Explaining Content Effectively

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Thanks to Nancy Nelson, PhD.

Have you ever struggled to explain a complex concept to someone new to your field? You’re not alone. Even experts can find it challenging to convey their knowledge effectively. As Kulgemeyer & Riese (2018) point out, there is a difference between what you know and what you can explain effectively to others.

Unintentionally, novice teachers can overload students with information, fail to connect new concepts to prior knowledge, or neglect to highlight key points. When content is not explained clearly, students may feel overwhelmed, confused, or frustrated; as a result, they may have difficulty retaining, processing, or retrieving what they learn (Weinstein et al., 2018).

Ideas for explaining content effectively

Here are six ways to explain content clearly, which may be tailored to the content at hand.

  1. Highlight the Learning Outcomes (Goals): Start by outlining the lesson’s learning outcomes. Continually refer back to these outcomes throughout the lesson to explain the ‘what’ and the ‘why’ of the concept explanations. This strategy helps students understand the lesson’s purpose and keeps them focused on the end goal.
  2. Show the Whole (Structure): Present concepts within an integrated system, story, design, product, or end state. Then, structure the explanation of the system by each piece, process step, section, or concept, breaking down the whole into parts for easy understanding. This method allows students to see the big picture first and then understand how each piece fits into the whole.
  3. Relate to Known Concepts (Elaboration): Explain concepts with definitions, descriptions, and examples. Connect the new idea to other known concepts. This helps learners make sense of what they don’t know in terms of what they do. Students can better understand and remember the new concept by linking new information to existing knowledge. You may wish to relate to prior course or program content or use strategies like scenarios or analogies.
  4. Differentiate from Other Concepts (Distinction): Explain with differentiation, categorization, or classification. Describe the concepts by differentiating them from other concepts. This helps in understanding the unique aspects of each concept. Students can better distinguish between similar concepts and avoid confusion by highlighting the differences. Learning multiple related concepts at the same time–especially by relating or differentiating them–is known as interleaving.
  5. Relate to Personal Experience (Personal): Relate the concept to your and your students’ professional and personal experiences. What do students already know about this concept, or what have they experienced? How might their understanding complement or add to what you have presented? Inviting students to reflect on and share what they know makes concepts more relatable and engaging. When students connect their learning to their lives, they’re more likely to remember and understand it.
  6. Apply the Concept (Retrieval and Practice): Encourage students to use or apply the concept in a way that will stretch but not exceed their abilities. This reinforces learning through practice and retrieval. When students actively use the information, they’re more likely to remember and understand how it applies in different contexts. Students will need clear instructions, a model, help or support, and sufficient time to practice with a new concept. As well, it is a good idea to vary the types and space apart the practice opportunities you provide.

Use these strategies in combination, along with visuals and multimedia to support your explanations. Avoid lecturing for more than 10 minutes on any one topic. Give time for quiet process and for questions.

Here’s a chart illustrating how these strategies can be applied in different fields:

Effective Explanation StrategiesCookingComputer ApplicationsInternational Business
GoalsExplain the desired taste and presentation of the dish.Define the functionality of the web application.Outline the stages of the product life cycle.
StructureBreak down the recipe into steps.Explain the architecture of the web application.Discuss the structure of the product life cycle.
ElaborationRelate cooking techniques to familiar ones.Connect new software features to existing ones.Relate the new product life cycle stages to known market trends.
DistinctionDifferentiate this dish from similar ones.Highlight unique features of the application, describing how they are different from each other.Differentiate the product life cycle stages from each other.
PersonalShare personal anecdotes related to the dish.Share a story of your use of its application in the field.Have students identify where products they use are in the life cycle.
Retrieval and PracticeHave students brainstorm what could be the cause of tastes or presentations that are not desired.Have students develop and test a simple web application.Have students match various product life cycle stages to different products.
Effective Explanation Strategies

How can you gauge whether you have explained content clearly?

  • Evolve your strategies: How would you explain this idea to a family member or loved one unfamiliar with the concept? How could you explain the same concept in 3 different ways? How would you explain the concept verbally, with a picture, and with a video?
  • Monitor student progress by having students apply their learning in controlled, semi-controlled, and free practice.
  • Gauge student learning with formative feedback or post-assessment of learning tasks.
  • Ask for feedback: what did students say they found the easiest and hardest to understand? What would they like more practice with?

Final thoughts

Effectively explaining content is not just about what we know but also how we convey it.  Explaining content effectively deepens student learning by prompting information understanding, retention, and retrieval. These strategies, grounded in the principles of learning science (Weinstein et al., 2018), can significantly enhance the learning experience.

Want to learn more about explaining content effectively? See these resources, available through the college library:

Chin, J., & Kozimor-King, M. L. (Eds.). (2018). Learning from Each Other : Refining the Practice of Teaching in Higher Education. University of California Press. https://doi.org/10.1525/9780520969032  

Kulgemeyer, C., & Riese, J. (2018). From professional knowledge to professional performance: The impact of CK and PCK on teaching quality in explaining situations. Journal of Research in Science Teaching55(10), 1393–1418. https://doi.org/10.1002/tea.21457 

Weinstein, Y., Madan, C. R., & Sumeracki, M. A. (2018). Teaching the science of learning. Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications, 3(2)

A chart with three examples of effective teaching strategies was created with Copilot. The examples were refined with multiple iterations. Feedback was requested, and typos were identified and fixed.

Elan Paulson

Elan Paulson, PhD, has been an educator in Ontario's higher education system since 2004. Before joining Conestoga as a Teaching and Learning Consultant, Elan was on the executive team at eCampusOntario. She previously served as Program Director and as an instructor in professional education programs at Western University's Faculty of Education. With a Master's in Educational Technology, Elan specializes in technology-enabled and collaborative learning to support diverse learners. She has also conducted research on faculty participation in communities of practice for professional learning and self-care.

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