Kristin Harrington
Girl looks at computer screen while educators look on.

Educators are constantly looking for the latest strategy, tech tool or trend to use with students. But sometimes it’s the long-established strategies — backed by research — that can make the biggest impact. This lesson incorporates the elaboration strategy, turbocharged using Flipgrid videos.  

What is elaboration?

Most of us have been engaging in elaboration without knowing it since we were 3 years old. It is the why and how questions that drive parents up the wall, and the questions that teachers wish their students would ask without prompting.

Elaborative interrogation is a learning strategy in which students ask how and why questions while reading a text or learning a concept. The goal is to delve deeper and develop a better understanding of the concept. Other elaboration strategies involve making comparisons between two ideas and connecting a concept to prior knowledge or life experiences.

Several studies have found that elaborative interrogation successfully helped students improve their reading comprehension. In order to be effective, students need to have some prior knowledge of the concept they are reading about, and scaffolding is necessary to ensure students are asking relevant questions that help them grasp the central idea of a text or concept. In this post, I share how I tried to implement elaborative interrogation (or elaboration) in a classroom using Flipgrid and what I learned from this experience.

The activity: Elaboration using Flipgrid

In my role as an educational technology coach, I regularly model lessons and collaborate with teachers. For a little over a month, I worked with Mrs. Pasterjak’s third grade students to use elaboration with Flipgrid. Elaboration was incorporated during science and social studies station rotations. We chose science and social studies topics that students were learning, ensuring they already had some background information about what they were reading.

To begin, we discussed how and why questions, read a text together as a group and modeled the types of questions that they could ask themselves. After the introduction, students practiced elaboration independently during station rotations, reading an article in their Social Studies Weekly newspaper while writing their questions and thoughts in their journals.

Using the graphic organizer below, students were prompted to read the article, then refer to the graphic organizer to develop their questions, connections and comparisons.

Next, they met with their teacher during small group instruction, where she helped clarify the strategy and identify errors in reasoning.

Then, students proceeded to film themselves discussing the how and why questions they had, along with any connections or comparisons they were able to make. After recording in Flipgrid, students played their peers’ videos and responded by answering their questions.

I think that students put more effort into creating their questions because we assigned them to ask how and why questions of their peers, rather than answering their own questions. We also watched several videos together, discussing whether the students created how and why questions (some didn’t), and if we thought the questions they asked would help them better understand the concepts in the text.

Using Flipgrid for students to share their questions, comparisons and connections with their classmates helped engage students in using the strategy by providing an authentic audience and it allowed students to develop their skills as creative communicators, specifically practicing ISTE Standard 6 to communicate clearly and express themselves creatively for a variety of purposes using the platforms, tools, styles, formats and digital media appropriate to their goals. I also felt that Flipgrid might help struggling students better understand the strategy by listening to the responses from their peers. Turns out, this is supported by the learning sciences — we learn by observing others (it's called observational learning or modeling).

What did elaboration look like in my classroom?

As students thought about their how and why questions and made connections and comparisons, they were pausing between paragraphs and taking notes. We also observed students who appeared to be motivated to re-read the text, eagerly picking up the passage and excited to share their responses with us before recording their videos.

Some individual student responses showed a lot of promise for how elaboration can help students dive deeper into a topic and increase their understanding. In the reading passage from “Cheche the Black Rhino,” students read about a black rhino who is raised in a captive breeding program.

The main takeaways from this passage are about how animals in captivity, particularly black rhinos, are raised. It also provides information about endangered and near-extinct animals, as well as the transition from captivity to the wild.

In his video, Kelly, one of the students, asked, “Why do they put the tracker on, and how do they put the tracker on?” This referred to the last part of the passage that detailed the steps caretakers were taking to release Cheche back into the wild. Kelly hadn’t heard of trackers before, and his question prompted him and other students to consider why and how trackers are used, perhaps prompting further research.

Another student, Jackson, compared wild animals to those in captivity and asked, “How can we help almost-extinct animals?” 

Does elaboration help my kids?

Prior to beginning this lesson, students read the passage one time and then completed an anticipation guide that served as a pre/post test to help determine the effectiveness of elaboration to improve reading comprehension. The anticipation guide is a series of true-and-false questions used to determine prior knowledge of concepts and prepare students for the material they will be learning. This sample shows the types of questions we asked to determine student comprehension of the passages.

Overall the anticipation guide pre/post test scores showed slight increases with the use of the elaboration strategy. Additionally, this increase widened slightly each week and by the third week, correct answers increased from an average of 8.07 to 8.91 out of 10.

Additionally, students who demonstrated a better grasp on the strategy (made relevant comparisons and connections, asked relevant how/why questions) answered 9-10 questions correctly, while students who struggled with using the strategy scored 5-6 questions correctly.

So, overall, it appears elaboration helped with comprehension. There is always a chance, though, that a “novelty effect” was in play, i.e. students were paying more attention since they are engaging in a new strategy or new classroom environment with an additional teacher in the room. Moreover, there were challenges in how we implemented elaboration in our classroom.


Challenges and solutions

When is a classroom without challenges? When implementing elaboration in our class, we observed a few of them.

With the technology: Several students were rushing through the text in order to create their videos (the “fun” part). When this was apparent, we sent students back to re-read the passage and develop more thoughtful questions. How can a strategy be effective if the students didn’t engage in it?

Next time, I will ask students to read the text and take notes on day one and record their videos on day two, allowing only those with approved responses to record. This will discourage rushing and help students produce quality work while focusing more on elaboration. In fact, this approach of breaking the activity into two days adopts two more strategies grounded in the learning sciences called spacing (or spaced practice) and retrieval practice. When combined, spaced retrieval practice can boost learning!

With the strategy: Another challenge was getting students to ask questions that were relevant to the central ideas described in the text. For example, one student asked, “How long did the black rhino stay at the orphanage?” This question focuses on the individual rhino, rather than generalizing to the larger concepts of how black rhinos and other animals live in captivity. The next time, I will plan to ask struggling students to start with writing how and why questions about the text, and later add comparisons and connections. Also, infusing elaboration into class discussions and lessons will help students become more skilled at this strategy and encourage them to use elaborative interrogation without prompting.

With the material: The Social Studies Weekly text offered additional challenges for students, as it provided some “fun facts” or details that kept students engaged but often divert them from the central idea of the text. Learning scientist Narayankripa Sundararajan explains in this infographic that these diversions are “seductive details,” often intended to engage or garner attention, but instead distract students and can lead to poor learning outcomes. Next time, we will review passages and texts to uncover those “seductive details” and help them remain focused on the central idea in the text.

Kristin Harrington (@KristinCHarr) is an educational technology coach for Flagler County Schools in Florida. She is an ISTE PLN leader and co-moderator for #FLedChat, which takes place on Twitter each Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET. This post was written in collaboration with NarayanKripa Sundararajan (@KripaSundar), learning sciences specialist at ISTE.

This blog post is part of the Course of Mind project, an ISTE initiative made possible in part by a grant from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative DAF, an advised fund of Silicon Valley Community Foundation. Tell us what you’ve learned and your story with us @courseofmind.