As you’ll probably be aware, “asking questions” is one of the main tools teachers have in their imaginary toolbox and research has consistently shown that, done well and in the right hands, it’s an effective way to judge students’ comprehension, test their knowledge and encourage critical thinking.
So, on the basis it’s helpful for teachers to ask questions of their students, it probably makes sense for students to ask questions of themselves. And while self-questioning is generally beneficial at any point in your studies, it’s particularly useful for revision.
And one way to do it effectively is through a process called elaborative interrogation which, despite sounding disturbingly complex, is actually quite simple:
- elaboration involves developing your understanding of something, such as a concept, theory or method, by explaining it in some way.
- interrogation is the means to achieving this, by asking yourself questions.
The objective of elaborative interrogation, therefore, is to encourage you to develop your understanding of key ideas (concept, theories, methods or whatever) through a process of self-questioning – one that has two potential benefits:
First, it makes for more-interesting and personally challenging revision. You’re not simply trying to “remember things” – something that can become monotonous and self-defeating (if you lose interest in what you’re revising, revision itself becomes less effective). Rather, you’re trying to actively engage with the materials you need to recall and explain: a process that, almost by definition, helps you retain interest in the things you’re revising.
Second, higher-level exams such as A-levels require you to display a range of skills, such as interpretation, analysis and evaluation, that you need to encourage through your revision. Elaborative interrogation can help you cover these bases by asking three types of question:
1. What knowledge can I use here?
This type of question is useful when you want to recall information and broadly relates to a process known as retrieval practice – a tried-and-tested technique to improve your memory and, most-importantly, your ability to recall relevant information as and when it’s needed. Such as in a high stakes exam.
In sociology, an example of this type of question could be something like “What types of family exist in contemporary Britian?”.
For most students this is probably what revision means: drilling yourself with the memorisation and recall of “factual information” using ever-popular techniques such as Flashcards. And while this is clearly useful – if you don’t have any subject knowledge you’re not going to pass exams – higher-level exams demand you to do a lot more than simply regurgitate knowledge-on-demand. They require you to do something with that knowledge: such as analyse, interpret and, most-importantly, question it.
Although you’ll probably get a decent grade with knowledge alone, you won’t get the top grade for which you should be aiming. To achieve this you need to develop the higher-level skills just noted and one way to encourage this in your revision is to interrogate the things you know in ways that make you develop – or elaborate – your knowledge. Which is why you need to ask yourself questions like:
2. Why is this knowledge important?
This type of question is a staple for elaborative interrogation because to answer it you have to go beyond a simple statement of knowledge and into the realms of analysis and interpretation. In the above, for example, asking yourself the question “Why do different types of family exist in contemporary Britain?” forces you to dig deeper into your knowledge and understanding. You need, for example, to retrieve and connect different types of information.
By questioning yourself in this really simple way you’re not only practicing retrieving a much wider range of knowledge than occurs when you just ask yourself “what do I know about xyz?”, you’re doing it in a way that gives you practice in answering the kind of question you’re going to get in advanced exams.
Another feature of this type of self-questioning, of course, is that it quickly reveals any gaps in your knowledge. If you can’t elaborate then you need to revise your basic knowledge until you can…
3. How is this knowledge important?
A third kind of self-question makes you use a slightly different range of skills because this type of question encourages you to apply what you know in some way. They particularly encourage the use of evidence and evaluation: the first in terms of using factual knowledge to support an argument and the second in terms of thinking about how one type of argument might be stronger or weaker than an alternative explanation.
In the family example we’ve used, an example of this type might be something like “How do I know one type of family is more prevalent than other types of family?”.
This type of question again forces you to expand your revision practice to connect different ideas, albeit in a slightly different way to the previous type.
Although asking yourself these three types of question as part of your revision is pretty straightforward, if you want to mix things up a little more you might like to think about using a Question Cube.
A Question Cube is a cube with questions (no, really) and you can make one in a couple of ways:
The first involves literally making a Cube out of paper or card. This is a fiddly and time-consuming method that involves finding a template, meticulously writing a question on each face, gluing the various edges of the cube to form a 3-dimensional square and then looking-on in despair when, every time you roll it, it lands on the same face because of some flaw in the construction process.
The second is to buy a six-sided dice – or half-inch one from some unsuspecting younger sibling. An added bonus of the latter is the confused-mixed-with-disappointed look on their little face the next time they try to play a treasured game only to find the dice have mysteriously vanished.
Fun for all the family! Except, perhaps, for your younger sibling (but then, if you’re going to do things like this to them, you probably don’t care).
You could, of course, use a digital dice if you want to avoid either messing around with paper and glue or making an enemy out of your siblings.
Whatever you decide, all you need to do is assign a standardised question to each number on the dice. While the specific question type is up to you, the following might be helpful:
1. Explain this concept / theory / method.
2. How can you apply this concept / theory / method?
3. This concept / theory / method is similar to:
4. This concept / theory / method is the opposite of:
5. This concept / theory / method links closely to:
6. Why is this concept / theory / method useful?
Once you’ve created your Question Cube you incorporate it into your revision by deciding on a concept, theory or method you want to revise, rolling the dice and answering the question that corresponds to the number you throw.
As part of the revision process you can return to a particular concept / theory / method repeatedly, re-roll the dice and, hopefully, get a different question to answer (a kind of spaced learning, if you’re interested).
And if this post has whetted your appetite for more revision-related content, have a look at some of our new Dynamic Learning films.
If you dare.