Elaboration and Elaborative Interrogation


Elaboration involves making connections between new information and related information retrieved from prior learning

  • used as a cognitive learning strategy to improve the storage and retrieval of new information

Elaborative interrogation (EI) is a questioning technique that requires learners to process information by asking “why?” questions

  • An example of an elaborative learning strategy
  • The evidence base for Elaborative Interrogation is described by Dunlosky et al (2013)



  • new information undergoes multistage cognitive processing in different memory stores, first passing through sensory channels, then entering working memory before becoming part of long-term memory
  • decreases cognitive load by using schemas from long-term memory
  • improves retention by incorporating new information into schemas in long-term memory
  • generates more cues for ease of information retrieval
  • leads to the development of more sophisticated metal models (schema) for the understanding of new information and application of knowledge and skills

Elaborative interrogation

  • questions are used to prompt learners to generate explanations for explicitly stated facts
    • e.g. “why?”
    • e.g. “Why is this true?”
    • e.g. “Why does this make sense?”
    • e.g. “Why is is this true of X, but not true of Y?”


Elaboration is more effective when the memories being encoded are “rich” and “distinctive”

  • “Richness” is the number of interconnections between new information and related prior knowledge
    • e.g. ask: “how many different ways does this new information relate to your prior experience?”
  • “Distinctive” encoding occurs when there the differences among the items of new information is actively processed
    • e.g. ask: “how do the different components of this new information fit together?”

Elaborative interrogation is more effective when:

  • used for associative memory learning
  • involves processing of similarities and differences
  • elaborations are precise rather than imprecise
  • prior knowledge is greater
  • elaborations are self-generated rather than provided


Elaborative interrogation can be used effectively for:

  • incidental or intentional learning instructions
  • individual learning, but benefits have also been shown for dyads and small groups
  • different kinds of learners (e.g. evidence from upper elementary school through to undergraduates)
  • a wide range of content domains (e.g. evidence from physiology, neuropsychology and various fields of science)
  • associative memory tasks (most studies involve discrete factual statements)
    • cued recall (e.g. Which fact is true?)
    • matching (e.g. match facts on two lists that correspond)
    • fact recognition

Elaborative interrogation may have learning benefits for:

  • generative tasks (e.g. free recall; the evidence is less consistent)
  • comprehension and the application of factual information (mixed evidence)
  • durable learning (however most studies have short-term outcomes, positive studies up to 180 days may have been contaminated by practice during previous tests)

Elaborative learning strategies are easy to implement

  • Elaborative interrogation adds little time to study (about 15% longer in one study)
  • Requires little or no training
  • Can be self-performed


Controversies remain:

  • How important to the effectiveness of elaborative learning are:
    • prior knowledge?
    • the nature of the elaborative strategy? (self-generated versus teacher/author-generated?)
    • the nature of the material (e.g. text coherence, authenticity)
    • the quality of the elaboration? (e.g. precision, plausibility, and accuracy)
  • How useful are elaborative strategies for:
    • more complex learning? (e.g. problem-solving in real world environments)
    • post-graduates and workplace learning?

It is unclear if Elaborative Interrogation is useful for:

  • free recall
  • comprehension
  • learning from lengthier texts, rather than fact lists and shorter texts ( does effect may lesson if questions are asked infrequently)
  • durable, sustained learning

Most studies are laboratory-based, limiting real world applicability


Elaborative learning strategies are considered among the more powerful learning strategies and should be used by learners

  • Elaborative interrogation is a useful technique, described by Dunlosky et al (2013) as having ‘moderate utility’
  • Easy to implement with few downsides
  • concerns remain about applicability to more complex learning tasks (e.g. lengthier texts, problem-solving and devloping comprehension)

Journal articles

  • Wiesbauer F. Teaching Masterclass: The Psychology of Learning. Medmastery
  • Dunlosky J, Rawson KA, Marsh EJ, Nathan MJ, Willingham DT. Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology. Psychological science in the public interest : a journal of the American Psychological Society. 14(1):4-58. 2013. [pubmed]

Chris is an Intensivist and ECMO specialist at the Alfred ICU in Melbourne. He is also a Clinical Adjunct Associate Professor at Monash University. He is a co-founder of the Australia and New Zealand Clinician Educator Network (ANZCEN) and is the Lead for the ANZCEN Clinician Educator Incubator programme. He is on the Board of Directors for the Intensive Care Foundation and is a First Part Examiner for the College of Intensive Care Medicine. He is an internationally recognised Clinician Educator with a passion for helping clinicians learn and for improving the clinical performance of individuals and collectives.

After finishing his medical degree at the University of Auckland, he continued post-graduate training in New Zealand as well as Australia’s Northern Territory, Perth and Melbourne. He has completed fellowship training in both intensive care medicine and emergency medicine, as well as post-graduate training in biochemistry, clinical toxicology, clinical epidemiology, and health professional education.

He is actively involved in in using translational simulation to improve patient care and the design of processes and systems at Alfred Health. He coordinates the Alfred ICU’s education and simulation programmes and runs the unit’s education website, INTENSIVE.  He created the ‘Critically Ill Airway’ course and teaches on numerous courses around the world. He is one of the founders of the FOAM movement (Free Open-Access Medical education) and is co-creator of litfl.com, the RAGE podcast, the Resuscitology course, and the SMACC conference.

His one great achievement is being the father of three amazing children.

On Twitter, he is @precordialthump.

| INTENSIVE | RAGE | Resuscitology | SMACC

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