Pre-question your way to answers

When revising, is it better to re-read your notes or answer a set of questions?

Published - September 06, 2020 01:00 am IST



In an earlier article, I had elaborated on the benefits of testing as an effective learning strategy. Questioning yourself after reading a chapter is more likely to result in robust learning, as opposed to merely reviewing the contents by re-reading.

While the effects of testing or questioning on learning has been well-established by cognitive psychologists, recent research provides one more strategy to boost your understanding and retention.

In a blog post of the British Psychological Society, Christian Jarrett describes a study conducted by psychologists Shana Carpenter and Alexander Toftness and published in the Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition .

Is it worthwhile answering questions even before I know anything on a topic?: Apparently, yes. For their study, Carpenter and Toftness asked students to watch a video on the history of Easter Island. The video was divided into three sections and, before each, the experimental group was asked to try answering two questions related to the “upcoming video content”. In most instances, students failed to answer correctly and no feedback was shared with them. The control group was not given these pre-questions and had to press the space bar to continue to the next video section.

After viewing the three sections, all students were given 12 questions related to the video. The experimental group had seen half the questions before, while the remaining six questions were new to them. The control group hadn’t seen any of the questions earlier.

Which group performed better?: The group that encountered pre-questions did better than the control group, not only on the questions seen earlier but also on the new ones. Researchers believe that pre-questions serve as an “orienting device”, motivating viewers to focus on salient and relevant details. Additionally, when we try to answer questions, we understand the limits of our knowledge and may, thus, try to pay more attention when watching content.

Do readers of text also benefit from pre-questions?: Pre-questions are especially useful in a video format because viewers typically do not skip content. In contrast, when reading, previous studies have found, some students focus only on answering the pre-questions while omitting other content. On the other hand, when readers are coaxed into reading the entire text by asking them to rate the “comprehensibility of each paragraph”, they seem to gain from pre-questions without losing out on other aspects of the text.

What about lectures?: While research is still limited, pre-questions are likely to benefit students when they listen to short lectures. For longer lectures, pre-questions don’t seem effective unless perhaps, a question is introduced before every subtopic. Educators and researchers may experiment with pre-questions as a pedagogic tool to fine tune our understanding of what types of questions work best, under what conditions.

To conclude, here is a question to assess whether you paid attention to the contents of this article: When reading text, what is a potential risk of using pre-questions?

The writer is Director, PRAYATNA.

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