A young woman concentrates as she writes an explanationTo Explain something,
you must begin with understanding it

An excellent method of verbal processing is to explain what you have read in the textbook or heard in a lecture, now using your own worlds.  People have been saying this for years but students rarely do this.

Juanita is concentrating as she writes an explanation. It helps her understand the material better and she knows it will help on the essay questions on exams.

Writing an explanation is NOT the same as writing a summary.

Generally when you write a summary, you cover the main ideas for an entire chapter or part of a chapter.

When you write an explanation, you will usually be writing about a short section of material that is hard to understand.  You will be making connections, not just saying what happened but how it happened.

Examples of using Explanation

1. Explain vocabulary terms in your own words. This makes them easier to understand ad remember.

2. Explain an important procedure such as photosynthesis or cell division. Here you will want to list the steps in order, explaining what took place in each step. It should make sense to the reader.

3. You might be asked to explain the branches of the government. In this and with many other questions, you will really be comparing. You could begin with a compare and contrast chart to think of different areas of comparisons. You might begin by listing how they are all similar. Then you might describe each of the three branches of government, explaining how they are different. It is best to keep this information parallel. That is, if you describe how the leadership is selected for one branch of government, you should explain it for all three branches. If you discuss the importance of one branch, do it for all the branches. It is best to do this is the same order.

4. Your literature teacher told you how to analyze a plot. Explain it briefly in your own words. You might use a chart showing cause and effect to explain the events. What character flaw or other problem caused this character to do something wrong? What goals or motives caused others to act differently?

5. Sometimes you might explain, based on a timeline or comparison of several timelines. You might check of the multiple timelines on the Civil Rights Movement. If you were asked to explain how the actions of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. or the actions of the people involved in the Civil Rights Movement affected the decisions of the Supreme Court or laws passed in congress, such information would help you write a clear explanation.

Clear explanations can help you improve grades on essay tests

You rarely get an essay question that asks you to write a summary. Questions often begin with “Explain”  This means that when you practice writing clear explanations of the material you are learning, you will understand the material better and be well-prepared for essay questions.

Writing an explanation is similar to writing a summary. It will begin with an introduction, have several paragraphs for main ideas, and end with a conclusion. The details are different in several ways.

1. Explaining often involves defining important terms and why they are important.

2. You might be asked to explain the causes of a war,  the outbreak of the plague, or earthquakes. Here you will use “cause and effect” to answer the question.  NOTE: Watch your spelling. The word, “affect” is usually used as a verb meaning changing. The economic problems may affect the government.  The word “effect” is usually used as a noun meaning the result of.  The effect of the economic problems was increasing unemployment.

If you are writing about cause and effect, it is important to spell these words correctly. You might use a simple clue. When you describe “the effect, note that the last letter of the and the first letter of effect are the same.  For affect you could use maaffect.  I have also heard people connect result and effect. Actually, if you learn only one of these, you can figure out the opposite.

2. You are sometimes to explain a process such as photosynthesis. Here, you can use numbered steps instead of ordinary paragraphs. You won’t be summarizing all the information you have about photosynthesis. You will stick to the process itself. You might also include simple diagrams to clarify what you are saying.

3. Sometimes you will be explaining relationships such the relationships between the characters in a novel.. There are several ways to do this, but the easiest is to begin with one character and describe their relationships with other important characters. In another paragraphs take a different character and describe all their relationships.

4. You might be asked to explain what you think on a topic and give your reasons why. Use the introduction to describe the topic and the alternatives. Then you must state what you believe.

Then in short paragraphs, give at least 3-5 good reasons, beginning with the strongest. Unlike the paragraphs in a summary, you should have more but shorter paragraphs, especially if you have a fairly long list of reasons.  Your summary will re-state your opinion, perhaps saying which reasons were most important in your decision.

Using Explanation when studying

As you listen to a lecture, you might make a note EXP next to material you think you might be asked to explain.  When you are reading your textbook and writing “Reading Notes”, you can also add the EXP to indicate that it would helpful if you could explain that section in your own words.

If, when writing an explanation, you find that you CANNOT explain something clearly, you should go back and check your notes or the book to answer your questions. If that doesn’t help, check the Internet. If you are still confused, discuss the topic with your professor. This will help you move from the usual “I sort of understand this idea” to “I understand this idea clearly.” You are thus moving from listening or reading to real learning.

You might also look at Discuss, Debate, Argue


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