- How you can use prequestioning to boost student learning
How you can use prequestioning to boost student learning
What the most up-to-date research by Steven Pan and Shana Carpenter has to say about the use of prequestioning and pretesting
Prequestioning is the act of posing questions to students before delivering the lesson content.
For example, before reading a chapter together, you could provide students with several questions about characters and plot. Or, you could pose a few factual questions prior to watching a video.
Prequestioning, also known as pretesting, offers clear Formative Assessment benefits. Asking questions before instruction allows us to adapt that instruction to better focus on potential areas of challenge for students.
However, just as retrieval practice after learning has strong memory benefits, there is also evidence (from as far back as 1966 to the present day) that asking questions before learning can also aid memory.
A recent review of pre-questioning by Pan and Carpenter brings together the research on pre-questioning and offers some helpful recommendations.
Where can prequestioning work?
Firstly, it’s useful for us to see a few of the specific ways in which pre-questioning has been successful in real classrooms for a range of content, and a range of year levels. Here are some examples:
Word Recall in Elementary Reading: Lima and Jaeger (2020) conducted an experiment with upper primary students. Students were given a reading passage with missing words which they had to guess. After a week, prequestioned students could recall the words they had guessed more effectively than the control group.
Practical Procedure in Medical Training: Willis et al. (2020) explored the idea of "struggling first" in medical training. Medical students attempted a medical procedure before watching a tutorial video or vice versa. Those who tried the procedure before watching the video performed it more efficiently and with fewer errors in a post-test.
Aerospace Studies in an Undergraduate Course: Beckman (2008) tested the impact of prequestions in an undergraduate aerospace course. One group of students took pretests before each unit, while the other group did not. The students who took pretests outperformed their peers, scoring 9-12% higher on high-stakes tests at the end of each unit.
Climate Change in Online Courses (interesting outcome!): In a study by Janelli and Lipnevich (2021), students in an online climate change course were given prequestinos before each module. Interestingly, the results were mixed. Those who completed the prequestions were more likely to drop out of the course. However, among those who remained, those who did the prequestions performed better in the final exams than their counterparts who weren't prequestioned. This suggests that while prequestions in a longer course might demotivate some (perhaps they see their pre-test scores and think there’s just too much to learn?), they can also benefit those who stay engaged.
Further, both field and lab studies have found that prequestioning can work in a large variety of formats, from cued recall (a memory test with hints to aid retrieval), to short answer, fill-in-the-blank, and multiple choice.
Benefits might be understated
It's worth noting that the benefits of prequestioning, as described in existing literature, might be understated. This is suggested by the fact that the only research study to date that looked at different retention intervals for prequestioning, work by Kliegl et al. (2022), found that the benefits of prequestioning were greatest after a 1 week delay test, compared to when participatns were tested after 1, or 30 minutes.
A challenge: Student attitude towards mistakes
One challenge of pre-questioning is that students may resist it because they generally like to avoid learning strategies the involve them making errors (Pan et al., 2020). What really surprised me was that in one experiment by Huesler & Metcalfe (2012, Experiment 2), even when students were prompted to reflect on their results from prequestioned and non-prequestioned word pairs and could see they performed better with the prequestioned pairs, they still ranked prequestioning as less effective than pre-reading!
Sometimes we just need to spell it out for our students.
That is, in fact, what the evidence suggests.
Two studies emphasized the importance of explaining the advantages of prequestioning to students. In Yang et al. (2017), after being introduced to the concept of "errorful generation," participants showed increased appreciation for prequestioning, but weren't entirely persuaded. Conversely, Pan and Rivers (2023) found that giving students feedback on their initial results led them to favor pretesting more in later rounds. The main insight: Clearly explaining the benfits of prequestioning, and providing feedback can significantly steer learners towards an appreciation of the benefits of pretesting.
In sum, prequestioning has been successfully used in a variety of contexts, from primary school students filling in blanks in a reading passage to medical students learning procedures and even aerospace courses. The aforementioned research indicates that prequestioning can enhance memory retention. Moreover, the benefits of prequestioning might be even more pronounced over longer timescales, such as with more delayed testing. As long as we supplement our prequestioning with an explanation to students of the why, prequestioning is a promising strategy to try out in the classroom!
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Science of learning, reading, and writing masterclass
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Peps will be talking about, ‘The science of motivation: how can we boost attention and effort in school’
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Other threads to pull on…
New podcast with Brendan Lee interviewing David Morkunas on Explicit Instruction in Primary Mathematics
Upcoming webinar with Robert Pondiscio: Knowledge-Rich Curriculum: The Next Frontier in the Science of Reading?
Fantastic new article from Michael Pershan: Do we really need to assign homework?
Summary of Arran Hamilton, Dylan Wiliam, and John Hattie’s new paper on: The Future of AI in Education: 13 Things We Can Do to Minimize the Damage (juciest bits between pages 18 and 22 according to Adam Sparks)
MultiLit’s recent paper: Response to National School Reform Agreement
Great video and blog by Doug Lemov on team on combining cold call and wait time