The “testing effect” is well-established in psychology: this is the finding that answering questions about what you’ve learned leads to better retention than simply studying the material for longer. Testing is beneficial because the act of recall entrenches learned material in our memories, and when we can’t answer, this helps us make our future revision more targeted. Less well-known and less well-understood is the effect of “prequestions”: questions pertaining to upcoming information that you attempt to answer before you’ve started learning that information. A new study in the Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition suggests that answering prequestions may be a simple and effective way to boost your learning from videos and perhaps short lectures too.
Shana Carpenter and Alexander Toftness asked 85 students to watch a short video about the history of Easter Island. The video was split into three segments each of about two minutes length, and before each segment, half the students attempted to answer two prequestions that pertained to the upcoming video content, such as “How many families originally settled on the island of Rapa Nui?” (the students nearly always failed to answer the prequestions correctly and no feedback was given). The other students acted as controls and simply pressed a space bar to continue on to each new video segment.
After the entire video was over, all the students answered the same 12 questions about the history of Easter Island as told in the video. For the prequestion group, 6 of these questions were the prequestions they’d attempted to answer earlier, the other 6 questions were new and about different information. For the control group, this was the first time they’d encountered any of the questions.
In this post-video test, the prequestion group outperformed the control group, not only in correctly answering more of what had been the prequestions, but also by correctly answering more of the 6 new questions, the ones that they hadn’t seen before.
The researchers think prequestions probably have this benefit because they act as an “orienting device”, directing viewers to look out for specific information, and perhaps also because they reduce viewers’ complacency and overconfidence in their knowledge, thus motivating them to pay more attention.
These new findings add to previous research that’s looked at the benefits of prequestions on learning from text, with mixed results. Some past studies have suggested that while prequestions can help the learning of the information targeted by the prequestions, they do so at the expense of other information in the text – perhaps because readers skip through the text to find the answers to the prequestions. However, when readers are encouraged to pay attention to all the reading material (for example, by asking them to rate the comprehensibility of each paragraph), then prequestions have been shown to be beneficial without cost.
Carpenter and Toftness think prequestions may be especially suited to helping learning from videos because it’s not easy for viewers to skip mentally through the video material to find the answers to the prequestions; instead they end up paying more attention to the entire video than they would have done without the prequestions. A similar benefit may occur for short lectures, though perhaps not for longer, complex lectures; the limited evidence on this to date suggests that when the gap between prequestions and to-be-learned material is too great, the benefits may disappear.
We need more research to pin down when and why prequestions are likely to be helpful, and how long the benefits might last, and also when they could have costs. Of course another issue from the learner’s perspective is that you ideally need someone to compose some suitable prequestions.
On the popular TED-Ed educational video site, all the videos (including this one I prepared earlier on the psychology of ownership) come with a set of complementary questions to answer after you’ve finished watching. These new results on the benefits of prequestions suggest that perhaps you should try answering the questions before you watch the videos, as well as afterwards. Or maybe if TED-Ed hear about this research, they will soon introduce both pre- and post-video questions.