Instructional Skill of Explaining

Dr. V.K.Maheshwari, M.A(Socio, Phil) B.Se. M. Ed, Ph.D

Former Principal, K.L.D.A.V.(P.G) College, Roorkee, India


Education is not the piling on of learning, information, data, facts, skills, or abilities – that’s training or instruction – but is rather making visible what is hidden as a seed”

Thomas More quotes (English Humanist, Statesman and Chancellor of England, 1477-1535)

Teaching is not primarily telling. It’s helping other people learn. That means the focus is on the learners, not the teacher. People learn best through experiencing something themselves, so when you are striving to teach something, you are constantly trying to Get into the shoes of the learners so that you can better understand where they are and what they need from you to learn the subject understudy.

Explanation is a key skill. Generally, the skill of explanation is complex Explanation is to explain or to give understanding  to another person. It leads from the known to the unknown, it bridges the gap between a person’s knowledge or experience and new phenomena, and it may also aim to show the interdependence of phenomena in a general sable manner. It assists the learner to assimilate and accommodate new data or experience.

In a classroom, an explanation is a set of interrelated statements made by the teacher related to a phenomenon, an idea:, etc. in order to bring about or increase understanding in the pupils about it. The teacher should practice more and more of desirable behaviors like using explaining links using beginning and concluding statements and testing pupil understands behaviors like making irrelevant statements, lacking in continuity, using inappropriate vocabulary, lacking in fluency, and using vague words and phrases as far as possible.

A  class in not homogeneous group. Some pupils are intelligent some have normal intelligence, some are mature and others are immature. But the teacher has to impart knowledge to all. To present the subject matter in the simplified form before the pupils and making it acquirable is called the skill of explanation. It is necessary in all the subjects. In its absence the presentation of the subject matter is not possible. In the skill of explanation, such words are used in the statements by which the statements exhibit the clarity of their meanings.

The explanation serves two purposes: (1) to introduce the subject by giving some background about its usefulness and application; and (2) to describe the subject in a simple, complete, and tantalizing way. The explanation should create a desire to become proficient in the subject under study

The components of skill of explaining involved

  • Clarity
  • Continuity
  • Relevance to content using beginning and concluding statements
  • Covering essential points
  • Simple
  • Relevant and interesting examples appropriate media
  • Use of inducts, deductive approach, it can be functional, causal or sequential

Characteristics of effective explanation

Coordination in Statements. Coordination in the statements used during the explanation is very essential; otherwise there will be all hotch- potch.

Relevant   Statements. While presenting the subject matter, the concerned statements should be relevant.

Fluency  in Language. The teacher should use fluent language so that the pupils may listen and understand his thoughts.

Connecting  Links. The use of words, idioms or connecting links such as ‘therefore’ as a result of etc. is essential to link the different thought or statements.

Clear Beginning Statement. Before starting any explanation, the teacher should make the pupils aware of what he is to teach on that day through a clear beginning statement.

Use of proper Words. The teacher should use proper words for explaining an object or an event otherwise he would be in a state of confusion

Practicing Skill of Explaining

An effective explanation should be simple, clear, concise and interesting. In general it should not be rambling, long or dull. However, what is to be explained may be complex and abstract. Effective explanation requires careful and sensitive planning. It requires the recognition of a number of essential characteristics when putting it into operation :

(i) Planning

  • Establish clearly, in advance, the major point or points you wish to communicate to your pupils. These may be ideas, rules, relationships, generalization, etc.
  • Establish links between ideas.
  • Obtain information from pupils about their knowledge, experience, and interest to guide your planning. Your explanation must appeal to your class.
  • Decide the means by which explanation is likely to be effective.
  • Be flexible. Be prepared to modify your plans in the light of feedback from pupils during the lesson. Adapt to pupil needs.
  • Be brief. Think how much you recall after 10 minutes.

(ii) Operation

-          (a)Consider other skills on which Explanation partly rests (e.g. teacher liveliness) – React to your class entering behavior

-          (b)Structure: introduction, elaboration, summary.

-          (c) Emphasis the main points, so that their importance is clear.

-          (d) Show them the relationship between the main points.

-          (e)  Determine (if necessary) the general principles involved.

Suggestions for effective explanation

Try to think like a student, not like a professor. Remember that they probably haven’t taken a lot of advanced classes or worked in a lab. So they are lacking in both basic facts and general background.

