As part of our professional development, we constantly learn new things. We read numerous books, visit workshops, attend corporate training or take online courses, one after the other. We want to remember all the new concepts we learn and apply the new skills successfully in the future. But let’s face it – given the intensity of the information we’re exposed to, it’s a difficult task.
Employing effective learning tools is a way to cope with this. One such tool, among many others, is to direct our learning by asking relevant questions at different stages of the learning process.
Here, I go over two key elements related to learning and show you how you can use questions to improve them. These key elements are remembering and understanding.
First, be aware that there are different types of questions. For example, there are factual and recall questions, and then there are convergent and divergent questions, as well as closed and open questions. To reinforce a new fact, concept or skill, you can form different types of questions that are relevant to your subject.
While recall, convergent and closed questions are more suitable for building a knowledge base, you will find that divergent and open questions are more effective for achieving deeper understanding.
Of course, as with many things that are related to thinking, improving learning by asking questions is not a linear process. Therefore, in practice, you will mix different question types to get the best outcome.
Test your previous knowledge and remember better
Most things that we desire as small business owners, freelancers or solopreneurs – such as coming up with a new business idea, making decisions or solving problems – are related to creative and critical thinking skills and an ability to analyze, rather than just knowing some dry facts.
On the other hand, these kinds of higher-order thinking skills can only be built upon a strong knowledge base.
To have a solid knowledge base, first we need to remember an important aspect of our memory: we tend to forget new things very easily. Unless we find a way to consolidate the new information, it disappears. To deal with this aspect of memory, what we usually do is refer to, repeat or review the original learning content.
There is, however, a better way to remember. Instead of going back to the learning materials immediately to find what you’re looking for, you can first try to call up, i.e. retrieve, what you’ve learned. Retrieving from memory strengthens the knowledge and allows you to remember it more easily in the future.
This important process of retrieving is called the “testing effect” or “retrieval practice effect” and it has been observed and validated by many different studies, many times.
The idea is, then, to leverage this effect by asking yourself questions related to what you’ve learned. In this way, new facts and concepts stick better and you remember them more easily in the future. Referring to the learning material is easy, but when you force yourself to remember the answer you have to put in more cognitive effort, which is why you learn better.
Let’s say you’re reading a self-improvement book. While reading or just after finishing a section, make a list of all the important points you want to add to your arsenal of knowledge. Then, prepare a list of questions around these main points to test yourself on the subject.
Factual and recall questions are the relevant types here. These questions mostly consist of “what”, “when” and “who” and they aim to describe, define, list, name, label or order. In addition to this, you can form closed questions that you can answer simply with yes or no.
To give you an example, at the moment I’m reading Daniel Pink’s book, “When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing”. Here are some sample questions I could use in order to reinforce the ideas and concepts introduced in Chapter 1 of the book.
- What is a time-based pattern?
- What are mood cycles?
- Does the nature of a task affect the perfect time to perform that task?
- What is the best method to determine one’s chronotype called?
- Who proposed this method?
- Can you name the three stages of a day?
- What are the steps to figuring out your daily when?
- Can you define the synchrony effect?
- What benefits do morning exercises have?
- Can you list the benefits of doing exercises in the evenings?
You can answer the questions immediately after you read, but you’ll reap the most benefits if you come back to this multiple times. This is because the retrieval effect works best if it is combined with spaced-repetition. Allow some time to pass after your initial reading and then try to answer the questions you prepared before, without referring to the book. And next time, allow more time to pass before testing yourself again.
Improve your understanding through multiple answers and asking why
While the purpose of asking recall questions is to strengthen your memory and remember the knowledge better, the purpose here is to create paths to think more broadly about your subject, deepen your knowledge, improve your understanding and find ways to link the new facts and knowledge to other things you already know.
To boost understanding, first of all, see the difference between convergent and divergent question types. Are you looking for the answer (convergent) or for multiple different answers (divergent)?
Divergent thinking (looking for multiple ways) and asking corresponding questions is a reliable path towards improved understanding. When you prepare yourself for the possibility of multiple answers, you open the door to elaborating on what you learn as simple dry facts and concepts and diving deeper into your subject. Doing so, you can even think about other aspects that were not mentioned in the original content and allow deeper understanding.
I can extend the sample questions above, like this:
• In what ways can being a third bird influence your daily rhythm?
• What examples can you think of that are related to the synchrony effect?
• In what contexts would you apply the “work the margins” tip?
• Can you state at least three things you will integrate into your daily schedule after reading this chapter?
Apart from widening your questions to allow multiple possible answers like this, there is another technique you can employ to deepen knowledge and understanding. It is called elaborative interrogation. It basically states that in order to better grasp a subject, we should ask “why” and “how” questions. In this way, you can promote a deeper level of understanding and make connections to your prior knowledge. So, based on what I’m reading right now, I can prepare a mix of why and how questions and other open and divergent questions, as follows.
• How can I identify the time of day when I perform analytical tasks best?
• What is my own daily high point and low point?
• Why should I rearrange my schedule?
• How can I plan my day, taking into account the three stages?
• How do different types of tasks relate to my daily schedules?
• Will I write more creatively later in the day?
• Given that I’m a third bird, which tasks should I shift to late afternoon? Why?
• How will I know that I organized my day based on the principles explained in the book?
• Have I observed the Linda problem before? Which personal experiences can I relate to this?
• Why is it important to drink my first cup of coffee 90 minutes after waking up?
It is for every stage of the learning process
You can use questions to strengthen every stage of the learning process. It is not just for testing yourself to improve memory, deepen understanding and dive deeper into your subject, of course. It is also relevant for other thinking activities, like analyzing, synthesizing or applying new knowledge and skills to new areas.
Be on the lookout for how many different ways you can form questions and let them guide your learning.