The role of explanation in discovery and generalization: Evidence from category learning

Joseph J. Williams, Tania Lombrozo

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

145 Scopus citations


Research in education and cognitive development suggests that explaining plays a key role in learning and generalization: When learners provide explanations-even to themselves-they learn more effectively and generalize more readily to novel situations. This paper proposes and tests a subsumptive constraints account of this effect. Motivated by philosophical theories of explanation, this account predicts that explaining guides learners to interpret what they are learning in terms of unifying patterns or regularities, which promotes the discovery of broad generalizations. Three experiments provide evidence for the subsumptive constraints account: prompting participants to explain while learning artificial categories promotes the induction of a broad generalization underlying category membership, relative to describing items (Exp. 1), thinking aloud (Exp. 2), or free study (Exp. 3). Although explaining facilitates discovery, Experiment 1 finds that description is more beneficial for learning item details. Experiment 2 additionally suggests that explaining anomalous observations may play a special role in belief revision. The findings provide insight into explanation's role in discovery and generalization.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)776-806
Number of pages31
JournalCognitive science
Issue number5
StatePublished - Jul 2010
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Artificial Intelligence
  • Cognitive Neuroscience


  • Anomalies
  • Category learning
  • Explanation
  • Generalization
  • Learning
  • Self-explanation
  • Transfer


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