AbstractLanguage Models (LMs) can perform new tasks by adapting to a few in-context examples. For humans, explanations that connect examples to task principles can improve learning. We therefore investigate whether explanations of few-shot examples can help LMs. We annotate questions from 40 challenging tasks with answer explanations, and various matched control explanations. We evaluate how different types of explanations, instructions, and controls affect zero- and few-shot performance. We analyze these results using statistical multilevel modeling techniques that account for the nested dependencies among conditions, tasks, prompts, and models. We find that explanations can improve performance—even without tuning. Furthermore, explanations hand-tuned for performance on a small validation set offer substantially larger benefits, and building a prompt by selecting examples and explanations together substantially improves performance over selecting examples alone. Finally, even untuned explanations outperform carefully matched controls, suggesting that the benefits are due to the link between an example and its explanation, rather than lower-level features. However, only large models benefit. In summary, explanations can support the in-context learning of large LMs on challenging tasks.