elaboration

Asking better questions

Questions — especially why questions — help us make connections to existing anchor points — facts we know well. But some questions are better than others.

To decide whether a question is effective, ask:

  • does it make the information more meaningful?
  • does it make the information more comprehensible?
  • does it increase the number of meaningful connections?

Consider our facts about blood:

  • arteries are thick and elastic and carry blood that is rich in oxygen from the heart.
  • veins are thinner, less elastic, and carry blood rich in carbon dioxide back to the heart.

We could, as is often advised, simply turn these into why questions. And we can answer these on the basis of the connections we’ve already made:

Why are arteries elastic?

Because they need to accommodate changes in pressure

Why are arteries thick?

Because they need to accommodate high pressure

Why do arteries carry blood away from the heart?

Because blood coming from the heart comes out at high pressure and in spurts of variable pressure

Why do arteries carry blood that is rich in oxygen?

Because the blood coming from the heart is rich in oxygen

Why are veins less elastic?

Because the blood flows continuously and evenly

Why are veins less thick?

Because the blood flows at a lower pressure

Why do veins carry blood to the heart?

Because blood going to the heart flows continuously and evenly

Why do veins carry blood that is rich in CO2?

Because the blood going to the heart is rich in CO2

What’s missing? Connections between these facts. The facts have become more meaningful, but to be really understood you need to make the connections between the facts explicit.

Look again at our original questions. See how they relate the facts to each other? They don’t ask: why are arteries elastic? They ask: Why do arteries need to be more elastic than veins? They don’t ask: why do arteries carry blood that is rich in oxygen? They ask: why do vessels carrying blood from the heart need to be rich in oxygen?

By answering these questions, we have built up an understanding of the facts that ties them together in a multi-connected cluster:

pictorial representation of this information

For simplicity, I’ve just focused on the arteries. See how the four facts about arteries are connected together. Meaningfully connected. In a perfect world we’d be able to close the circle with a direct connection between the facts “Arteries carry blood rich in oxygen” and “Arteries are thick”, but as far as I know, the only connection between them is indirect, through the fact that “Arteries carry blood from the heart”.

So … the world isn’t perfect, and information doesn’t come in neatly wrapped bundles where every fact connects directly to every other fact. But the more connections you can make between related facts — the stronger a cluster you can make — the more deeply you will understand the information, and the more accessible it will be. That is, you will remember it more easily and for longer.

If it’s well enough connected

If it’s connected to strong anchor points

You will simply 'know' it.

You’re never going to forget that you breathe in oxygen and that your heart pumps out blood. These are strong anchor points. If the facts about arteries are strongly connected to these anchor points, you will never forget them either.

Asking questions is one of the best ways of making connections,

but

Bad questions can be worse than no questions at all.

Rote questions that direct your attention to unimportant details are better not asked.

Effective questions prepare you to pay attention to the important details in the text.

The best questions not only direct your attention appropriately, but also require you to integrate the details in the text. Ask yourself:

  • Is this helping me to select the important information?
  • Is it helping me make connections?

When the subject is new to you

When you don’t have enough prior knowledge about a subject to ask effective questions, you are better off forming connections using mnemonics — either through verbal elaboration, as in our sentence about “Art (ery) being thick around the middle so he wore trousers with an elastic waistband” or by creating interactive images.

However, mnemonics such as these — while perfectly effective — are only good for rote learning. Sometimes that’s all you want, of course. But if you’re going to be learning more information that relates to these facts, then you’re making a rod for your own back.

When you learn something by rote, it never gets easier. When you learn by building connections, every new fact is acquired more easily. And it’s progressive. An expert on a subject can hear a new fact in her area of expertise, and it’s there. Remembered. Without effort. Because she’s an expert. And what makes her an expert? Simply the fact that she’s built up a network of information that is so tightly connected, and that has so many strong anchor points, that the information is always retrievable.

Why questions, like any questions, are only effective to the extent that they direct attention to appropriate information.

Research confirms that it is better to search for consistent relations than inconsistent ones. In many cases your background knowledge may include information that is consistent with the new information, and information that is inconsistent.

By asking “Why is this true?” you focus on the consistent information.

References: 
  • Woloshyn, V.E., Willoughby, T., Wood, E., & Pressley, M. 1990. Elaborative interrogation facilitates adult learning of factual paragraphs. Journal of Educational Psychology, 82, 513-524.
  • Pressley, M. & El-Dinary, P.B. 1992. Memory strategy instruction that promotes good information processing. In D. Herrmann, H. Weingartner, A. Searleman & C. McEvoy (eds.) Memory Improvement: Implications for Memory Theory. New York: Springer-Verlag.

