Writing explanations helps online students grasp concepts more effectively

April 5, 2021
Writing prompts help online students understand concepts better. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

Writing prompts help online students understand concepts better. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

When online lessons are interspersed with reflective, explanatory writing prompts, students perform better on tests administered a week later, according to a new study from the University of California, Santa Barbara.

The results, published March 23 in Educational Psychology Review, bolster an educational theory called generative learning, which posits that people learn most effectively when they are encouraged to integrate new information into their preexisting ideas and experiences, particularly with the help of higher-level cognitive tasks, such as writing or having a discussion with a peer. The theory is built off the principles of Gestalt psychology, whose adherents believe that humans perceive the world by identifying patterns and connections in their surroundings.

"Especially right now, when a lot of learning is still online, it can be an isolating experience. It can be kind of boring. It can be passive," said Alyssa Lawson, a doctoral student in the Psychological and Brain Sciences Department at UCSB and a co-author of the study. "And what this research tells us is that it doesn't take a lot of work on everyone's part to make it a little more active and a little bit more beneficial."

The participants, a total of 385 college students located in Southern California, watched an animated slideshow that was accompanied by instructive text about greenhouse gases. A portion of the group was asked to explain in writing some of the key points from the material after each slide. Others were asked to copy a prewritten explanation onto a piece of paper or to write an explanation using a set of keywords from the lesson. Then, the students were tested with a series of open-ended questions to see how well they understood the material. 

The students who completed some form of explanatory writing tested better than a control group when the test was given a week after the online lesson, the study indicated. In one leg of the study, students who wrote explanations during the lesson scored more than 4.2 points higher, on average, on a 36-point scale than students who wrote no explanations. The study also observed that the students who wrote explanations showed levels of enjoyment, interest and motivation similar to those of their counterparts.

"Even if the student maybe isn't quite at the level that they can explain it on their own, having them rewrite an explanation or giving them some sort of scaffolded explanation, like, 'Hey, can you explain this one little part about this lesson?' and then helping them build off of that — that is beneficial to them, and it makes it more active for the learner," Lawson said.

There were few differences between the written explanation groups and a control group when the students completed a test directly after the lesson. The results are consistent with previous analyses that suggest that, compared with more passive learning formats, generative-learning techniques may be more effective in helping students synthesize new information over longer periods.

Educational psychologists frequently study how online material is delivered to students but less often take into account how that media is processed in real time. For the experiments, the researchers utilized a lesson from a public news station that consisted of simple animations and text blocks. 

The researchers chose an accessible multimedia lesson rather than creating their own so that they could better understand how teachers might easily adapt already created content to include more interactive elements in their lessons.

Although Lawson began devising the experiment in 2018, she noted that it took on new meaning and significance once schools across the country shut down and moved online as a result of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020. That spring, Lawson's own classes went online, too.

"I got firsthand experience of how passive and how demotivating an online class could be, especially in cases where instructors are not prepared to teach because they're told two days ahead, 'Hey, we're doing online classes,'" Lawson said. "It's really hard to transition from in person to online seamlessly."

Lawson emphasized that the sudden adjustment is not the fault of teachers themselves. Instead, Lawson observed teachers and administrators doing everything possible to accommodate students in an unprecedented situation, including quickly adopting more interactive techniques, even in the context of online learning.

"I definitely saw more generative-learning strategies prompted for classes that I've been in as we've gotten further into the pandemic, when people are actually starting to have time to prepare for online rather than in-person classes," Lawson said. 

The study, "Benefits of Writing an Explanation During Pauses in Multimedia Lessons," published March 23 in Educational Psychology Review, was authored by Alyssa P. Lawson and Richard E. Mayer, University of California, Santa Barbara.

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