Ask The Powerful Question

Educational psychologists study how people learn, and therefore how best to teach. One bedrock principle is that if a learner is asked to try to recall what they know about a topic just prior to be taught about that topic, the presented material is much more likely to stick. The explanation for the phenomenon is that by accessing that prior knowledge, those areas of the brain are activated, and the newly presented material is more easily connected to the prior knowledge that is safely embedded in memory. It seems simple and sensible, and it is, but how often do we teach by immediately diving into communicating information instead?

In addition to making new knowledge sticky, starting with a question allows for assessment of what the learner knows, so that the teaching can be adapted accordingly. And for the learner, the very act of having to first assess self-knowledge helps promote development of meta-cognition. Psychologists use the term meta-cognition to refer to the set of abilities and skills related to accurate self-assessment of knowledge and how to most learn most effectively. So questions prompt assessment that is helpful to both the teacher and the learner.

Are some questions more effective than others? The title of this Teaching Tip refers to “The” powerful question. Of course that is a judgment, but the general question “What do you know about X?” seems like a powerful and universally applicable one to pose. Being so broad, the question prompts learners to access their prior knowledge and attempt to summarize it in an efficient way. Assuming a fair degree of prior knowledge, their response will be less than elegant, but still useful for the reasons described above. Questions such as “Do you know about X?” or “How much do you know about X?” allow for legitimate answers such as “yes” and “not very much” or “quite a bit.” By now we can see why those answers are not useful. How might you begin training yourself to start your teaching interactions with the most powerful question?

Michael Wiederman, PhD, Professor
Director of Leadership and Professional Development
Co-Director, Family Medicine Faculty Development Fellowship
Department of Family and Community Medicine
University of South Carolina