Elaborating the information for better remembering

Elaborative interrogation involves turning facts to be learned into why-questions and then answering them.

The strategy is of proven effectiveness when the information to be learned concerns familiar concepts.

Elaborative interrogation is a useful strategy when:

  • you need to understand the information as well as remember it
  • you already possess sufficient related knowledge to use the strategy effectively

Elaborative interrogation is a strategy to help you remember meaningful information. The idea behind the strategy is that relevant prior knowledge is not always readily activated when you are trying to learn new information, and sometimes help is needed to make the right connections. The strategy requires you to go beyond the information given to you and to construct reasons for the relationships between bits of information.

Because elaborative techniques help your understanding by relating new information to codes already stored and familiar to you, elaborative interrogation is a strategy best suited to a situation where the information you wish to learn relates to a rich network of information in your database1.

An example:

Some facts:

arteries are thick and elastic and carry blood that is rich in oxygen from the heart.

veins are thinner, less elastic, and carry blood rich in carbon dioxide back to the heart.

Now if you know nothing else about veins and arteries and the circulation of blood, this is a set of facts with little meaning. You can learn this information

  • by rote (through simple repetition), or
  • by using a mnemonic aid (for example, you could make up a sentence such as “Art (ery) was thick around the middle so he wore trousers with an elastic waistband”), or
  • by understanding the connections between the facts.

Guess which way will help you remember the information much better for longer?

Let's ask some why questions.

Why do arteries need to be more elastic than veins?

Why do arteries need to be thicker than veins?

Why do arteries carry blood away from the heart?

Why do arteries carry the blood that is rich in oxygen?

These four questions lead directly from the facts as they are given. But we can also reinterpret these questions in a way that integrates the facts at a deeper level.

When we ask: Why do arteries carry blood away from the heart? it may be that the right question really is: Why do the vessels carrying blood from the heart need to be thicker and more elastic?

When we ask: Why do arteries carry the blood that’s rich in oxygen, it may be that the right question actually is: Why do the vessels carrying oxygen-rich blood need to be thicker and more elastic?

Or it may be that the right question is: Why do the vessels carrying blood from the heart need to be rich in oxygen? That question takes us another step: Why should blood be rich in oxygen? Why is blood sometimes rich in oxygen and sometimes rich in carbon dioxide?

Why do arteries carry the blood that is rich in oxygen?

? = Why do the vessels carrying blood rich in oxygen need to be thicker and more elastic?

? or = Why do the vessels carrying blood from the heart need to be rich in oxygen?

Why should blood be rich in oxygen?

Why is blood sometimes rich in oxygen and sometimes rich in carbon dioxide?

Why are arteries thicker and more elastic than veins?

pictorial representation of this information

(You can see better images if you click the links at the bottom.)

Arteries are thick and elastic because they carry blood from the heart, which pumps blood out in spurts.

Veins are thin and less elastic because they carry blood to the heart in an even flow.

So all these facts — arteries are thick and elastic and carry blood from the heart; veins are thinner, less elastic, and carry blood back to the heart — are connected. So far so good.

But we still have a couple of loose facts. What has any of this got to do with the fact that arteries carry blood rich in oxygen and veins carry blood rich in carbon dioxide?

pictorial representation of blood flow information

So the fact that arteries carry oxygen-rich blood is connected to the fact that arteries carry blood from the heart; and veins carry carbon dioxide-rich blood because they carry blood to the heart — and all of these are connected to the well-known fact that we breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide. Just as our earlier cluster of facts — that arteries are thick and elastic and carry blood from the heart — was connected to the well-known fact that the heart is a pump.

Remember:
Facts that you already know very well and have no trouble remembering act as anchor points. The more anchor points you can connect to, the more meaningful the new information becomes, and the more easily you will remember it.

References: 
  • Bransford, J.D., Stein, B.S., Shelton, T.S. & Owings, R.A. 1981. Cognition and adaptation: the importance of learning to learn. In J. Harvey (ed.). Cognition, social behavior and the environment. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
  • Pressley, M. & El-Dinary, P.B. 1992. Memory strategy instruction that promotes good information processing. In D. Herrmann, H. Weingartner, A. Searleman & C. McEvoy (eds.) Memory improvement: Implications for memory theory. New York: Springer-Verlag.

1. Willoughby, T., Desmarais, S., Wood, E., Sims, S. & Kalra, M. 1997. Mechanisms that facilitate the effectiveness of elaboration strategies. Journal of Educational Psychology, 89, 682-685.

Effective Notetaking now available in print

Very excited to be able to tell you that Effective notetaking is now available in hardcopy. It's distinctly larger than Mnemonics for Study, but not large for a workbook. I'm very pleased to have both of these available now as paperbacks as well as digital formats.

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