Questions produce cognitive effects in our learners and generate learning benefits. While it is beyond the scope of this webpage to delve into these benefits in great depth, the following list offers a flavor of the myriad ways that questioning strategies support deep and meaningful learning. Some of these benefits are inherent to questions, while others are possible if questions are well designed and well facilitated.
The following list of benefits is drawn from (a) the basic research on human learning, (b) from the research literature on active learning, and (c) from the practical utilization of active-learning classroom techniques, often in conjunction with audience response systems.
I’ve divided these 24 learning benefits into two sections. The first section will cover the learning benefits that result almost inherently from the cognitive effects of questioning. The second section will continue the list of learning benefits, but will cover the learning benefits that are possible—those that are leveragable if questions are appropriately utilized.
There is more information about the benefits of questions in the report. Click to download the report.
The Inherent Learning Benefits of Questions
1. Prequestions Guide Learner Attention
Prequestions improve overall learning when they are presented to learners soon before learning events Prequestions help learners focus on the most important learning material they subsequently encounter.
2. Postquestions Guide Later Learner Processing
How learners approach new material is affected by previous questions . For example, Sagerman and Mayer (1987) found that learners did better on verbatim questions when they had previously gotten verbatim questions and conceptual questions when they had previously gotten conceptual questions. Questions then, not only have an effect on learning events that occur immediately after the questions, but also on subsequent learning events. Because questions create habits of mind, we need to be very careful that our questions are creating the right habits. Questions can have detrimental effects when we continually test learners on meaningless fragments of facts, figures, and folderol.
3. Questions Provide Repetition
Repetition is arguably the most important learning factor there is. It enables learners to remember things they’d forgotten, learn things they didn’t quite get the first time around, and strengthen and enrich what they already know. Repetition doesn’t imply verbatim repetition. Verbatim repetitions can sometimes be valuable but they’re often boring. The true power of repetition is realized when we use paraphrasing, examples, case studies, role-plays, simulations, and questioning. Questions inherently provide repetitions. Consider the instructional sequence, (a) content, (b) question, (c) discussion, (d) feedback. This sequence provides four repetitions of the learning point. Each of these interactions prompts the learners to engage the learning point in some manner.
4. Questions Provide Retrieval Practice
The fundamental purpose of learning is to facilitate later retrieval of the learned information. While the term “retrieval” may conjure up images of simple recall, retrieval refers more broadly to drawing information from long-term memory into working memory. Therefore, retrieval occurs when we answer a question, when we think about how to solve a problem, when we engage in creativity, when we kick a soccer ball, when we are involved in a conversation, and when we play music. If our goal is to facilitate later retrieval, one of the best ways to support that retrieval is to prompt learners to retrieve information during learning. Practice makes perfect, and retrieval during learning not only provides practice but it makes the information that was retrieved more accessible in memory as well .
5. Questions Provide Learners with Feedback
Questions enable learners to get feedback on their retrieval attempts. Questions not only enable learners to evaluate their retrieval performance, but they can be used to help learners overcome their misconceptions and reinforce their tentative understandings. Researchers who have reviewed research articles on feedback have concluded that feedback was very effective in producing learning benefits . In fact, many investigators have been so sure of feedback’s effectiveness that they have simply assumed it improves learning and have gone on to discuss other variables that affect its impact . Studies that have compared giving feedback to not giving feedback generally have found fairly sizable improvements with feedback .
6. Questions Provide Instructors with Feedback
Questions not only provide learners with feedback, but they provide instructors with feedback as well. In a typical lecture, instructions get some feedback by watching the body language of learners and by listening to audience questions. This feedback tends to be quite impoverished. Learners are hesitant to admit their confusion in large rooms of peers. Instructors may tune out the feedback because it’s uncomfortable to acknowledge that their performance may be lacking. Body language, may tell an instructor that learners are confused, but it can’t clarify the exact nature of the confusion. Well-designed questions can help pinpoint the comprehension issues and get all the learners involved in providing data about their comprehension. Moreover, instructors can modify their facilitation based on the feedback they receive. For example, Draper and Brown (2004) talk about the benefits of contingent teaching—where instructors change what they teach within a particular learning session based on learner responses to questions.
The Leveragable Learning Benefits of Questions
The list above highlighted the inherent learning benefits of questions—the advantages that questions almost automatically produce. The following list highlights the possible benefits—the gains that can be leveraged depending on the design of your questions and the quality of the work and discussions that supplement those questions . I have chosen to continue the numbering, instead of starting anew, because I want to emphasize that questions offer myriad ways to produce their “benefits.”
7. Prequestions Activate Prior Knowledge
One factor that propels learning is to help learners connect their new knowledge to what they’ve already learned. Great instructors—whether they are teachers, religious leaders, managers, or political leaders—are adept at using metaphorical language to imbue a discussion with immediate meaning. The metaphor bridges the gap between what is well known and what is new. In the same way, we can help our learners learn by using questions that ask them to bring into working memory information they’ve already learned.