1. Probe First. Before you start to explain a topic or problem, try find out exactly where the student is stuck. Don’t just start at the beginning of the problem or topic and plow through to the end. When the student asks you to explain problem, ask the student something like, “Where did you get stuck? Or what is the part you don’t understand?” This probing for the exact nature of the student’s problem may seem to take a long time, but it pays in the end. It will save you from wasting time and energy explaining things that are clear and allow you to zero in on the real problem.

2. Explain in Small Bites. Explain a short piece of a problem at a time, and then don’t go on until

(a) There is surety that everyone understands what you explained, and

(b) There is surety that you need to explain the rest.

3. Don’t Start too Far Back. When a student asks a specific question, try to answer it without going over a lot of background material

Ways to get the students to tell you what they need to know – How to figure out where they are at:

A. Collect Questions

Ask the students for specific questions or topics that they want you to go over. Write the questions &/or topics on the board. Do not answer the questions as they are asked. Keep collecting questions until you have a reasonably long list. Once you have the list of questions/topics on the board, you can look at the list and decide what to do first. You can go over the questions in order of importance, or logical order, or the order they were covered in class.  Do whatever seems sensible to you. As you cover each question, check it off the list.

The first few times you do this, it may be very difficult to get the students to speak up. So be patient and give them plenty of time to come up with questions. If they don’t seem to have any questions, suggest that they look through their notes or text to find points that were unclear. Wait until you have a decent length list before you start answering the questions.

This method works best if you can look at the list and see instantly what topics need to be discussed. So be sure your list is self explanatory

B. The Old Card Trick

Ask each student to come to class with at least one question written on a 3 X 5 card. Collect the cards at the beginning of class and use the questions to organize the session. One way to proceed is to spend a few minutes reading the questions silently. Then you can write the good questions on the board, as above, or read them out loud. Another way to start is simply to shuffle the cards and read one out loud at random. Once you have picked the question(s) to go over, you can answer the questions yourself, or you can let the students answer each other’s questions.

An electronic variation – ask the students to email you the questions the night before. This gives you more time to compose your thoughts, decide which questions to use, and look up the answers.

C. Ask Them a Question

Ask the students a question, preferably about an experimental situation. After you pose the question, you can then ask the students:

(1) What do you know that’s relevant to this question/situation?

(2) What do you need to measure or find out?

After you have discussed what information you need, you can then go over how to use the information to get the answer. This sort of exercise will reveal what level of knowledge the students have (what facts they know) and their level of insight (how good they are at applying the facts). It will also allow any misconceptions or uncertainties the students have to surface.

There are 7 considerations for effective explanation

1. Is the explanation understood?

2. Does it interest your class?

3. Does it cover the main elements?

4 .Did you respond to your  pupils understanding?

5. Did you classify the responses?

6. Are illustrations interesting?

7. Are illustrations relevant?

We will now look at the question of examples. Effective explanation relies on illustration, analogy and the use of examples. In the task below, attention should be given in particular to these.

a) Examples

These are central to teaching new ideas and to obtaining feedback as to whether the ideas have been understood. Examples may be used:

i. To provide concrete instances or information within the learner’s experience and understanding, to lead pupils to perceive common features, and to abstract generalizations appropriate to all the specific instances.

ii. To test understanding of an idea, concept or principle, it may be applied to particular situations, for example to produce examples of the general category, to determine whether a particular phenomenon is an instance of the general relationship, or to use the general principle to solve a specific problem.

b) Using Examples

Inductive approach

It starts with examples, and infers generalization from them. The major claims are:

i. It helps students acquire skills for looking for order in an apparently pattern less set of data.

ii. Encourages divergent and creative thinking.

Deductive approach

It states the generalization first, and applies it to a number of examples. The initial statement, even if not fully understood by students, helps to focus their attention on those aspects of examples on which teacher wishes them to concentrate. Classroom observation suggests that effective explanation often occurs when first statement of aural is followed by examples and then by a second statement of the rule, for example, clarity in establishing relationship between general rule and specific examples.

