Are Prequestions Useful?
By Cindy Nebel
If you are a follower of our blog, then you know that we are big advocates for the use of retrieval practice in the classroom. It is one of the six strategies for effective learning, which were selected given the abundance of research demonstrating their effectiveness. However, retrieval practice primarily focuses on testing/quizzing students after they have already learned some material. Today, I want to tell you about a study that examined the effectiveness of prequestions, or asking students questions before they have started learning the material.
The study I’m talking about today was conducted by Shana Carpenter and Alexander Toftness and represents an applied laboratory study from our lab to classroom model (1). Carpenter and Toftness examined the effect of prequestions by using video lectures, but within the strongly controlled arena of the lab. Here’s what they did:
All participants watched three segments of a lecture about the history of Easter Island. Each segment was about 2.5 minutes long. In one condition, they had students answer two short answer questions about Easter Island before watching the segment in which the answers were given. Not surprisingly, students had to guess and their accuracy was less than 5%. In another condition, they just watched the videos. After watching all three videos, all participants took a final test, which consisted of the six prequestions as well as six questions that were new to all participants.
Replicating earlier research, the group that got the prequestions performed 15% higher on questions that were prequestioned than on the new questions and that group of students overall performed 19% better than the control group.
What the researchers really wanted to know, though, was what would happen on the non-prequestioned information. In previous research, sometimes there is actually a decrease in performance for this information compared to a control group (2,3). All of that earlier work was looking at how students read material after being prequestioned and one possibility is that students might only pay attention to the material that they were questioned on and ignore the remainder of the passage. What Carpenter and Toftness add to this discussion is the use of video lectures. In this case, students don’t have the option to skip through looking for the answers to the prequestions. Sure enough, they found that even for the non-prequestioned information, students who were prequestioned performed 12% higher than the control group.
One possibility for this advantage is that students are often overconfident in their understanding of material while they are simply reading. Retrieval practice, in general, reduces this overconfidence and in this case students may have less confidence because they have failed to answer questions immediately before learning.
Many educators might be tempted to argue that this particular study has some serious limitations in that the video segments were a whopping 2.5 minutes long and the final test was immediately after viewing. Those are fair points. Prequestions have also been examined in a classroom study (4), and while there were some benefits to prequestions a few days after a lecture, but those effects did not persist a month later. This could be due to the length of the lecture, the complexity of the information, or the studying that students do outside of class. It is clear that more classroom research is needed on prequestions.
Prequestions can be used to encourage students to better attend to classroom material. This is particularly true when that material is in live or video format and not controlled by the student. The student needs to be required to attend to all of the material, not just that which is covered by the prequestions, but if they do so, prequestions can benefit comprehension of the content as a whole.
(1) Carpenter, S. K., & Toftness, A. R. (2017). The effect of prequestions on learning from video presentations. Journal of Applied Research in Memory & Cognition, 6, 104-109.
(2) Peeck, J. (1970). Effect of prequestions on delayed retention of prose material. Journal of Educational Psychology, 61, 241–246.
(3) Sagaria, S.D., & Di Vesta, F. (1978). Learner expectations induced by adjunct questions and the retrieval of intentional and incidental information, Journal of Educational Psychology, 70, 280–288.
(4) McDaniel, M.A., Agarwal, P.K., Huelser, B.J., McDermott, K.B., & Roediger III, H.L. (2011). Test-enhanced learning in a middle school science classroom: The effects of quiz frequency and placement. Journal of Educational Psychology, 103, 399–414.