QUESTION: a revolutionary method for learning from textbooks

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Student Lifehacks
an open textbook with an open notebook and a pen

There are a bunch of notetaking and memorization methods out there: a two-column Cornell method, flashcards or mind-maps. These techniques are proven to be beneficial for enhancing one’s level of material’s memorization and recalling. Indeed, it is better to take notes and work through the textbook’s content instead of just reading! However, these methods can be extremely time-consuming and might not yield the expected level of memorization and comprehension. We want to share with you another very appealing and not so painstaking method of learning from a textbook. In a nutshell — instead of writing down quotes or whole paragraphs from your textbooks, you should be forming questions!

This method was invented by AnastaciaKay — a Russian-speaking blogger who is now doing her MA in Harvard School of Educations (so she knows what she is talking about). You can check the original video here (English subtitles available). Here we will briefly review the main principles and explain why this method actually works!

How do we learn from textbooks?

How do you usually work with your textbooks? Do you highlight the most crucial parts you want to review later? Or do you leave your textbook innocent in order to resell it for a buyback later? Do you make notes as you read or write a chapter’s summary afterward? These are conventional systems that we often use even without understanding how they work and whether any of these systems will help us remember and comprehend the studied subject better!

To put it briefly, to retain the information, we need to practice its retrieval and not just once but over certain intervals. This ability to recall and reproduce the content (in your own words, it’s not about memorizing definitions word by word) is the key to learning success. However, most of the techniques of working with textbooks (like highlighting) will point you at important content or, in better cases, will make you summarize the new information. However, none of them will urge you to reproduce the information. The only exceptions are flashcards — this system is made for you to practice recalling and retrieving. But flashcards have a huge drawback: making them is extremely labor-intensive (honestly, I give up after making like ten of them).

We suggest you try out a system that is designed just for that—for training your recalling of the material after you’ve read it—but won’t cost you hours for setting it up.

What is this QUESTION-method about?

How should you take better notes? While reading your textbook, you should form a question for each paragraph or each new term you want to remember (whether it is a historical date or a list of protein’s functions). In other methods of learning from textbooks, you would have written down the ‘answers’ (the exact date and the list of functions), but here you do just the opposite.

You should form open-ended questions and avoid simple ‘yes or no’ questions. A proper question could be: what is X? how does Z work? how does Z relate to Y? what are the conditions for X to affect Y? and so on… Forming questions like these won’t take much of your time: just simply keep a sheet of paper, your notebook or laptop next to you while working through a chapter from your textbook. When you find the information you want to recall later, you should pause and write down a question about it on a piece of paper or elsewhere. Then move forward with your reading.

You need to be able to check an answer to these questions, right? So next to your questions, write down a page number and line that contains the answer. Alternatively, put the question’s number next to the corresponding paragraph or line in the textbook containing the answer. This should work equally well if you prefer e-books—just use a mark-up tool.

As soon as you finish reading a chapter, you already have a list of questions! With this list, you can check how well you have memorized the information. Close your textbook and ask yourself these questions. Then find the answer in the textbook and check if you’ve comprehended and recalled the content correctly. To make it more challenging, do not go through questions one by one: mix!

To gain the best results, you should practice answering these questions according to the forgetting curve: immediately after you’ve read the chapter, 24 hours later, and then in a few days. This way, you won’t forget the material too fast!

When does it work at its best?

This question-method will suit those who find the process of simple notetaking extremely tiresome and not giving desired results. However, it works best when you have a single source—a textbook, a scientific article or a monograph—which you need to study in detail. If you don’t work with textbooks but with multiple sources that are predominantly digital, it will be hard to establish a reference system to those questions you’ve formed. In this case, good-old flashcards might be the best solution. Another constraint of this technique is that it is not portable: to check your answers, you always need to have the right textbook by your side. It will suit you best if you prefer to study at home or at the library but not on your way to a student party.

Why should you try this method?

First, this method is based on an essential understanding of how our memory works. This question-technique trains retrieving—one of the most important activities for long-lasting memorization and comprehension. Moreover, with this technique, you will have excellent custom-made tests for every chapter of your textbook. It is extremely helpful when you’re preparing for the finals. You will immediately get a grasp on which areas you need to revise while just rereading your notes will give you an illusion of knowing stuff without actually checking the comprehension.

At the same time, writing down a few questions as you read is not time-consuming at all, unlike traditional notetaking or flashcards. Another benefit is that you can practice recalling information immediately after you’ve read the chapter—it might be challenging at first, but as the curve of memorization reveals it is extremely beneficial for making later recalling easier. This method is also perfectly suited for working in a study group: you can exchange questions with your peers, test each other and teach one another.

In any case, this method is so inspiring, laconic, and beneficial so I hope you try it out the next time you need to study from your textbooks! And I bet you already know that you shouldn’t waste hundreds on new textbooks — you can buy or rent them with BooksRun for very tempting prices.

Iliana K