1. Analogies. Compare the situation to something that is familiar to the students

2. Models. Use simple 3D models made of common objects.  use pre-school toys, tissue boxes, wire left by the repairmen, , etc, . . These models are low cost, easily replaceable, easy to see, and have great “wake ‘ up” value. They don’t have a lot of detail, which makes it easier to demonstrate the related point. Thinking about constructing a useful model or working through a good analogy helps  to see the important features of the subject matter

3. Using the Blackboard.  Prefer chalk to Power Point or overheads, especially in a small group setting such as a lab or discussion session. This is partially an aversion to technology that doesn’t always work and/or requires equipment that isn’t always provided) chalk gives much more flexibility in explaining things find it’s easier for students to take notes if one have to write it all on the board. It’s also more animated — somehow a chalk talk is more “live” than any of the other options, and therefore more interesting

4. Handouts. There are several different kinds of handouts – the first type is to help with note taking. Students have a hard time copying diagrams. It’s also difficult for the teacher to draw them perfectly. So give out handouts – 1 or 2 pp usually per class, with the basic structures and/or processes drawn the way one plan to draw them on the board. The handout helps the students follow and take notes without getting lost

In all cases, it is essential for the teacher to use examples which are relevant to student’s experience and interests, and their present level of understanding.

General errors & misunderstandings

1. Confusing technical meanings and ordinary meanings of words.

Some scientific terms have technical meanings that are very different from their commonsense meanings. For example: The teacher asks “Does burning destroy matter?” and the student says “Yes.” The teacher groans and thinks the student is an idiot. But the student is not — s/he is using the term “destroy” in its ordinary English sense, and the teacher is using it in its technical physics sense. If  the teacher’s house burns down, the house will certainly be destroyed (in the English sense), even though the atoms that were in the house have not been altered. Another example “spontaneously” in chemistry does not mean “very quickly” or “all by itself” — it means “without net input of energy.” Unfortunately, in common English spontaneously means “all by itself” and often also “very quickly.” So students think spontaneous reactions occur rapidly &/or without an enzyme. This type of difference between technical and ordinary meanings often leads to a lot of confusion, because the , book or lecturer is using the term in the technical sense, while the student is using the same term in its non-technical, commonsense meaning. Even when the student tries to use the term correctly, s/he is often confused by the connotations that the word has in common usage.

2. Using words that have technical meanings and not even realizing it.

Some ordinary English words are used as technical terms, as explained above, but experienced lecturers are so used to using these words that they often forget that these words have special meanings. So the teachers don’t define the terms and are surprised when the students don’t know what they mean

3. Getting confused between similar but not identical terms.

Certain terms seem to be difficult to get straight,. There are many pairs of terms that are very similar in meaning and that are often used sloppily even in scientific writing (and speech). To make it worse, some of these terms are synonyms in common speech, such as “inhibition” and “repression.” A good way to clear up confusion is to “compare and contrast” — compare what is similar between the two terms and contrast what is different.

Precaution for Skill of Explaining -

•            Stand in front of what you wrote.

•             Face the board as you talk.

•             Write in corners of board or wherever there is space.

•             Use jargon, abbreviations. (Verbally and on board.)

•             Erase what you just wrote before everyone has finished copying it down. (When there is plenty of other old stuff you could have erased.)

•             Skip important steps. Start explaining in the middle.

•             Take a lot of time explaining the obvious.

•             Write too small or in unintelligible handwriting.

•             Show a slide and wave the laser pointer over it. (But don’t explain what’s on the slide.)

•             Mumble.

•             Talk too fast.

•             Stare at the floor.

•             Say something very complex (like the pathway above or a description of a complex structure) and write nothing on the board.

•             Insult the students – make fun of them (or their ignorance) when they ask questions, and berate them when they don’t speak up.                . Explain how stupid, worthless, lazy, pampered etc. students are nowadays. Not like when I was a student.

•             I don’t include making actual mistakes – everyone does that! (And it’s okay if you admit it.)

•            Explanation is not in simple language.

•             It is given the shape of an advice.

•             The thought included in it is not in a sequence.  Irrelevant things are  included.

•             It is not according to the age, experience and mental level of the pupils.

•             It is complicated, lengthy and small according to the objective of the lesson.


Components of Explanatory Skill                                                     Frequencies(In Minutes)1 2 3 4 5 6

  • The words connecting the ideas/statements were used.
  • The statement used in the explanation had coordination/continuity.
  • Initial statements of the explanation were clear.
  • The language of the explanations was fluent.
  • Proper words were used in the explanation.
  • Questions were asked during explanation.
  • Relevant statements were used during explanation Yes/No.
  • Explanation also included irrelevant statement Yes/No.


Explanation separates us from astonishment, which is the only gateway to the incomprehensible.
Eugene Ionesco


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