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 note-taking 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 memorization and recall. Indeed, it’s 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 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 Anastacia Kay—a Russian-speaking blogger who is now doing her MA at Harvard School of Education (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 summary afterward? These are conventional systems that we often use even without understanding how they work and whether they will help us remember and comprehend the studied subject better!

To put it briefly, to retain the information, we need to practice its retrieval, not just once but over specific 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 techniques (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 allows you to practice recalling and retrieving. But flashcards have a huge drawback: making them is extremely labor-intensive (honestly, try making like ten of them and see).

Instead, we suggest you try out a system designed just for that—to train your recalling of the material after you’ve read it—but it won’t cost you hours to set 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 keep a sheet of paper, your notebook, or your 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! This list allows you to 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
  • 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 note-taking extremely tiresome and unfit to provide desired results. However, it works best when you have a single source—a textbook, a scientific article, or a monograph—that 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. The Question Method 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 your comprehension.

At the same time, writing down a few questions as you read is not time-consuming at all, unlike traditional note-taking 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’s highly 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, and teach one another.

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

Iliana K