Ask Questions Before Delving (Reading, Watching or Listening to) Knowledge Resources

I argue in my Cognitive Productivity books that it is important, after superficially processing a knowledge resource (“skimming” or “surfing” it), to try to answer questions oneself that the author raises — i.e., before processing an author’s answers. This is a reading strategy that is sometimes proffered to students (at least to fortunate ones), and it has received attention from educational psychologists. Alas, in this age of over-abundance of information, it is far too easy for graduates to simply skip ahead to the author’s answer. They consequently are less likely to notice and deeply appreciate anything that is original or profound about the answer. They might think they knew it all the long. They might even fail to recognize that there is a question and an answer. They are also less likely to understand and remember the insights (if any). Moreover, they are in a weaker position to detect deep flaws in the argument.

This may seem too obvious to be blog-worthy for readers who are not educators. But keep in mind that we are all self-regulated learners, and hence self-educators. And we face several challenges to our cognitive productivity, some of which are not so obvious (see chapter 3 of Cognitive Productivity). Moreover, ask someone how many times in the last week they paused to apply this strategy, with concrete examples, and you will likely find the answer to be not a number at all. This is partly due to the fact that (for reasons that are of great interest) cognitive processes are notoriously difficult to remember. (If you haven’t reflected on the latter before, I invite you to ask of it, why?) We are all by necessity cognitive misers. We need to choose where and how we spend our cognitive resources—time, brain energy, etc. — a process called meta-management. So we can’t try to pre-answer questions for everything we read.

The strategy, however, can actually save time and mental energy. For most of the information made available to us is not particularly helpful. That is, it is not of high Caliber, Utility or Potency, “CUP” though it may be very Appealing. (Those are the CUP’A criteria, with “Appealingness” being a natural but dubious criterion). If an (apparent) knowledge source does not seem to be worth the effort of this strategy, then perhaps it is not worth processing at all. And so you can save time and effort by skipping it.

The CUP’A criteria for assessing knowledge are discussed in the “Assess” and “Assess Analytically” chapters of Cognitive Productivity: Using Knowledge to Become Profoundly Effective and Cognitive Productivity with macOS®: 7 Principles for Getting Smarter with Knowledge respectively.

Revision History

2018-10-29 11:04. Fixed typos and clarified several paragraphs.

Published by

Luc P. Beaudoin

Head of CogZest. Author of Cognitive Productivity books. Co-founder of CogSci Apps Corp. Adjunct Professor of Cognitive Science & of Education, Simon Fraser University. Why, Where, and What I Write. See About Me for more information.

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