8. Questions Can Grab Attention
Questions by their very nature force learners to pay attention. While the drone of a lecture is more likely to keep learners in a state of daydreaming, questions prompt learners to reorient their minds to the content of the question. This has obvious learning benefits. Without attention, there is no learning.
9. Questions Can Provide Variety
Providing learners with a variety of learning methods can create learning, attention, and motivational advantages. Research has shown that variety helps people learn better, keeps them attentive longer, and motivates them to feel more interest in the topic. Even repeating concepts with paraphrased wording has advantages. The basic act of providing a question provides variety in comparison to lecture alone. Going beyond this basic mechanism, questions can provide variety by utilizing different question types. Questions can focus on the same concept but utilize different background situations. Instructors can facilitate questions differently, asking learners to answer individually sometimes, or having them discuss with partners, groups, or the whole class.
10. Questions Can Make the Learning Personal
Designing your lectures and discussions to help your learners see how the material relates to them personally has obvious value. It helps motivate the learners to pay attention and makes it more likely that learners will relate the new learning to their long-held knowledge structures. Even if your lectures and discussions are devoid of personal connection, questions can highlight the personal aspects of the material. By connecting the learning material to learners’ personal concerns, we can also help our learners learn outside our classrooms. Learners don’t learn only in th
e classroom. If we can generate thinking in the classroom that makes it likely that learners will spontaneously ponder relevant concepts while away from the classroom, we’ve doubled the returns on our classroom learning investment. In fact, we’ve done much more than that. When learning is personal, it’s much more likely to be remembered and utilized long into the future.
11. Questions Can Provide Spaced Repetitions
Repetitions of questions that are spaced apart in time are more effective than those that are massed together . Glover (1989b) found that repeating a test spaced by one day produced significantly higher retention than providing a test immediately after the material was learned. Even in a single classroom session, waiting to space a question after covering other unrelated material can provide substantial benefits. So for example, you might present Content A, then Content B, and then provide a question regarding Content A. Similarly, you might present Content A B C and D and then ask questions on A B C and D. Homework and studying also provide spaced repetitions. For example, you might use a couple questions at the end of class—without providing the answers—to spur learning outside the classroom. You could then include those questions in the following session and provide feedback.
12. Questions Can Highlight Boundary Conditions
Questions can be used to introduce learners to boundary conditions or test their knowledge of contingencies. For example, fifth graders may be taught that tolerance is good, but they also need to learn that tolerance of evil is not good. Managers can be taught to encourage their direct reports to help in making decisions, except in cases that have safety, ethical, or legal repercussions. Highlighting boundary conditions often brings a dose of reality to instruction, thus engaging learners by moving beyond stale platitudes. Real life is complicated. If we don’t acknowledge this to our learners, we not only do them a disservice, we lose their respect and attention.
13. Questions Can Highlight Common Misunderstandings
Learners often come to learning experiences with naïve understandings that make it difficult for them to learn new information. Their preconceptions may bias them against the new paradigms they have to learn. As many master instructors have concluded, one of the primary goals of instruction is to help learners unlearn their flawed beliefs and replace them with more accurate knowledge structures. Question answering reveals the truth of learners’ knowledge to learners and to the instructor. Such revelations enable learners to awaken to new constructs and test newly learned constructs. At the same time, these “teachable moments” provide instructors with special advantages in guiding and supporting further learning.
14. Questions Can Demonstrate Forgetting
Learners forget. It’s an immutable law of nature. As instructors, one of our primary goals is to ensure that our learners learn AND remember. Unfortunately, the typical learning environment is set up to make this difficult. First, learners are overly optimistic about their ability to remember, so during learning events they sometimes avoid using the kind of cognitive processing that supports long-term retention. For example, they tend to use simple rehearsal strategies as opposed to more elaborative processing. Second, learners are often too busy or distracted to devote enough time to learning. Third, learners who are graded often focus on getting good grades as opposed to supporting their long-term ability to remember. For example, they tend to cram instead of spacing their learning and practice over time. As recent research has showed, learners who are prompted to retrieve information from memory after a significant delay—typically over a week or more—are much more likely afterwards to utilize cognitive processing that propels long-term remembering. If we want our learners to remember concepts over time, we can help them by providing them with questions well after we’ve moved on to different topic areas.
15. Questions Can Support Transfer to Related Situations/Topics
It is rare for knowledge learned in one topic area to be retrieved from memory when another topic is being considered. You may have heard of this as the problem of transfer . Even when learners are given a problem to solve that closely resembles another problem they already solved, they very rarely use the solution to the solved problem to solve the second problem. In current parlance, learners “just don’t get it” unless the connections are actually practiced or made incredibly obvious. Questions provide an obvious opportunity to help support transfer. We can use questions to provide authentic scenarios to directly practice transfer. We can also provide multiple questions on the same learning point—each utilizing a different background context.
