Explaining the explanations

No doubt many people have been in situations (not just learning settings) where there have been unhelpful explanations. We are all familiar with the frustrations of feeling confused, lost, or unsure of what someone is talking about. Additionally, our precious time feels wasted when something takes excessively long—or when we leave the situation without the necessary information.

The Model for Great Teaching tells us that effective teaching means presenting new concepts in a way that learners can understand. This entails ensuring the learners’ attention is focused on the relevant information and their cognitive resources aren’t overloaded.

Effective explanations should:

  1. Prepare students for new knowledge by ensuring that prior knowledge is available accurate, and accessible.
  2. Ensure that new ideas are presented in an appropriate way—both in terms of the curriculum content and the individual needs of students.
  3. Connect new ideas to prior knowledge that makes them more likely to be stored in long-term memory.

It’s noteworthy that, on the surface, only one of these points may seem to directly involve explanations. It’s easy to think of explaining as simply presenting the new information.

However these points underscore the idea that explanations are something more; they also include what comes before and what comes after the core “presentation.” How we prepare students for the new information and what we do with  that information are just as important as the information itself.

The courses we have developed as part of the Great Teaching Toolkit (including the one about explanations!) are designed around these guidelines for effective explanations. After all, we could not call ourselves “Evidence Based Education” if we did not educate in an evidence-based means ourselves…

What does this look like in our courses?

Nearly all weeks in our courses begin with retrieval practice. Not only does retrieval practice aid in long-term recall of information, it is also an effective form of questioning. The questions we select for the start of each week are often carefully chosen to relate to the content explained that week. This encourages teachers on our courses to retrieve relevant prior knowledge from long-term memory—and helps ensure it is available and accurate. Our multiple-choice questions not only correct inaccuracies in knowledge, they often signpost to where participants can return to review the material.

We have also made careful consideration about how the material in our courses is presented. Because our courses are intended for teachers of all levels of experience, we make sure the content is widely accessible. To limit “overloading” learners with new information, the courses are chunked into smaller, segmented explanations. This means that learners can control the pace of their learning, which has been shown to enhance learning (e.g., Mayer, Dow, & Mayer, 2003).

Finally, our courses do not simply finish after presenting the information. We encourage teachers to make connections to prior knowledge (including their own experience and context) at the end of each week and each course. The courses do this through examples that model strategies described in the lessons. We also include reflection prompts and scenario-based practice to encourage learners to make meaning. The vignettes and larger scenarios are designed to be familiar to teachers—that is, they resemble experiences they likely have witnessed (or even been a part of). The explanations of the new information are strengthened by making these connections.

These strategies for effective explanations employed in our courses may not come as a surprise. It’s very likely you may find some of these strategies familiar—which of them do you recognise from your own teaching? Do you find yourself using them when giving explanations outside of formal learning contexts? Or did you notice some of these strategies employed in this article about explanations itself?

You can learn more about presenting new concepts in a way that learners can understand in the Great Teaching Toolkit course, “Explaining”. And, of course, you can see these strategies for yourself in all of EBE’s courses. Click here to sign-up to a free trial of all of the courses featured in the Great Teaching Toolkit.


References & further reading

Mayer, R. E. (2005). Introduction to multimedia learning. The Cambridge Handbook of Multimedia Learning2, 1–24.

Mayer, R. E., Dow, G., & Mayer, S. (2003). Multimedia learning in an interactive self-explaining environment: What works in the design of agent-based microworlds? Journal of Educational Psychology95, 806-813. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-0663.95.4.806

Lovell, O. (2020). Cognitive Load Theory in Action. John Catt Educational Ltd: UK.


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