Promoting Transfer: Effects of Self-Explanation and Direct Instruction


  • Portions of this data were presented at the 26th Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society.

  • This research was supported by a small research grant from Peabody College, Vanderbilt University.

  • A special thanks to the staff, teachers and children at St. Edward School for participating in this research project. I am grateful to Jon Tapp for programming the computer task, to Jennifer Behnke and Gayathri Narasimham for collecting the data and coding explanation quality, to Kathryn Swygart, Betsy Thomas and Stephanie Crisafulli for help entering and coding the data, to Joshua Johnson for help conducting and interpreting the multiple imputations, and to Warren Lampert and David Cordray for general statistical help. Martha Alibali, Megan Saylor and Jon Star provided valuable suggestions for improving the manuscript.

concerning this article should be addressed to Bethany Rittle-Johnson, 230 Appleton Place, Peabody #512, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN 37203. Electronic mail may be sent to


Explaining new ideas to oneself can promote transfer, but how and when such self-explanation is effective is unclear. This study evaluated whether self-explanation leads to lasting improvements in transfer success and whether it is more effective in combination with direct instruction or invention. Third- through fifth-grade children (ages 8–11; n=85) learned about mathematical equivalence under one of four conditions varying in (a) instruction on versus invention of a procedure and (b) self-explanation versus no explanation. Both self-explanation and instruction helped children learn and remember a correct procedure, and self-explanation promoted transfer regardless of instructional condition. Neither manipulation promoted greater improvements on an independent measure of conceptual knowledge. Microgenetic analyses provided insights into potential mechanisms underlying these effects.