Questioning Improves Your Learning if You Ask the Right Questions

Using Better Questioning StrategiesQuestioning others is a great way to expose yourself to new ideas and perspectives. You can even use questioning strategies to figure out if others really know what they’re talking about. But other people aren’t always around. Sometimes you are all you’ve got. Luckily research shows that you can learn a great deal from questioning yourself.

In fact, questioning yourself can help you overcome two common obstacles to learning. One is the Lazy Learner syndrome and the other the Total Recall delusion. (These are entirely fictitious labels designed to pique your curiosity and increase the likelihood that you remember this information about questioning later.)

The Lazy Learner syndrome afflicts all of us at some point or another. It’s difficult to self-diagnose because our minds often trick us into believing that we aren’t being lazy even when we are. A lazy learner is someone who creates only the simplest possible mental representation of what they hear or read. This is a representation that allows them to verify whether or not they understand the information right then and there.

This simple representation can be deceptive. It provides a comforting feeling of understanding. But, it’s pretty useless for remembering the information later on.

Just because you understand something doesn’t mean you’ll remember it.

This self-deception may in fact be what makes us vulnerable to the Total Recall delusion. You know you’ve experienced it if this sounds familiar… It’s 2AM and you’re cramming for a test tomorrow. The Doritos are all gone and yours is the only light still on. You stare at a richly detailed diagram of the reproductive system, and think “There’s no way I won’t remember this tomorrow.”

It’s hard to imagine forgetting when the information is right in front of you.

To overcome these afflictions and learn effectively you need mental representations that help you both understand and remember.

Research has shown that questioning, or asking and answering your own questions when you read a textbook can help you create such representations. But, you may be asking, are there some questioning strategies that will help me more?

Do All Questions Help You Learn?

Julie Bugg and Mark McDaniel at Washington University in St. Louis set out to answer that question. They designed a study that would help determine if the Benefits of Question Self-Generation and Answering depend on the types of questions learners ask. They published their findings recently in the Journal of Educational Psychology.

In their study three groups of participants read several paragraphs of text. Two groups were instructed to generate and answer their own questions as they read these paragraphs. Only, each group was asked to generate different types of questions.

One group was asked to generate detail questions. The other was asked to generate conceptual questions.

  • Detail questions can be answered by referring to a detail or fact that could be found within a single sentence in the text. An example of a detail question was, “How many square miles in size is Antarctica’s great ice cap?” The answer, “six million,” could be found in one sentence.
  • Conceptual questions can only be answered by integrating information from at least two different sentences. For example, “Give two reasons why it is impossible to create a map of the crevasses in Antarctica.” To answer this question, participants had to combine two pieces of information.

Both groups were given examples of their question type and the opportunity to practice generating questions. The last group of participants was asked to simply read the paragraphs twice.

After studying the paragraphs all participants were asked to judge how well they would remember the information. Then they were all given the same test. This test contained both detail and conceptual questions.

No Stupid Questions, Only Better Questions

There may be no such thing as a stupid question, but some questions don’t help you get smarter. Bugg and McDaniel found that the conceptual questions helped the participants learn—the detail questions didn’t.

The participants who generated conceptual questions did much better than the other groups on the conceptual parts of the test. Their evaluations of how well they’d learned the information were also more accurate. Participants in the other two groups were much more likely to overestimate how much they would remember.

Interestingly there were no differences between the three groups in how well they did on the detail questions on the test.

Use Questioning To Take Control of Your Learning

Questioning works because it makes you an active learner instead of a passive recipient of information. When you interact with information by elaborating on it, thinking about its context, or relating some pieces of information to others you increase the likelihood that you will remember it.

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Image Credit: Don Moyer

Bugg, J., & McDaniel, M. (2012). Selective benefits of question self-generation and answering for remembering expository text. Journal of Educational Psychology, 104 (4), 922-931 DOI: 10.1037/a0028661

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