Research School Network: Elaborative interrogation An easy-to-implement way of integrating new information with existing knowledge…with some caveats

Elaborative interrogation

An easy-to-implement way of integrating new information with existing knowledge…with some caveats

by Kingsbridge Research School
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‘I am just a child who has never grown up. I still keep asking these 'how' and 'why' questions. Occasionally, I find an answer.’ Stephen Hawking

Elaborative interrogation means that, when presented with factual information, students respond to why’ questions. Doing this helps them make links to existing knowledge. Look at this exchange:

Teacher: …and what happens to the ice?
Student: It melts.
Teacher: Why does an ice cube soon melt if you hold it in your hand?

The teacher’s why’ question prompts the students to think about heat transfer, to go beyond the fact that the ice will melt.

Let’s look at another example. A factual statement we might make about Macbeth is The witches plan to meet Macbeth after the battle.’ We can divide the statement into its subject (the witches) and its predicate (plan to meet Macbeth after the battle). A predicate is the part of a sentence or clause containing a verb and stating something about the subject – end of grammar lesson.

To use elaborative interrogation, we can either simply ask why, or rephrase the statement as a question: Why do the witches plan to meet Macbeth after the battle?‘

The point is that to answer the question, we are forced to clarify the relationship between the subject and the predicate: they plan to meet him after the battle because… Or: an ice cube held in the hand will soon melt because…

To compete this answer, we have to elaborate on or embellish the information we are given; we have to build on the information in the statement. Put another way, we are adding features to existing memory’. Weinstein et al (2018)

In contrast, a question like When do the witches plan to meet Macbeth?’ does not send us back to rummage through our existing knowledge in order to elaborate. The answer here is simple: they meet after the battle. In terms of knowledge, it’s a mic drop when what we want is a speech.

Two things might strike you about elaborative interrogation: it’s easy to implement, and it requires some prior knowledge. If a student is thinking what battle?’ or who’s Macbeth?’, then elaborative interrogation is not going to be effective.

how would you turn these factual statements into elaborative interrogation questions?

- Ada Lovelace is often referred to as the first programmer.
- π is an irrational number.
- No one liked Joffrey.

For each one, what prior knowledge might a student need to answer a why’ question?

Research note:

‘University students were given sentences to remember such as ‘‘The brave man helped the woman’’ and were asked to elaborate by answering ‘‘Why did the brave man help the woman?’’. As predicted, participants who generated answers to the ‘‘why’’ questions outperformed participants who were given elaborations in the original sentences and those who were given no elaborations. In fact, the gains were very large, with effect sizes as high as 3.0 on cued recall measure.’ O’Reilly et al (1998)

Another feature of elaborative interrogation is that it is best suited to the embellishment of individual facts, or at least this is what the research has focused on. With longer or more complex information, it’s hard to phrase a useful why’ question. Take this passage for example:

Coastal erosion is the loss or displacement of land, or the long-term removal of sediment and rocks along the coastline due to the action of waves, currents, tides, wind-driven water, waterborne ice, or other impacts of storms. The landward retreat of the shoreline can measured and described over a temporal scale of tides, seasons, and other short-term cyclic processes. Coastal erosion may be caused by hydraulic action, abrasion, impact and corrosion by wind and water, and other forces, natural or unnatural. (, 2019)

It’s difficult to see how we might capture that in a single why’ question, although we could break it into smaller statements.

Can the teacher provide the elaboration for the students? Yes, but it’s more effective if the students do it themselves. However, this also means that their answers need checking.

Research note:

‘It is important that students check their answers with their materials or with the teacher; when the content generated through elaborative interrogation is poor, it can actually hurt learning (Clinton, Alibali, & Nathan, 2016).’ Weinstein et al (2018)

Elaborative interrogation is even more effective if it prompts processing of similarities and differences between related information. Asking why’ questions often entails this kind of thinking: most elaborative-interrogation prompts explicitly or implicitly invite processing of both similarities and differences between related entities (e.g., why a fact would be true of one province versus other provinces)’ Dunlosky et al. (2013)

To return to our Macbeth example, we could ask Why might the witches plan to meet Macbeth after rather than before the battle?’ to have their elaboration consider the two conditions.

Dunlosky et al (2013) rated elaborative interrogation as having moderate utility’. As mentioned, it’s easy to implement and not time-consuming, but it’s worth stressing that students need to be able to check their answers if they’re not to damage their learning. It’s also worth noting that it is effective in response to cued recall; less effective when not cued’. O’Reilly et al (1998)

What does this mean? That if the student is given a prompt like The witches plan to meet _____ after rather than before ___________ because…’, they will recall the answer and their related thinking. But with no prompt, this is less likely to be the case. This means that we should be cautious about using elaborative interrogation – by itself, it’s not a guarantee that new information will make its way to long-term memory.

Check your understanding:

- Why is it important for students to check answers when using elaborative interrogation?
- Why is elaborative interrogation less effective when students have low prior knowledge?
- Why might elaborative interrogation be a better way to add to existing memory compared to simple recall?
- Why should we be cautious about relying too heavily on elaborative interrogation?

Download our PDF guide below


O’Reilly, T., Symons, S. and MacLatchy-Gaudet, H. (1998). A Comparison of Self-Explanation and Elaborative Interrogation. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 23(4), pp.434 – 445.

Weinstein, Y., Madan, C. and Sumeracki, M. (2018). Teaching the science of learning. Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications, 3(1).

Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K., Marsh, E., Nathan, M. and Willingham, D. (2013). Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14(1), pp.4 – 58. (2019). Coastal erosion. [online] Available at:… [Accessed 22 Oct. 2019].

quotes, P. (2019). Professor Stephen Hawking: 13 of his most inspirational quotes. [online] Available at:… [Accessed 22 Oct. 2019].

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