Simple way to increase your recall and Understanding

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Question Everything

I 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 suck the knowledge-nuggets right out of whatever you’re studying and make yourself into the uber-scholar you always new you could be.

Asking deeper questions–and thinking carefully through how you might answer them–is a well-researched method of deepening comprehension and increasing recall. It also can signal your prof or teacher that you are an above-average thinker. But what constitutes a really good question?

Good Questions

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 grandmom’s Commodore 64 computer could answer. Questions such as…

“What is the definition of the word discombobulate?”

“Who’s the president of Turkmenistan?”

“What will clear up this itchy fungus?”

“Is there really a Jennifer Aniston neuron?”

All these questions can be answered by a simple repetition of what you read/heard/saw somewhere. These type of low-level questions can be useful for focusing attention and evaluating basic knowledge, but use them sparingly. They do very little to increase comprehension.

The better option is to ask higher-level questions. These are the kind of questions that ask you to process the information in some way. More processing is generally better. Such questions will often ask you to analyze, predict, evaluate, or compare and contrast. For example…

“How are iPhones and crack alike?”

“What would my life look like if I stopped procrastinating?

“Would Jordan Peterson make a good US president?”

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 last question could conceivably be answered with a single word, answering it honestly requires some careful weighing of his skills, connections, and the requirements for success in that office.

These are fundamentally better questions, because they require deep thinking. It’s not enough just to know the factual details; you must weigh and predict. High-level questions promote understanding and insight!

How to Ask Better Questions

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 great questions 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 fifteen or whatever as you start your study session. That way it’s sitting there, reminding you to come up with questions as you study.

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

One effective technique I’ve found to increase my questioning is to have a handy list of question starters. Many teachers know the value of teaching their students to use question stems to prompt deeper thinking. Here are some question stems along with an example question …

  • 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 whether or not to send in a peace-keeping force?
  • What’s the least… – What’s the least effective diet currently being promoted by health professionals?
  • 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. Take 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.

Questions To Try

  • How are high-level questions better than low-level, fact questions?
  • How could asking better questions change my life?
  • What are some ways I can make sure I start asking better questions in the right situations?
  • What are some other high-level questions you can ask yourself about this post right now? – Let us know in the comments!
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