16. Questions Can Prepare Learners for Future Decision-Making
Rarely is rote recall the primary goal of instruction. Often, we want learners to be able to retrieve information from memory to make decisions. For example, history teachers might want learners to remember the lessons of the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War so that they can make better decisions about which political party to support. A biology teacher might want learners to remember how ecosystems work so that the learners will make more-informed decisions about recycling, eating, and purchasing a car. A leadership trainer might want learners to make better decisions about how to handle unstable employees. To support future decision-making, questions can be used that simulate future decision-making situations. In other words, if we give them authentic decisions to make, we’ll better prepare them to make future real-world decisions.
17. Questions Can Demonstrate Relevance to the Real World
Sometimes our learners aren’t preparing for specific future decision-making responsibilities, so the section immediately above may not seem to apply directly. Still, to keep learners engaged and to provide them with deep learning experiences, it may be beneficial to provide them either with decision-making questions beyond what their futures may hold and/or other questions that aren’t decision-making related but do highlight the importance of the topic.
18. Questions Can Help Learners Identify Their Assumptions
Questions are excellent vehicles to prompt students to identify their assumptions. Socrates used a series of questions to help pinpoint his learners’ misunderstandings. You can use a series of questions or one question to do the same.
19. Questions Can Encourage Attention to Difficult Content
When faced with extremely difficult content in a classroom situation, some learners become overwhelmed and just tune out. This can happen intentionally or automatically. Some learners will move into a state of performance anxiety that literally overloads the limited capacity of their working memories with off-task ruminations. Others will consciously tune out, expecting to be able to learn the material on their own outside the classroom. In either case, valuable learning time is lost. Questions can be used in these instances to partition the learning content into manageable chunks and to slow the flow of the lecture to give learners an opportunity to refocus their attention on processing the learning material.
20. Questions Can Demonstrate Learning over Time
Questions delivered in a pretest-posttest format, before and after the accompanying content, can demonstrate for learners how much they’ve learned. While this may not seem particu
larly advantageous—“Can’t they see how far they’ve come?”—learners often can’t remember their previous states of mind, so demonstrating it to them may be the only way to convince them of their progress. This has advantages for the learners, because it demonstrates that their learning efforts have value, making it more likely that they’ll approach future learning tasks with a bent toward perseverance. It has advantages for instructors as well, because it will increase learner satisfaction, instructor ratings, and will induce further learner engagement.
21. Questions Can Provide Practice in Learning with Others
Almost all learners need to be able to work with others—and learn with others. Certainly, in today’s knowledge economy, the ability to work with others is critical to success. There are at least three reasons to give them practice in working with others. First, learning with others provides people with multiple perspectives and thus a richer learning experience. Second, learning with others usually improves individual learning outcomes. It improves attention to the task. It creates more elaborate memory pathways. It prompts retrieval practice to reinforce the concepts. Finally, learning with others is preparation for their real-world futures. It helps them practice articulating their thoughts. It gives learners practice interacting and working with others.
22. Questions Can Be Utilized to Gather Experimental Data
This benefit doesn’t relate to all classrooms, but it can be quite powerful when it is relevant. The idea is that we can actually collect data from our learners to elucidate our topic. For example, an instructor could prompt students to respond to a typical color-blindness test by selecting an answer with their handsets. To begin a discussion of perfect pitch, an instructor could ask students to listen to a musical note and ask them to select which note it is. Gathering experimental data is particularly appropriate when the class topics revolve around issues related to human beings, for example in courses in psychology, perception, decision making, ethics, and political science, among many other similar courses. A professor teaching a course on experimental psychology might replicate famous experiments that have been done.
23. Questions Can Prompt Out-of-the-Classroom Learning Activities
The more time learners spend learning, the more they learn. The correlation isn’t perfect—not all learning is created equal—but it’s still a strong positive correlation. Whether it’s a corporate classroom or high-school chemistry lab, only so much learning can take place in the classroom. If learners can be encouraged to engage in meaningful mathemagenic (learning-creating) processing outside the classroom, their learning outcomes will be improved. Questions can prompt out-of-the-classroom learning in a number of ways. The most brutish way is through grading. If learners are graded on their handset responses, they’re more likely to prepare for classes. Note that this has to be done very carefully so as not to stifle learning in the classroom. I talk about this more in the report. We’ve already talked about how personally relevant questions can spontaneously promote out-of-the-classroom thinking related to the course content. If the questions relate to the learner’s real-world futures, cues in those future situations may remind the learners about the content they previously learned.
24. Questions Can Promote Thinking Skills
Helping learners digest facts, learn terminology, and understand complex topics is commendable, but not sufficient. Our learners won’t be fully prepared for their futures unless they develop thinking skills—methods to evaluate situations, solve problems, generate options, make decisions. Questions, in conjunction with classroom facilitation and well-designed classroom exercises, can promote such thinking skills, encouraging learners to (a) generate multiple solutions, (b) categorize and classify, (c) discuss, summarize, and model, (d) strategize, justify, and plan, (e) reflect and evaluate, and (f) think about thinking and learning . Questions can also help learners (g) notice the most critical factors in a chaotic swarm of stimuli, (h) utilize hypothesis generation tactics, (i) simplify complexity to within workable boundaries, (j) recognize when a proposed solution has been fully vetted, and (k), persevere in learning in the face of obstacles, etc.