Questions more valuable than content?

As a content creator myself it is easy to get wrapped up in the importance of the content we are delivery. After decades of delivery various forms of content across magazines, exhibitions, mobile apps, and global training courses I am now aware that the way we deliver information, is more critical than the content itself.

It’s great that we believe we have value in our knowledge, wisdom and insights, if we didn’t then we wouldn’t be investing the time and effort to create products to distribute that information.

It’s also very important to realise it’s not our jobs to deliver information, it’s our job to move students. To move them to a different level of understanding, or to a new performance level. It shouldn’t just be a desire, in a very real sense it’s our job.

“Questions are more important than content!”

Simon K Williams

The undesirable reality is that Google (along with other free content delivery platforms) have reduced the value of knowledge in a massive and irreversible way.

Almost any information is just a free click away.

That is a significant challenge to us knowledge experts, and we need to be aware of it. If we look deeper it also offers us a powerful opportunity…

Caption: Preaching, isn’t teaching

Preaching vs Teaching

Just telling someone information doesn’t mean they’ve absorbed it. Far from it. As I always say, preaching (talking at someone) isn’t teaching. And if you like it or not, you get paid for teaching, not for simply delivering information. 

This is an important and critical distinction.

So whilst Google and other platforms perform a phenomenal free service putting massive amounts of content in front of people at the click of a button. It does not educate people.

Sticking with Google as the obvious example the student needs to add their commitment and dedication to consume the information and ‘get the learning’. 

By contrast in a school environment for example it’s the teachers role to educate. If a teacher just told her students to read a book in class without any interaction we would call that a bad teacher. And we would be right to do so. 

In that sense Google is a ‘bad teacher’.

We most move our mentality from a desire to deliver information, to one of education. A well created digital course gives us the opportunity to teach, not just preach

Thus interacting with our students isn’t just a nice thing to do. It’s our core role, it is in effect what we get paid to do. I cannot over state how critical it is to engage with your students.

Thats where the power of a true training course with genuine engagement can deliver phenomenal results, and it can do so incredibly efficiently and at scale when produced to a high level. 

Not easy

It is not however an easy thing to achieve, and sadly there are a lot of examples of bad courses in the world – do not add to them.

Many platforms will shout as loud as they can across all their marketing channels how easy it is to create a course on their platform, and for the most part it is easy. It’s even easier just to send a video onto YouTube – but neither produce the best result.

If you invest the time and energy, then you can create an outstanding course. There are more options and capabilities available today and within reach of every small business or subject matter expert than has ever been available before. So I encourage you to grab that opportunity with both hands.

To return to my earlier point, the questions (and interactions you build into your course) are a fundamental and critical ingredient of the course, and it’s helpful to consider them to be of more importance than the content itself.

Caption: Use the right question types to engage your students

Course question types:

As Thomas Kuhn put it “the answers you get depend on the questions you ask”. I’d go further, the quality of your students feedback, participation, and learning is a direct consequence and reflection of the quality of the questions that you ask, and how you ask them. 

“The answers you get depend on the questions you ask”

Thomas Kuhn

Thus it’s your responsibility to ask powerful questions.

So what are the main questions types, and how do you best use them?

This is a more complicated question that it may first appear, and there are different ways to carve up the question types into different genres. From a course-creation perspective it’s useful to divide these up into three question categories;

Recall Questions:

Questions for which you’ve given the answer during the course. Thus the student simply needs to recall the answer to pass correctly.

The demonstrates that the student has been paying attention, and helps to move the information from the short-term memory system into the long term memory system.

Note it’s a great trick to tell the student in advance that there will be a test later, that alone will help them to better absorb the information you are giving to them.

Neuro level (the level we need to think at): Basic

  • Requires very little brain power needed, simply the ability to recall will get your student through this one.

Engagement level (how engaged is the student): Moderate

  • This only achieves a moderate level of engagement. 

Implementation level (how easy is it to implement): Easy

  • This is very easy to create, and implement. Which is the main reason most authors include recall based questions. As we will see though it is far from the most powerful.

Application questions

Ask questions using similar but new situations from those expressly mentioned in the course. The more real-world you can make these scenarios the better for the student it will be.

At school it would be the equivalent of asking a pupil to add the cost of apples and oranges rather than just a pure maths question. Adding context gives more value to the exercise, and this is particularly true in business, or self learning situation.

Neuro level: Moderate

  • The student will have to use their grey-matter for these. They will have to apply their learnings to a new, all-be-it similar situation. 

Engagement level: High

  • Highly engaging.

Implementation level: Moderate

  • This will require some additional work on your part to create. But it’s time and effort well spent.

