Self-explanation has been shown to be related to better understanding of concepts (2). In a correlational study, where the researchers identified which students used self-explanation naturally and compared this to performance on a concept test, Chi and colleagues showed that those who self-explained performed better. Chi and his research team wanted to know whether engaging in self-explanation would cause students to understand, the concepts better, so they conducted a true experiment (3). In this study 8th graders were prompted to self-explain after reading each line of a text. In the control group, the students were not prompted to self explain (they just read twice to fill the learning time). Those in the self-explanation group learned more from the reading than did the control. Within the self-explanation group, those that produced more self-explanations showed greater understanding than those who produced fewer self-explanations.
Chi and colleagues emphasize that they did not train the students in this experiment to self-explain. Instead, they explained that the purpose of the experiment was to learn more about how students read and learn from a textbook. They were asked to read every line carefully (each on a separate sheet of paper). For self-explanation, they were told “we would like you to read each sentence out loud and then explain what it means to you. That is, what new information does each line provide for you, how does it relate to what you’ve already read, does it give you a new insight into your understanding of how the circulatory system works, or does it raise a question in your mind. Tell us whatever is going through your mind—even if it seems unimportant” (p. 477). In addition, in their method section, they write “…the students were told to explain what each sentence means. The students had absolutely no trouble carrying out this general instruction. The prompt given by the experimenter after every sentence was very general, more analogous to a reminder. In fact, after a few initial prompts, the students often proceeded with self-explaining without any further prodding” (p. 451).
Thus, from this article, it seems that at least some students do not need much instruction to self-explain. However, logically it makes sense that some students may be better at self-explaining than others. (And, there has even been some discussion online very recently about individual differences in the ability to think silently to oneself, or the inner monologue!) In searching online for resources to pass along to the staff at Brisbane State High School, I found a website with self-explanation prompting questions and statements that instructors could use to prompt students who naturally self-explain less than others. We also have a blog written by a student explaining how she uses self-explanation to study math.
Overall, it seems that self-exlanation could be a relatively easy way for students to develop their understanding of the material that they are learning. Further, students can work their way up to describing and explaining the concepts from memory to themselves, or to a peer (retrieval practice!).