ATD Blog

Why You Should Add Self-Explanation Questions to Multiple-Choice Questions

Thursday, April 2, 2015

One way to help ensure deeper understanding of content by learners is to drill into what the learner was thinking when they chose a particular multiple-choice answer. The goal is to find out “why” a learner chose a particular answer. This can help the learner to think through an answer rather than quickly put down any answer. It also can help diagnosis why an answer was wrong.

Research indicates that learners who are better able to explain to themselves the reasons for employing a particular solution step profited more than learners less capable of doing so. To help promote deeper understanding it can be beneficial to ask learners to “self-explain” a reason for an answer. Sometimes it is a verbal explanation and sometimes it can be in the form of a follow up multiple choice question.

Using this technique, the learner is required to answer a question about a step in a process and then identify why he or she chose that particular answer. This has been found to be an effective method for helping learners to grasp new information.

The learner is asked to answer a question about the next step or the current step in a process and then identify the underlying principle, concept or rationale behind their answer. This process requires the learner to identify the principle that supports the step demonstrated or question answered in the process.

Here is an example of an initial question from a pharmaceutical sales course in which the learner is learning a sales model. After the learner answers the first question, they are presented with the self-explanation follow up question. 


First question: Which of the following responses is correct based on the questions asked by the Doctor?

  1. Yes, the contra indictors need to be monitored?
  2. Let me recap the contra indictors for you before I leave your office.
  3. So that explains all the contra indicators, thanks for your time.
  4. Thank you, I know your time is short. I will just leave these samples and go. 

Self-Explanation Follow-Up Question: In this instance, why is it important to verbally recap the doctor’s questions about contra indicators?

  1. Provides the doctor win an opportunity to give you m ore details.
  2. Establishes that you are listening actively to her issues.
  3. Let’s you tailor her questions to match the benefits of the product.
  4. Demonstrates your knowledge f the benefits of the product. 

The use of self-explanation questions encourages learners to process the underlying principles behind the steps or model by having them identify the rationale behind each step in a process. It helps ensure that they know the model behind the answer. 
Bottom line: Research indicates that instructional designers should consider adding self-explanation prompts, as they do seem to enhance learning. What do you think? Share your opinions and experiences in the Comments. 



Atkinson, R.K., Renkl, A., & Merrill, M.M. (2003) Transitioning from studying examples to solving problems: Effects of self-explanation prompts and fading worked out steps. Journal of Educational Psychology, 95(4), 774-783.    

Clark, R.C., & Mayer, R. E. (2011) E-Learning and the Science of Instruction. 3rd Ed. Pfeiffer. 231-233. 

Huang, X, & Reiser, R. A. (2012). The Effect of Instructional Explanations and Self-explanation Prompts in Worked Examples on Student Learning and Transfer. International Journal of Instructional Media, 39(4), 331-344.    

About the Author

Karl Kapp, Ed.D. is a professor of instructional design and technology at Commonwealth University, Bloomsburg Campus. He is an internationally recognized expert, consultant, and instructor on the convergence of learning, technology, and business. Follow him on LinkedIn at and email at [email protected].

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