Question Everything! – to deepen comprehension and increase recall.


Monkey_Has_A_QuestionI know what you’re thinking, “Should I really question everything?” You’re such a smart-aleck, but the answer is, “yes!” at least if you want to hoover the knowledge-nuggets right out of whatever you’re studying and make yourself into the uber-scholar you always new you could be.

Posing kick-ask –and thinking carefully through how you might answer them–is a well-researched method of deepening comprehension and increasing recall (not to mention totally amping up your cred with the prof). But what constitutes a good question? And how can one learn how to ask them with all the speed and tenacity of an espresso-filled four-year old?

Good questions are questions that require higher-level thinking, while low-level questions are the kind that a well-trained parrot could spit out. Low-level questions are those that simply require you to repeat facts–the kind of questions your mom’s Apple IIe could answer.

“What is the meaning of the word discombobulate?”

“Who’s the president of Turkmenistan?”

“What will clear up that itchy fungus?”

“Is there really a Jennifer Aniston neuron?”

All these questions can be answered by repeating what you read/heard/saw somewhere. Low-level questions are still useful for focusing our attention and evaluating our basic knowledge base, but use them sparingly.

Higher-level questions ask you to process the information in some way. HINT: more processing is generally better. Such questions will often ask you to analyze, predict, evaluate, or compare and contrast.

“How are iPhones and crack alike? How are they different?”

“What might happen to her career if Lindsay Lohan suddenly were denied access to illegal substances?”

“Is Britney Spears or Geraldo Rivera more likely to embarrass him/herself in the future?”

In order to answer questions such as these, you have to know the facts, just as you do with the lower-level questions. But then you have to get down and dirty with constructing the answer out of many possible alternatives. And notice; even though that Spears vs. Rivera question could conceivably be answered with a single word, answering it honestly requires some careful weighing of their past peccadilloes and future propensities for making astonishingly bad choices. (Loads more info on questioning can be found here.)

Here are a few pointers on making yourself into the Bobby Fischer of questioning.  [hidepost]First, make questioning a prime part of your current study system. Many note-taking systems, such as Cornell Notes, already have this built in (and I’ve written lots about note taking).

Even if you aren’t using a question-heavy note-taking system you can incorporate  them into whatever you’re doing by forcing yourself to come up with three (or five, or fifteen) good questions for every page of notes you take, paragraph of text you read, major topic in a lecture, etc. It will help if you actually title a blank piece of paper “questions” and number to five or three or whatever as you start your study session. That way it’s sitting there reminding you to come up with questions as you study.

Actually, teaching students to ask basic why and how questions while reading has been shown to increase , and maybe even improve standardized test performance. Did you get that GRE and SAT prep junkies?

One of the most effective techniques I’ve found to increase my questioning is to have a handy list of question starters…

  • What would happen if… – What would happen if Napoleon hadn’t lost at Waterloo?
  • How are x and y alike? How are they different? – How are Pluto and Mercury alike? How are they different?
  • What’s the most… – What’s the most important factor in how the UN decides to send in a peace-keeping force?
  • What’s the least… – What’s the least effective diet currently being sold on TV?
  • How could… – How could Scarlet have really socked it to Rhett after his famous “Frankly, my dear” comment?

Copy these question stems (or some of your own) onto a 3×5 card and pull it out every time you study for the next week or so. You’ll soon get in the habit of asking great questions. And don’t forget to actually take some time to try and answer the questions when you review. BONUS: Take some of your best questions from your class readings and lob them at the prof during class. She’ll know you’ve been doing some real thinking. CAUTION: don’t try to stump a less confident professor. Unless it’s a huge class and they don’t know your name.[/hidepost]

© Cody Blair, All Rights Reserved.