Answering questions directly helps you learn

Posted by John Kleeman

One of the most interesting things I’ve ever learned is that answering questions directly helps you learn. Taking a quiz or test gives your brain retrieval practice, and so helps you retrieve it again when you need it.

Smart people over the ages have realized that when you learn, you need to learn to retrieve something, not to simply store it in memory. The famous writer Francis Bacon wrote in 1620

If you read anything over twenty times, you will not learn it by heart so easily as if you were to read it only ten, trying to repeat it between whiles, and when memory failed, looking at the book.

I first learned this in an assessment context from an excellent presentation by Dr. Will Thalheimer at the first ever Questionmark user conference in Miami in 2003. He spoke about the Learning Benefits of Questions (his white paper on this subject is still available at Questionmark’s website).  But it’s exciting to see that academic research is continuing in this area since 2003, and that psychologists are getting a better understanding of how tests directly help you learn. One of the leading researchers in the field is Professor Henry L. Roediger III at the Memory Lab in Washington University in St. Louis – you can see his list of publications at

Roediger and Butler (in a powerful paper on the subject) describe two ways in which quizzes and tests help learning

  • Mediated (or indirect) effects where questioning indirectly impact learning

Examples of mediated effects are that students who know they are to be tested will study for the test and so learn; that quizzes give feedback which helps learning; and that assessments can direct learners and instructors to identify weak areas where more learning is needed. These are the effects that we are all usually familiar with.

  • Unmediated (or direct) effects where questioning directly helps learning.

This is the effect whereby actually answering questions gives you retrieval practice and makes things you answer easier to recall later. When you learn something, you are not seeking just to implant it in your brain, but also to be able to retrieve it a later date. Answering a question gives you retrieval practice, and helps you be able to retrieve it later on when you need it.

Elementary or primary school teachers know the unmediated value of questioning, that’s why small children do drill and practice exercises and repeatedly are asked questions on number tables and other simple stuff.

But as learners get older, students and teachers sometimes rebel against assessments and think that learning does not benefit from them. However the scientific evidence is clear that if you study something and take a quiz or test, you retain it better than if you just study. For an instance of this, see my earlier blog entry which includes the chart below from another paper. This chart shows that if you want to learn something and retrieve it for a few minutes, lots of studying works well, but if you want to learn it and be able to retrieve it a week later, studying and testing gives much better results than just studying.


I’ll share more of my understanding on unmediated effects of questioning in future blog articles.

In the meantime, to practice what I preach, here are three questions for you to help you retain the information above.

Using Twitter to help learners retain knowledge

john_smallPosted by John KleemanTwitter  Logo

Here’s a question for you: “What is the best way of stopping people forgetting things after learning?”

Think about this for a moment before looking ahead if you can.

I hope your answer is something like this: by asking them questions over time after the learning takes place.

When you learn something, you connect two or more concepts in memory. And when you are asked a question about what you have learned, you have to search your memory to find the answer. This searching makes the connection in memory stronger, so in the future you will be more likely to remember what you have learned rather than forget it. If you’re not familiar with this important idea, see these white papers by learning expert Will Thalheimer for more information:  The Learning Benefits of Questions and Measuring Learning Results.

If your learners go on to another course or go back to work, it’s not always easy to reach them to stimulate their memory with follow-up questions. Here’s where Twitter comes in: it can be a great tool for sending follow up questions.

Twitter grad logo

  1. Have your learners follow you on Twitter, either on your main account, or on a subsidiary account made for each course.
  2. Post short questions as tweets to stimulate people’s memory. Remember, even thinking about the answer can help reinforce the learning. You could post the right answer the next day.
  3. Follow these up with quizzes in Questionmark Perception. You can post links to to these assessments in your tweets. With the new support of mobile devices in Perception version 5, your learners can access these quizzes from mobile devices as well as PCs and Macs, and take the quizzes from their home or while traveling.

Shortening a question into 140 characters  is usually possible, and it’s easy to compress a URL to Perception’s open access entry point (open.php) to fit within a tweet. For instance the URL links to one of Questionmark’s sample assessments on Electricity Skills.
I hope this idea helps. And in case you’ve forgotten, what is the best way of helping people remember after learning?