Encouraging students to ask themselves better questions whilst they are learning something may be one of the most effective and efficient ways to improve their understanding of the topic. This technique falls under the umbrella of metacognition.
We’ve written plenty about metacognition (click here to have a look at all our resources on the subject), but we wanted to dig a bit deeper into the research behind self-questioning. From what we found, here’s why it works and how students can do it better.
What Is Self-Questioning?
Self-questioning is an evaluative process that consists in students asking themselves helpful questions before, during and after learning to check their understanding of the content.
What Does the Research Say?
One particular study looked to investigate whether self-questioning had an impact on how much students learnt. Students were assigned to one of four different conditions:
- Students did self-questioning during and after the lecture
- Students did self-questioning during the lecture, and then did some questioning and answering with a classmate afterwards
- Students discussed the lecture content in small groups
- Students reviewed the lecture material by themselves
The students were in these conditions for five lectures and then took two tests (one straight away and another ten days later). The researchers found that, when tested both immediately following the lecture and 10 days later, students in the first two groups (self-questioning and self-questioning + q&a with class-mates) did better in their exams.
Why Does Self-Questioning Work?
Self-questioning is an effective metacognitive strategy as it encourages students to think more deeply about the material they are studying.
This strategy helps students improve their learning by helping them focus their attention and interact with the presented information. This leads to stronger connections, making it easier to retrieve the information at a later date.
Examples of Self-Questioning
If you want to help your students develop this technique, here are some good questions they can ask themselves to maximise this strategy:
- Why does it make sense that…?
- Why is this true?
- What is the main point being made here?
- Why would this fact be true for X and not for Y?
- What are the similarities between X and Y?
- What are the main differences between X and Y?
- What would have happened if X did not occur?
- Why does X cause Y to happen?
- How does this link to what I learnt last week?
- What part of this topic do I still not understand?
- Do I agree with X’s opinion (and why)?
- How would I argue against what Y said?
- What solutions or strategies would fix this situation?
- What might have been going through their mind when they said that?
How to Maximise the Effectiveness of Self-Questioning in the Classroom
In order to maximise students’ ability to use self-questions, they first need to understand the importance of it and how it works.
Following this, teachers could help prompt them by presenting students with question stems, which can be used to develop effective self-questions. Good stems encourage students to integrate new information with previously learnt information, allowing for stronger connections to be formed. Examples of such stems include ‘in what way is X related to Y?’ and ‘how does … tie in with what we have learned before’?
Other useful stems, such as ‘what are the strengths and weaknesses of…?’ encourage students to consider information more deeply and apply it to new concepts. This allows them to identify any gaps in their knowledge as well as prompting follow-up questions.
Finally, allowing students plenty of time and opportunities to practise self-questioning (as well as monitoring their answers to check for understanding and accuracy) will help.
Research has shown self-questioning to be a very powerful learning strategy. However, in order to maximise its impact, we need to ensure students know why it helps, what sort of questions they should be asking themselves and then give them plenty of space to allow them to practise using self-questioning.
Doing so should help them improve how much they learn, how quickly they learn - and subsequently how well they perform in their final exams.