‘Pre-Questions’ Could Make It Easier for Online Videos to Actually Teach People Stuff

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One paradox of being alive in 2017 is that while, in theory, people have access to an astounding amount of information at the click of a button, there are so many demands on their attention that it can sometimes feel impossible to actually process that information. If you’re like me, you’ve probably had days in which you consumed a huge amount of information online but can barely remember any of it. Fixing this is partly a matter of personal habit, of learning how to structure one’s day in a manner that will make it harder for distractions to pop up. But it’s also a design question: How can the purveyors of all that information make it more likely for their content to “stick”?

Over at the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest, Christian Jarrett runs down one potential tweak that could calm the cacophony of online attention-grabbing, just a little. It’s a simple idea: “pre-questions.” Basically, before having a user watch an online video designed to impart specific information, you ask them questions about that video.

[In a new study in the Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition,] Shana Carpenter and Alexander Toftness asked 85 students to watch a short video about the history of Easter Island. The video was split into three segments each of about two minutes length, and before each segment, half the students attempted to answer two prequestions that pertained to the upcoming video content, such as “How many families originally settled on the island of Rapa Nui?” (the students nearly always failed to answer the prequestions correctly and no feedback was given). The other students acted as controls and simply pressed a space bar to continue on to each new video segment.

After faring quite poorly on the pre-questions — understandably, given that they hadn’t watched the video yet! — the students in the pre-question group then did significantly better than those in the control group.

This is a small study, but the underlying idea makes sense: If you are given some guidance about how to frame the video you’re about to watch, you’re more likely to actively engage with it rather than passively let it wash over you. You’ll be primed to examine it from a certain angle, or with a certain question in mind, or to be on the lookout for certain information.

One interesting question is whether this could be extended beyond pre-questions. If, before a video, a ten-second voice said something like, “As you watch this video, be on the lookout for insights into X,” would that help? It’s worth studying this stuff more given just how exhausting it can be to try to genuinely learn anything online.

‘Pre-Questions’ Could Make Online Videos More Educational