How to Learn Better Using Elaboration


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Learning by asking “why” can keep you intellectually curious and also improve learning. By asking “why” you keep delving deeper and learn more about a subject. This is one of the pillars of Elaboration or Elaborative Interrogation. It also involves connecting what you already know with new information. Elaboration is a great technique to master in order to learn better and internalize learning. Let’s look at how you can use Elaboration to become a better learner.

Elaboration: Quick Look

What is Elaboration?

Elaboration or Elaborative Interrogation is a process of delving deeper into a subject to thoroughly master it. It involves expressing newly learned material in your own words and connecting the new information with what you already know.

Explaining what you learned to yourself or to someone else in your own words improves learning. In addition, establishing connections between the new information and what you already know also improves learning. You can use this practice for pretty much any field of study: programming, math, pharmacology, or even history. According to the authors of Make it Stick:

“The more you can explain about the way your new learning relates to your prior knowledge, the stronger your grasp of the new learning will be, and the more connections you create that will help you remember it later.”

How to Use Elaboration to Learn?

Now that we know the basic idea, let’s look at how we can actually use Elaboration or Elaborative Interrogation to learn much more effectively.

Connecting to What You Know

One of the main motives behind Elaboration is to build on your existing knowledge base.

Building on what you know
Once you have learned something, explaining how your newly gained knowledge relates to what you already know leads to better learning.

It helps you remember what you learned better. This practice also enables you to read actively or engage actively with what you are learning.

You can also utilize this practice of building on what you know to refine a process you are familiar with. For example, how would you do something you already know better the next time with this newly gained knowledge?

Creating or Adding Mental Cues

Learning is much more natural if you correlate what you learn to things in real life. For example, to get a better understanding of conduction, you could visualize a hot cup of coffee with your hands around it.

Holding a cup of coffee

Mechanical repetition can help you get by in the short term but it does not serve you well in the long term. According to the authors of Make it Stick:

“If you’re just engaging in mechanical repetition, it’s true, you quickly hit the limit of what you can keep in mind. However, if you practice elaboration, there’s no known limit to how much you can learn”

Creating mental cues also makes retrieving what you learned easier from memory. These mental cues can reflexively trigger the appropriate response. This reflexive response reduces introspection time when applying what you have learned, especially in an emergency.


Another way to better relate to the content you are learning is by explaining it to someone or yourself as simply as possible. This is the basic idea behind The Feynman Technique:

  1. Choose a concept to learn
  2. Write the concept down like you would explain it to a child
  3. Identify the gaps and understand the concepts better
  4. Review and Simplify
Self-Explanation helps you understand what you learn without the complex jargon while also helping you identify the gaps in your knowledge. We tend to lean on the technical terms without delving too deep into what they actually entail.

Self-Explanation using something like The Feynman Technique is an opportunity to truly knowing what you understand and what you do not.

Benefits of Elaboration

Let’s explore some of the benefits of using Elaboration to learn.

Active Engagement and Intellectual Curiosity

Instead of passively consuming the learning material or mechanically memorizing something, using Elaboration keeps you actively engaged with what you are learning.

Intellectual Curiosity

Practicing Elaboration requires you to assimilate what you learn and also connect the new knowledge to what you already know. You keep asking “why” or “how” to get to the root of the topic which helps you stay intellectually curious.

Refine an Existing Process

Let’s understand this with an example. One of my friends used a simple Excel sheet to store data and read it using Python. The size of the Excel sheet kept growing due to the addition of more data. It eventually got to a point where just reading the Excel sheet in Python took a really long time.

Excel to SQL

Because my friend had started learning more about database design and SQL, he realized he can store and read the data much more efficiently using SQL instead of Excel. He kept relating everything he was learning about databases with what he knew about reading and storing data.

If you already know how to handle a situation, learning something new can give you a better and more efficient method to handle the same situation (if it comes up in the future).

Better Retrieval

Because you tend to look for visualizations and create mental cues using Elaboration, it becomes easier to recall the required information from memory. Better Retrieval using this practice internalizes learning and helps you recall what you learned reflexively. Read more about Retrieval Practice here.

Retrieval Practice and Elaboration can be practiced more efficiently when combined with other learning techniques like Spaced Repetition and Interleaving.

Other Resources

Make it Stick

Drawing from vast amounts of research, Make it Stick explains all the techniques you would need to look at learning as a long term endeavor. The main objective of the book is to equip you to be able to retain what you learn and recall that information in real-life situations. This is a great book to get acquainted with how we can learn better with techniques that seem counterintuitive at first.

Buy on Amazon

Retrieval Practice

After learning something the first time, it is important to be able to retrieve this piece of information in order to apply your knowledge creatively in the right situation. The main goal of Retrieval Practice is to internalize what you have learned. Internalization helps you to apply what you learned in a situation reflexively.

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Feynman Technique

Richard Feynman came up with The Feynman Technique which is a simple four-step process to learn anything better. The Feynman Technique helps you identify gaps in your knowledge while being simple enough to apply universally to any topic you want to learn.

Learn More

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