Transference questions

It can be said that true and deep learning is taking knowledge from one area and applying it successfully to another. The cross-synthesis of knowledge across genres if you will.

This is a fascinating area with deep insights for any course creator.

Caption: Dr Ben Newling brilliant TedX video is available inside the Free E-101 Course

Dr. Ben Newling explains this brilliantly in his TedX talk in 2019. If you have access to our free E-Learning 101 course, it’s available in the Educational Science section. 

You can request access to the course using the button below now ⇣

If you think back to your school day exams, you might recall seeing a question or two that had no reason being there, a question that had never been covered in your course and appears out of context, as if it was included incorrectly.

The chances are that this was very much by design, and it’s exactly this type of question that is investigating this deeper level of knowledge.

Neuro level: High

  • The student can not simply recall the answer from the lessons given. They are forced to ‘think’, and to think laterally to find the answer.

Engagement level: High

  • Thinking deeply engages students at a deep level.
  • However some students will simply find the question too hard, and thus could dis-engage as a result. So there is a delicate art to these questions.

Implementation level: Hard

  • This will usually require quite some investment of time and effort on your part to include Transference questions in your course. 
  • Doing so, however will elevate your course above 95% of other courses on the market. So if you have high aspirations, then you may decide it’s worth the investment.

Course question variety

It is wise to include a variety of questions across these three question genres. Recall questions will ensure your student is absorbing the information, and these questions will help the learning to seep in.

Application based questions will give them an opportunity to apply it in a fictitious but relevant example (context). Allowing the student to practise there skills in the digital class-room.

I also recommend including at least one or two Transference level questions, inviting the student to really dig in deep and to demonstrate their knowledge and apply it to a new field.

Suggested question spread:

  • Recall questions: 60%
  • Application questions: 30%
  • Transference questions: 10%

Question delivery

Deciding what questions to ask is actually less than half the battle. The harder element is actually deciding how to deliver the question.

If you have already committed yourself to a particular platform then your delivery options will be limited to those of the platform you use. Sadly some are very limited.

Full LMS platforms will have more scope and opportunity here than the ‘lighter’ platforms, or market-place options on the market which offer very little if any true engagement.

If you have not yet committed yourself to a particular platform then I recommend you include this as important consideration point when you are reaching your conclusion.

Good delivery equals good engagement

The main goal here is to achieve student engagement. This basically means we require more behaviour or participation of our student. However ask too much, or in the wrong way, and the student may simply refuse to invest the time, and drop out of the course. Not good.

This is delicate tight-rope to tread.

The best results occur when we ask more of the students mentally, but less physically. Let me give you an example to better explain this…

Let’s assume for a moment it’s a course on how to create cocktails. 

Understandably the course might then ask the student how do they make a certain cocktail, a White Russian for example (yes I recently re-watched the Big Lebowski and it’s still infecting my thoughts.

We could ask the student to type in the ingredients of the cocktail. This is a perfectly reasonable question. But typing really. That’s so last week. Who likes typing?

Ask the same question with a list of possible ingredients with check boxes next to each option and it’s a far better question. The level of thinking is the same, but the question is completed in just a few taps.

From the students point-of-view is a far superior delivery method.

Alternatively you might present a visual of an empty cocktail glass, surrounded by a variety of ingredient options, and ask the student to ‘fill the glass’ with the correct ingredients.

In this example we are moving away from text, and moving into imagery. 

It may still be good idea to actually include the name of the ingredients with the images, but the format is still largely visual. This is a far better solution for the student, way more interactive, far more visual, and lot’s more engaging, and possibly even fun to complete. 

Dragging things around, even on a digital screen has a kinaesthetic element to it that is simply much more powerful than pushing keys on a keyboard.

Caption: An example of a drag-and-drop interactive question. This is far more engaging than just asking a student to type in the answer, or select from a checklist. This example is available inside the E-101 Course, you can request free access here.

So it’s not just the questions that we ask that is important. It’s the way we deliver the question that’s not just important – it’s critical.

Media types

Any good course delivers content across a variety of media. It’s actually wise to think of your course as delivering a multimedia event.

Consider how you can deliver your questions via video? Via images? Via audio, or lastly via the written word. In that order of preference.

Course question summary:

  1. Ask a range of questions across Recall, Application, and Transference type questions.
  2. Give energy, time and consideration on not just on the questions to ask, but on how to deliver these questions.
  3. Can you deliver the question via video, via images, via a clickable interface, or must you require the user to type their answers in.

It’s literally our job as an educator to deliver engaging learning. Asking the right questions in the best way is more important than the content itself.

About the author

Simon K Williams

Entrepreneur, Author and Business-Architect. Working at the inter-section of design, technology & marketing.