Week 26 summary.

Background to cognitive explaining

Explaining is a useful cognitive strategy because it requires students to select relevant information from recently studied material, reorganise this information into a coherent mental structure, and integrate prior knowledge to elaborate or fill in gaps.

The process also helps students identify and resolve any missing information.

Earlier studies have identified that explaining is a useful cognitive strategy, but few have focused on the effects of the timing of the explanation, in particular, the differences in in-between explaining and afterstudy explaining.

In-between explaining is defined as explaining concepts mid-way through studying material for the first time, i.e. attempting to explain a concept after being introduced to it, but before being given the complete information.

Given the option of either explaining or extra personal study time, prior studies have shown explaining, even to fictitious others, to be a more effective learning activity.

Why is explaining a powerful learning strategy?

There are three views on explaining as a learning strategy

  • The retrieval view, that explaining is just a special case of retrieval practice.
  • The generative view, that explaining is beyond retrieval practice because it triggers knowledge-building in students memories.
  • The metacognitive view, that explaining helps students monitor their understanding of content and allows them to detect and fill knowledge gaps.

Traditionally, explaining is employed as a teaching and learning strategy after students have studied material. However, there is an argument that bringing this forward could improve the effectiveness of the practice.

While in-between explaining might be limited because students haven't covered all of the material yet, in-between explaining allows for more frequent 'comprehension monitoring', which allows knowledge gaps to be identified (and filled) early.

The current study

The study presents participants with two blocks of new content to learn. Groups participated in explaining activities either between the two blocks, or after studying both.

In Experiment 1, students either practiced explaining in-between two study sessions or after both, and performance was compared against a control group who only engaged in oral retrieval practice.

In Experiment 2, the authors used a 2x2-factorial design, comparing both timing (in-between vs. afterstudy) and learning activity (explaining vs. retrieval).

Experiment 1

Analysis of the results of Experiment 1 provides evidence that in-between explaining supported students’ acquisition of conceptual knowledge more than afterstudy explaining.

The performance benefit was attributed to in-between exlaining offering students more opportinity for self-monitoring activities.

The authors were surprised to find that explaining was not more beneficial than retrieval practice, and suggest that this is due to the fact that in Experiment 1 the retrieval practice was contucted orally. Verbal retrieval triggers more metacognitive processes due to the presence of an audience. As such, the authors hypothesise that written retrieval would be less effective.

Experiment 2

The results of Experiment 2 confirmed the authors' hypothesis that explaining in-between is more effective than explaining afterstudy.

They found a cascaded trend showing that in-between explaining significantly enhanced students’ conceptual learning compared to in-between retrieval practice and afterstudy explaining.

Afterstudy retrieval practice showed the lowest test performance in Experiment 2.


Explaining in-between studying blocks of material provides students with opportunities to self-monitor knowledge gaps.

This in turn allows students to regulate their learning and fill knowledge gaps in subsequent study blocks.

Verbal recall tends towards explaining by recruiting similar cogntive strategies, such as paraphrases, knowledge infer- ences, elaboration. In contract, these cognitive strategies are not present in written recall activities.

This trend might be due to the social impact of the audience present during either verbal activity (explaining or recall).