We’ve known for many years now that retrieval practice works.
That is: after we have introduced students to a topic, we might REVIEW it with them the next day. However, they’ll remember it better if we ask them to try to RETRIEVE ideas and procedures about it.
As Dr. Pooja Agarwal and Patrice Bain write, we want students to “pull information out of their brains” (retrieve) not “put information back into their brains” (review).
Sadly, we know that students’ intuition contradicts this guidance. They really want to reread or review their notes, rather than ask themselves questions.
In this (very sad) study, for instance, Dr. Nate Kornell and Dr. Lisa Son found that students think review works better than retrieval even when they do better on quizzes following retrieval!
Yes, even the experience of learning more doesn’t persuade students that they learned more.
The More Things Change…
Let’s take this retrieval practice idea one step further.
I wrote above that answering questions helps students learn AFTER they have been introduced to a topic.
But: does answering questions help students learn a topic even BEFORE they study it?
On the one hand, this suggestion sounds very strange. Students can’t get these “prequestions” right, because they haven’t yet studied the topic.
On the other hand, we’ve got research showing that this strategy works!
In one of my favorite studies ever, Dr. Lindsay Richland found that “prequestions” help students learn. And, she then worked really hard to disprove her own findings. When she couldn’t explain away her conclusions, she finally accepted them. *
Similarly, a more recent study suggests that learning objectives framed as questions (“Where are mirror neurons located?”) helps students learn more than LOs framed as statements (“You will learn where mirror neurons are located.”).
Although this prequestion strategy hasn’t been studied as much as retrieval practice, I do think it has enough research behind it to merit teachers’ respectful attention.
However, I do think this approach has a practical classroom problem…
For the most part, my high-school students are an amiable lot. If I ask them to do something … say, answer retrieval practice questions … they’ll give it a go.
And, they almost certainly want to get those questions right.
In a class discussion about Their Eyes Were Watching God, for instance, we might compare Janie’s three “husbands.” If I ask a student the following day to list some points of comparison from memory (retrieval practice!), they’ll feel that they ought to remember an answer or two.
Let’s try this logic with prequestioning.
Imagine I ask my students this prequestion: “Why do you think the novel’s protagonist will have the nickname ‘Alphabet’?”
My students will gamely try some answers.
However, I worry that – over time – they’ll start losing interest.
They almost never get these answers right.
And, there’s no “penalty” for getting them wrong, or reward for getting them right. (We don’t want students to focus on rewards and penalties, but schools typically work this way…)
From the student perspective, in other words, the whole prequestion strategy feels like an exercise in futility.
Why should they bother to think seriously about these un-answerable questions? They feel like wasted mental effort…
First: I’ve tried in the past to solve this problem by using the strategy infrequently.
If my students don’t experience this quirky frustration too often, I hope, they won’t mind participating in this odd ritual.
Recent research, however, offers a second solution – a more honorable solution than mine.
In this study, by Dr. Steven Pan and Dr. Michelle Rivers, prequestions consistently helped students learn.
However, students didn’t really notice the benefit of prequestions – even when they learned more from answering them. (This result sounds a lot like the Kornell and Son study about retrieval practice; students don’t register the benefits they experience.)
So, Pan and Rivers tried several solutions. Specifically, they found benefits to a multi-step approach:
Step 1: have students learn some info with prequestions, and some without.
Step 2: give them a no-stakes quiz on the info.
Step 3: let them see that they remembered information better after prequestions.
Step 4: next time, ask students to recall how well they remembered after answering prequestions.
In other words: students need to experience the benefits and to have them repeatedly pointed out. This combination, probably, helps students believe that prequestions really do help.
This insight (probably?) helps with the motivation problem that has been troubling me in the past.
In other words: students who believe that prequestions will help are much likelier to participate in the curious mental exercise of trying to answer questions whose answer they can’t yet know.
When students answer questions about information they’re about to learn, they remember that information better – even if they get the answers wrong.
This strategy might be effective in the short term, but hamper motivation over time. After all, why should students even try to answer questions if they’re unlikely to know the answer?
To counteract this motivational problem, take students through Pan & Rivers’s procedure for them to experience and remember the benefits that prequestions provide.
We don’t have LOTS of research on this strategy, but we do have enough to make it a plausible approach.
* Sadly, the “prequestion” strategy has frequently been called “pretesting.” Of course, the presence of the stem “test” both confuses the strategy (there’s no testing!) and disinclines people from participating (who wants more testing?).
So, let me emphasize: “prequestions” are simply questions. They’re not a test.
BTW: I’ve recently seen the word “pretrieval” as a way to avoid the “pretest” moniker. You might like it better than “prequestions.”
Agarwal, P. K., & Bain, P. M. (2019). Powerful teaching: Unleash the science of learning. John Wiley & Sons.
Kornell, N., & Son, L. K. (2009). Learners’ choices and beliefs about self-testing. Memory, 17(5), 493-501.
Pan, S. C., & Rivers, M. L. (2023). Metacognitive awareness of the pretesting effect improves with self-regulation support. Memory & Cognition, 1-20.
Richland, L. E., Kornell, N., & Kao, L. S. (2009). The pretesting effect: Do unsuccessful retrieval attempts enhance learning?. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 15(3), 243.
Sana, F., Forrin, N. D., Sharma, M., Dubljevic, T., Ho, P., Jalil, E., & Kim, J. A. (2020). Optimizing the efficacy of learning objectives through pretests. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 19(3), ar43.