6 ideas for elaborative interrogation

I have been attempting to review how successful I have been at implementing the Learning Scientists Six Strategies for Effective Learning in my lessons.  The strategies provide a sound evidence-based structure for learning around three main themes; the organisation of learning (spaced and interleaved practice), how to develop understanding (elaboration, concrete examples and dual coding) as well as the importance of retrieval practice.  As well as reviewing my own practice, I have tried to be much more explicit in explaining why I use these strategies with my students.  It is not only about modelling these strategies but also explaining why they are more successful than others.

I must admit I think I have become a bit of a cognitive science bore and I am sure my students are becoming tired of hearing me talk about the importance of retrieval practice as I pull out the mini-whiteboards for another mid class test.

One of the more challenging strategies to consider has been the use of elaboration in developing student understanding and memory.  Rob Coe (2013) suggests that “Learning happens when people have to think hard.”  Do my lessons get students thinking hard enough about the material?  Or as Daniel Kahneman might put it, do my lessons get students into ‘system 2’ type thinking – hard, slow and effortful, demanding more logic and calculation?

Do my lessons devote enough time and support the important task of elaborative integration?  As the shadow of exams begins to loom over the year, I thought it was a good chance to pull some ideas together and think about how I am explicitly using elaboration to strengthen learning and deepen understanding.

Here is the learning scientists info graphic on the strategy.

Smith & Weinstein (2016) define elaboration as

The term elaboration can be used to mean a lot of different things. However, when we are talking about studying using elaboration, it involves explaining and describing ideas with many details. Elaboration also involves making connections among ideas you are trying to learn and connecting the material to your own experiences, memories, and day-to-day life.

Elaborative interrogation is a specific method of elaboration. The word interrogation means to question. So, when you use elaborative interrogation, you ask yourself questions about how and why things work, and then produce the answers to these questions (1). The specific questions that you ask yourself will depend, in part, on the topics you are studying (e.g., how does x work? Why does x happen? When did x happen? What caused x? What is the result of x? and so on).

Students need to be able to describe the ideas in depth and detail.  They must tirelessly question the material, make connections between different ideas, consider how concepts are similar and different.

  1. Knowledge Organisers.

Yeah, I know nothing wholly original with these tools of the trade.  I really enjoyed using knowledge organisers this year with my own elaboration sections.  A well-designed KO can include lots of elaborative sections, questions and tasks to help students build their understanding.  That is until we ran out of photocopy budget in February … so we have had to stop using these.

2.  Mind Maps – Making synoptic connections with the specification.

Again, I am hardly redesigning the wheel here.  However, at this time of the year I like to hand the students a copy of the specification and get them to create their own Underground Map to display the subject.  They should reflect on which concepts will be the major stations and what links (tube lines) will run between them.  For example, in psychology the issues and debates could be the main stations and the approaches the tube lines with topics as either commuter towns or sub-stations.  This activity normally ends up looking like Mr Messy but it is really about the discussion and less about the product.


3.  Venn Diagrams.

I probably have not used these enough due to my own anxieties from my undergraduate statistics modules but what better way to help students consider the similarities and differences between two concepts, approaches or research methods.


4.  Only Connect.

Inspiration is taken from Victoria Coren’s insanely difficult BBC Four quiz show, Only Connect.  In the connecting wall part of the quiz, each team receives a wall of 16 clues and must figure out a perfect solution, consisting of four groups of four connected items. The puzzles are designed to suggest more connections than actually exist, and some clues appear to fit into more than one category.


Here is one that someone has created for Sociology of the Family and here are the tools to create your own or perhaps this could be a plenary task.



5. Elaborative dice.

Naomi Hennah’s blog explores how she is using them in science lessons and here is her one below.


Below is my version for my A-level students.  The specification is numbered and students roll an ordinary dice to select a topic, then they must roll the elaboration dice and answer the question as best they can.


6. Taboo

I am sure we all do different versions of this one.  I quite like having big pictures of Richard and Judy on the screen for my own You Say We Pay activity.  However you want to play it – the ability to describe a topic using alternative words to the ‘taboo’ ones will surely help deepen student descriptions of key concepts.