How Questions Can Enhance Teaching & Learning

I’m rereading James Lang’s Small Teaching (2016). The first time I read it, I found it to be outstandingly helpful for thinking about course design, lesson planning, assignments, and more. In this post, I want to share my notes from Lang’s chapter on “The Retrieval Effect” (Chapter 1).

1. Practice, practice, practice

Here’s the basic idea of the retrieval effect: simply practicing the action of remembering seems to improve recall.

The obvious implication is that we have to get students to practice remembering. What’s less obvious is what that means for the classroom. Is it enough to just ask some questions during a class? Perhaps. But if you want to optimize the retrieval effect, then you might want to keep reading.

2. Questions For Each Stage Of Class

Suppose you want a lesson plan for one class. Here are some question-based activities and assignments that you might want to incorporate. They are organized in roughly chronological order: from opening questions to closing questions.

2.1 Opening Questions

Class recall. “Before we start can anyone remind me what we talked about last [class/week/etc.]?”

Topic recall. “Before I introduce the second _______, what was the first ______ we discussed?”

Particular recall. “We’ve seen several [claims/views/experiments/etc.] at this point in the semester. Someone remind us of one of them.”

Previously on… presentations. Each student starts at least one class with a 3-5 minute summary of the previous class (Blazer, 2014).

2.2 Ongoing Questions

Pre-discussion write-up. Give students 5-10 minutes to write a response to a discussion question. Then open the floor for discussion (Lang, 2016). One benefit of this assignment is that it allows all students—not just the vocal ones—an opportunity to respond (Rogerson, 2003).

Covert recall. Simply looking at a map and then closing one’s eyes to imagine its features (without speaking or writing) improved recall (Pyc et al., 2014). So you might ask people to simply close their eyes and imagine something of import; that alone might improve subsequent recall.

2.3 Closing Questions

60-second write-up. Forcing students to “Explain [something we learned today]” in the last few minutes of an Intro. Chemistry course reduced failure rates, improved grades, and helped the instructor learn what students did and didn’t understand (Rogerson, 2003). 

In-class follow-up. Revisit a question from the beginning of the class. “At the beginning of class, we asked [P or Q?]. Now that we have discussed [P or Q?] further, take 60 seconds to write down how your thinking about this has changed.” (Lang, 2016)

Post-class follow-up. Post answers to class questions after class (on LMS, Facebook, Twitter, etc.). That or start classes with the answers to the prior classes questions. Why? To make sure students’ have a chance to correct their responses as needed (Lang, 2016).

3. Other Retrieval Tips

Chunking. Asking people to practice on half of the material before practicing on all of the material improves recall (Tulving, 1966). 

Quizzes rule. Taking an initial, short-answer test improved performance better than restudying, taking a multiple-choice test, or getting feedback from the instructor (Butler & Roediger, 2007). 

No books or notes. When you ask questions, remind students not to look in the book or in their notes. Instead, ask them to actually recall. It is the recall itself that must be practiced; not just the ability to do an internet search, to re-read, skim notes, etc (Lang, 2016).

Debrief. It might be a good idea to justify your recall strategy to students—e.g., by directing them to the evidence about the retrieval effect. That way they might buy in to your methods. If nothing else, your methods will seem less random (Lang, 2016).

Update: The Rest of My Notes

Some of you mentioned being interested in the rest of my notes about Small Teaching. I’ve created a copy that you can view and download via Google Docs.

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Nick Byrd

Nick is a cognitive scientist at Florida State University studying reasoning, wellbeing, and willpower. Check out his blog at