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I noticed that I focus very well and do not forget the topic for months when I am told to prepare some questions for problem session (recitation) hours of the course I assist. On the other hand, I forget the topics I learned during my graduate studies even though I had very good grades or I prepared good presentations about them. I suspect that thinking as the asking person plays some important role here than thinking as the answering one. It enforces me to think on what really matters I guess.

Do you have any ideas about some research on this? Do you also notice similar results for yourself? If so, do you have any ideas on improving the efficiency of learning by taking "preparing questions" into account? For example, do you prepare questions for yourself on the topics you study? Do they have any effect on comprehension?

Sorry for the complexity of the question. I couldn't figure out how to ask it in an answerable form. Any comments on the question itself are welcome to improve the question.

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I would like to know more about the questions one should ask when reading/studying. Good question +1. – hellectronic Dec 14 '11 at 16:33
up vote 7 down vote accepted

But of course! I would say preparing questions for material you study is pretty much the key to retention. You should also test yourself on those questions, that's even better.

Such a learning tool even has a name: flashcards.

Preparing Flashcards

Flashcards come from the idea of preparing a stack of index cards where each card takes the question on the front-side, and the answer on the flip-side. You then go through this deck of cards for a given subject, reading out the questions, trying to remember the answer, and then flipping it to see if you got it right.

Preparing questions for flashcards is itself an art. You want to make it so each question is very well-defined and encompasses a unit of information, not more. That means they should be simple and straightforward to answer. Fortunately, it's easy to detect when you've made your question too complex/unfocused: you'll repeatedly have trouble remembering it's answer--for instance you might recall part of it but always forget some little details. That means those little details (if relevant) should have actually been each on a separate question of their own.

An example:

Q: Describe the flying saucer model 51

Could be broken down into:

  • Q: What propulsion system does the model 51 saucer use?
  • Q: How are model 51 saucer's cockpit controls arranged?
  • Q: What makes the model 51 saucer prone to crashing so much?

Depending on how important the details are, the questions above could even be further broken down. The granularity which you should give to each question depends on the scope of what you are studying.

Of course, depending on the context of your deck of cards, you want to make sure the question doesn't give out too much hint on the answer. Especially, you want to make sure your answer doesn't simply give you some verbal cues to which you associate the answer mechanically (like an actor rehearsing a line), instead of making you think.

Spaced Repetition Learning

But the real magic of all this deck building is in their software implementations. Some complete freak named Dr. Wozniak decided to create, a good many years past, a better way for him to review his english vocabulary lists. Thus SuperMemo was born, and with it a powerful algorithm that incorporates the psychology concept of spaced repetition learning to figure out just the right time for you to review each of your flashcards, based on your last outcome (whether you remembered or not, and how well).

Software does a great job of keeping track of the flashcards you should be reviewing each day out of decks of hundreds or thousands of cards (as many as you want to create, of course). People (like me) use it to remember, without breaking a sweat, unsurmountable things like the thousands of chinese characters you need to know to even read a goddamn news article.

What the spacing effect research says, and the software implements beautifully, is that we have predictable learning curves, and we should review material when we are just about to forget it. This is counter-intuitive to the rote memorization methods we were taught, of exhaustive intense repetition, but amazingly more efficient in allowing you to retain knowledge with minimal effort. Below is the general pattern the SuperMemo algorithm employs to schedule the repetitions for each of your flashcards:

enter image description here

The above chart is from Wired magazine, and I REALLY recommend their fascinating article (I sometimes re-read it just for kicks) about the man and his creation. And his absurd lifestyle.

(WIRED) Want to Remember Everything You'll Ever Learn? Surrender to This Algorithm

Popular implementations of the SuperMemo algorithm are, obviously, SuperMemo itself and Anki, amongst many others. Here's a good list with feature breakdown, including versions for iPhone and Android.

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This is a great answer. I've been thinking about it for a while but I was unaware of P. Wozniak or any structured research on repetition. Thank you very much. I installed Ankidroid on my phone and Anki on my desktop, and exploring the capabilities right now. I think, I have some difficulties to convert the data I process to some graspable information, and I need to master this by trying and thinking on it. Your example to divide it to smaller chunks will definitely help. I want to apply it more on math and programming actually. Let's try and see how it helps :) – petrichor Dec 15 '11 at 18:48
The tough part is definitely coming up with the right questions in the first place. After that, reviewing material is like a game, and you can go through your daily cards blazingly fast (I'd say 10 to 30mins a day for most decks). Of course, as with spaced repetition itself, consistency is much better than intense bursts of effort. So go adding just a few (5 to 10) cards a day based on what you study. – Vic Goldfeld Dec 15 '11 at 19:21
I had two moleskines: one for some 'questions' I found to be useful and one for some 'answers' but it was worthless since it was not practical to study them again. This way seems to be very practical and the information is graspable. I added some materials via Anki desktop and I used Ankidroid on my way to school at bus today and it was both fun and studying :) I will keep in mind to add few items instead of intense loads and keep practicing regularly all my decks. – petrichor Dec 15 '11 at 19:32

You could consider exploring what are the ways things tend to stick for you. Is there something in preparing a question that causes more focus and use of all the information you have compared to the case where you may just be reciting what someone else has told you to study? Does perception factor into this? Does concern for others play a role?

Another side is to consider your motivation in each of these cases. Does the problem session questions exist for you to advance your own understanding or do you already know the answers to the questions you ask to help ensure everyone else in the group knows this too?

Measuring how connected I am to a topic can play a role in how well I recall information as there are some ideas and concepts that I can recall with great ease and little effort while other things are much harder for me to get to the same point.

Multiple intelligences may be useful to help add a dimension in terms of how you learn best. For myself, my top ways are logical/Mathematical, intrapersonal, and verbal/linguistic which make a lot of sense in terms of how I see the world and what makes me pick up various pieces of knowledge and wisdom.

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You're right. I have more motivation since I'm convinced that the topic is interesting since it concerns me, my professor, and the classroom. When I try to study myself, I don't have this kind of motivation. I will use spaced repetition by helper software in the following days and try to examine how it goes with me. I hope to identify the information I need and let them be in my deck, but remove the others on the fly. Thanks also for the multiple intelligence test. – petrichor Dec 15 '11 at 18:54

Personally I use mindmapping technique in order to summarize/outline/remember every topic I deal with. I usually mindmap when I:

  1. Read important book
  2. Study some standalone topic
  3. Want to structure information I get from one or several sources
  4. Prepare my own presentation or training

Thanks to mindmapping, several goals are usually met:

  1. I have my own information structure
  2. I have outline/summary of the topic
  3. I have saved file I can review later and resurrect specific aspects of the topic and my own special perception of it

There are many great tools available. Personally I use XMind. I would also recommend online mindmapping service Mindmeister.

Hope you will find this technique useful. There are high chances that final mindmap will have all the questions you need for further self-assessment and review, or at least will help to prepare them more effectively. Good luck!

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Thank you very much for this nice answer, but I couldn't get the connection with the question. I ask about preparing questions and the related research. – petrichor Jan 2 '12 at 11:27
There are high chances that final mindmap will have all the questions you need, at least will help to prepare them more effectively. – altern Jan 2 '12 at 14:02

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