Welcome to our community of educators.  Read from other teachers and share your learning.

Analyze and Explain and Student Thinking

Analyze and explain.  These words haunt me.   These seemingly innocuous pieces of the English language have become a quest for me to understand.   We see analyze and explain consistently showing up in questions for students in practically every grade level, but when I recently asked a group of students to define “explain”, I was given responses like “more detail” and “elaborate” and “you know, explain”.  So, how has this happened?  How could a group of 11th and 12th graders not understand these fundamental questioning terms?


In my typical over-thinking and simplistic mind, I needed a way to articulate what we mean when we ask students to analyzeand explain. I’ve lumped the two terms together for 2 reasons.  1.  The terms are linked together cognitively.  An individual cannot do one without the other.  2.  The CCSS writing standards do not delineate between the two cognitive processes.  In fact, a quick search using Google turns up the definition for analysis that includes “typically for purposes of explanation” (italics added for emphasis).   I’m convinced that when we ask students to analyze or explain, either through speaking or writing, what we really are asking students to do is recognize the unique relationship that exist between the subject matter and the student’s understanding.  We are asking them to provide their thinking about a specific process, event, situation, or knowledge.  Let’s examine a few questions, each from a different content.



Explain how the data in the table above provide evidence that HA is a weak acid rather than a strong acid.


U.S. History

 Analyze how western expansion contributed to growing sectional tensions between the North and the South. Confine your answer to the period from 1800 to 1850.



Then write an essay in which you analyze the rhetorical strategies President Kennedy uses to achieve his purpose. Support your analysis with specific references to the text.


In each question, students are being asked to take a situation, data, an event, and analyze the unique relationship in the situation.  Questions 2 and 3 though do not include the word explain.  Why?  I believe that it’s an implied explain.  Students must infer that the question is asking them for an explanation of their thinking.  Based upon the definitions of explain solicited from students, no one said anything about thinking.  Somehow, students have learned that analyze and explain aren’t about their thinking.  


I do believe that the there is a solution.  The Common Core State Standards (#CCSS) provide guidance and a skeletal framework for analyze and explain.  Beginning with the 6-12 E/LA writing standards and specifically Standard 2: 


“Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas, concepts, and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content.”  (Bold and italics added for emphasis this time) 


The History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects Writing Standard 2 is also closely aligned to the E/LA Standard:


“Introduce a topic and organize complex ideas, concepts, and information so that each new element builds on that which precedes it to create a unified whole”


But, there is that word again analysis, always linked to its partner explain.  In informative/explanatory writing the “selection, organization … of content” is the analysis.  Our job is to demonstrate for students and create experiences that allow them to “convey complex ideas, concepts, and information”.  It’s the relationship between the ideas and complexities in addition to the selection and organization of information that reveals the student’s ability to analyze and explain, to reveal his/her thinking. 


I don’t know if I’ve done a good enough job at teaching these explicit skills to students.  In an effort to refine my instruction, I’ve begun a process of applying the “patterns of organization” – causation, contrast, process, and definition specifically - to the types of thinking we ask students to do in specific contents.  The early results suggest that it’s not as simple as I first thought.  The patterns of organization that are important in English/Language Arts aren’t necessarily the ones that matter in U.S. History.  Even more significantly, the daily instructional experiences students need in order to analyze and explain in a specific content are also different.  Surprisingly, one size does NOT fit all.  This is significant because if we are asking students to perform cognitively challenging assessments, then we must provide them access to cognitively challenging instructional experiences.  We must identify and refine the instruction in each of our content areas that will allow students to understand how historians, scientists, novelists, and engineers think. 


The work has been slow, but there have been some insights.  The assessment questions posed earlier have helped refine my instruction for students because we have learned to use the characteristics of the question to create the appropriate relationship, to establish the appropriate pattern of organization. 


Another insight is that analyze and explain are not very important words in the question.  They provide little direction for the students.  They don’t know what they really mean.  So instead, the question’s characteristics determine how the student must explain.  The question reveals whether it is looking for causation, contrast, definition or process.  The really tricky part is that students must make this decision prior to writing.  They must think and organize before writing. 


As the path continues to reveal itself, I plan on continuing the conversation.  If you have already traveled this road, please, reach out and give me the shortcut.  You can find us on Twitter at @the_explicator (me) or @kastidham (Kelly).


Again, thanks for reading.  And Explaining.

Everything Isn't an Argument

Getting the Most From our Best