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“Asking questions” of students is pretty-much a staple of any teacher’s toolkit, which is fair enough, because as Jarrett (2107) notes:

The “testing effect” is well-established in psychology: this is the finding that answering questions about what you’ve learned leads to better retention than simply studying the material for longer. Testing is beneficial because the act of recall entrenches learned material in our memories, and when we can’t answer, this helps us make our future revision more targeted”.

Testing, therefore, has a range of educational benefits for both teachers – such as checking how effective their teaching of a particular topic has been – and students in that answering questions appears to encourage better information retention.

This type of practice, for reasons that are somewhat obvious, can be called post-questioning: students attempt to learn something, by viewing a short film, for example, and are then questioned on what they’ve learnt “after the event”.

This, you may be thinking, makes sense and is how it probably should be.

And you wouldn’t be wrong.

There is, however, another way of asking questions that is slightly more counter-intuitive in that it involves asking questions before students have studied something. This is known as pre-questioning and, on the face of things probably sounds a little pointless.

Bear with me however, as I outline two types of pre-questioning and suggest exactly how and why they might be useful to your teaching in different contexts.

1. Prepared / planned

This type is probably most useful and / or effective when you want students to watch a short video (say, between 5 and 10 minutes) or listen to a similarly short lecture and involves what Jarrett calls:  

Questions pertaining to upcoming information that you attempt to answer before you’ve started learning that information”.

The basic technique involves creating a set of questions you want your students to answer based on, say, a short film you are going to show them in class (although this will also work with online teaching).

Before your students watch the film they need to spend some time – around 5 or 10 minutes, depending on the number and style of the questions you’ve set – answering the questions. These can be in any format you want – quantitative, qualitative or a mix of both – and the only requirement is that the questions are closely related to the film.

For example, when showing your students a film on gender and crime a simple pre-question might be something like:

“Are men more criminal than women”?

While a slightly more involved question might take the form:

“Suggest three reasons why men are more criminal than women”.

In general, to keep things reasonably short and focused, planned pre-questions should ideally be:

a. Very specific to the information students are about to watch.

b. Simple and straightforward: sticking to simple factual answers at this stage is probably best – more-nuanced and developed questioning can come later.

Once your students have viewed the film (and if you’re stuck for inspiration you can check-out our range of short Sociology and Psychology films designed for the A-level curriculum) you can recap the information in the context of the pre-questions you’ve asked. Carpenter and Toftness (2017) argue this is beneficial because:

Asking students questions before they learn something has been shown to enhance memory for that information”.

Their research concluded that, in the particular context of video-based learning, “pre-questions appear to confer both specific and general benefits”: those students (the Pre-question Group) who viewed a video after answering a set of pre-questions about its content remembered more information than a Control group who simply watched the video and then answered questions on its content.

This effect seems to be consistent for both questions that were answered correctly and incorrectly, albeit for different reasons. A correct answer served as a way of reinforcing a particular piece of information, confirming to the student, as it were, it had been learnt. An incorrect answer (immediately followed by the correct answer), on the other hand, reinforced the need to revise / relearn something.

2. Situational

One of the advantages of planned pre-questions is that you can prepare them in advance (and easily reuse them for different classes). They’re also effective when the information following the “test” is very tightly structured, as in a video. They’re not particularly useful, however, for teaching contexts that are a little more spontaneous and loosely-structured – and this is where situational types of pre-question can be used.

This type of pre-questioning can be used in a number of ways, but here I’m just going to outline the basic technique because once it’s understood you can alter and adapt it to whatever situation you like in your classroom.

At the start of a topic you begin by asking your students a question that should, ideally, be:

a. Very broad: you want to be as inclusive as possible in a way that allows students to suggest possible answers in a wide-variety of ways. Keeping things initially broad – and even a little vague – means students are more-likely to offer-up ideas and explanations as they draw on their own particular opinions about something.

b. Simple, in the sense of being easy to understand (but not necessarily to answer) to encourage students to interpret they question as they see fit.

c. Based around a simple “What” or a “Why” (or sometimes “How”, depending on the context) format designed to get your students to offer up a range of ideas, observations and explanations

For example, in sociology examples of situational pre-questions might be something along the lines of:

Why do more men than women commit crime?

What is a family?

Why do we have schools?

In psychology, they might involve questions like:

Why do people conform?

What do we mean by depression?

Is psychology a science?

Taking the example “Why do people commit crime?”, it’s the kind of question you can use at the start of a section dealing with something like Theories of Crime (a complementary – and pleasingly counter-intuitive – question you might also like to use at some point is “Why don’t people commit crime?”).

Crime Theory Spider Diagram
(Click image for Resources)

Since students won’t have actually studied this area before, they will draw on “commonsense” ideas in order to suggest explanations, each of which – no matter how seemingly misguided or outlandish – you need to duly-record in some way, ideally so that everyone in the class can see how “knowledge about crime” is being built. I’ve found a MIndMap / Spider Diagram is a very effective, highly-visual and connective way of doing this.

As you build-up a “map” of possible explanations you can, if you feel it would be useful as a way of prompting for further information, ask simple supplementary pre-questions that seeks to probe or expand something a student has said.

Once the initial pre-question has run its course you’ll be left with a mass of information that, if you’ve mapped it, will consist of a variety of loosely-related groups or branches of information that are unlikely to be “conventionally sociological”.

The next task, therefore, is to translate everyday, commonsense, explanations for why people commit crimes into sociological theories. For example, if students have suggested “poverty” as a reason this can be translated into an exploration of Strain Theory. Similarly, you’ll undoubtedly get explanations that suggest people are “born bad”, which leads into areas like psycho-social and control theories.

One way to do this – if you have the time and inclination – is to guide your students through the process of unravelling their observations into more-coherent sociological (or psychological) forms by using the An End Has A Start technique.

As you’re probably thinking, situational pre-questions demand a lot more of the teacher – the ability to think quickly on your feet and turn student-generated knowledge into sociological knowledge for example. They do, however, bring much greater rewards in the sense that they connect students more-closely to what they’re studying, in that they allow you to:

  • explore issues and ideas in greater depth.
  • make connections between different parts of a topic.
  • show students how to think more-carefully about commonsense knowledge and its relationship to sociological knowledge.
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