Upcycle your Questions!

As adults, we start learning with questions. We can upcycle those questions to increase our retention.

“Upcycling, also known as creative reuse, is the process of transforming by-products, waste materials, useless, or unwanted products into new materials or products of better quality or for better environmental value. ” Src: Wikipedia

Did you ever forget soon after learning something new? This post was interesting, you read it, the next day you can’t remember more than two ideas from it.

The forgetting curve illustrates how our memory declines in the hours after we learned something.

Copying, taking notes and getting through the material again was thought to be the most efficient way to burn those memories in our neurons. Nope. We keep discovering more about ourselves every year.

The best way to carve those pathways for a long time is to reuse them. This forces the neurons to return what was learned. Not to relearn, we assume we already learned and understood. If you read again, it’s going to be boring and only enhance what you will read again. One easy way to reuse what we just learned is to interrogate ourselves on it.

Give me the questions, I’ll remember forever.

Asking yourself questions is the best way to practice retrieval.

The next problem is: where do we get those questions from?

I asked “how do we get those questions ?” during #LrnSciChat on June 19th, 2018.

Dr. C. Kuepper-Tetzel answered, “Students crowdsource lists of questions”. She’s a cognitive psychological scientist, member of The Learning Scientists. Her colleagues wrote the recent book “Understanding How We Learn” (I recommend it). She knows the topic, but her answer applies only to academic studies.

Students can go as far as building Anki decks and sharing them around. It works well. Hundreds of students around the world follow the same curriculum years after years. You can always prune a deck and add a few cards.

What about us: self-directed learners, lifelong learners, independent learners?

What when the knowledge is nascent, bleeding edge?

I stayed for a while with this puzzle in the back of my head.

I came back with 3 sources of questions we have at our disposal at almost no cost:

1. Keep your search queries.

When you search for answers using google, you ask questions to Google. They may not start with a How, Who, where, but they are questions.

When you finish your research, keep your questions in your journal. I assume your practice journaling.

Since I know I will keep them, I tend to be more explicit with my questions on Google. In the past, I was only typing keywords. With a fraction more of typing, I add the “Who, What, Why.” In 2019, Google is smart and capable to refactor those searches.

“The Five Ws are questions whose answers are considered basic in information gathering or …. (Who, what, why, how, where, when, with what).”
— https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Five_Ws

7 Key Questions: Who, What, Why, When, Where, How, How Much?

It seems a regression to type more to search. Not at all.

Main benefit: I receive better answers, more directed toward what I want to know.

Side benefit: I can copy/paste my queries into perfect questions in my journal for later retrieval practice.

Journalling for the Win

How much you can find a day after will surprise you. I re-read my journal several times. Before scrolling to the answers I found, I ask myself: what did I learn? It’s a mental exercise. You can do it anywhere, anytime.

Even more interesting is how much ideas maturated after a day or two. What you retrieve is not only what you read but the connections you established meanwhile, the use you can do of it. You bring them to consciousness. I experience that all the time. For me, it’s a key benefit of journalling, worth the time spent.

It’s even sometimes worth the time writing down again. It’s like taking notes from what we learned vs. taking note from the material. It can be a short note in your journal. No need for a complete blog post.

2. Write your gaps and objectives as questions.

This will be before you even start searching and goes in two steps.

a) Instead of saying: I lack knowledge on CSS animations. Instead of stating: I wish to learn about CSS animations. Think: how you plan to use this knowledge or how you feel limited to do your work due to your lack of knowledge. Think what reading or learning will enable in your actions. Don’t paraphrase the topic. Write your objectives as potential actions and in the context of future use. Slightly more verbose, much more effective.

So it’s going to be:

How could CSS animation help me make this app more engaging?
What are the benefits of CSS animations in modern, mobile UX?

As I reread my own text, at once I remember: Animating buttons on a smartphone confirm the user that his action is taken into account. It’s not fancy, it’s helpful. In the past keyboard were mechanical, feedback was evident.

b) I keep this question (in my journal of course), and I’m going to reuse it after each lesson. Let’s say, I take the lesson in the morning, I’ll ask it myself later in the day. It can be a mental exercise. You don’t need to be at your desk or reserve dedicated time for it. Yet it often triggers a reflective moment.

3. Did it move the needle?

After I read one more post on CSS animation, I can wonder if it helped me answer the question. Based on my answer I can make an informed decision on whether this reading time was helpful, efficient or a waste of time.

If it was a waste of time it’s also a sign that I should enhance my filters. It becomes an entry in my backlog.

To what I can apply that?

This is a prompt I use after reading or watching a video. It’s an after learning though. This helps when you didn’t have a specific starting query or a written gap to fill.

You learned a new recipe: great! The real question is when will you prepare it again, for which occasion, for whom. Who likes such tastes.

Connecting learning to potential use prepares the pathways for problem-solving. It builds the hooks that will be utilized months down the road. Those hooks are rarely part of the material since it’s contextualized for your needs. It’s a result of elaboration.

It’s more goal-oriented than “What did I just learn?” Learning by itself is not an objective for me. Remember: forgetting is actually helping us keeping our brain with useful thoughts and discarding what is not used. It’s a gift, not a hindrance.

Practice letting go

If I can’t apply it soon, let’s forget it. It happens. Let’s count on luck if I ever come across a use case. Also if it’s too far away, chances are I’ll come across better material or better practices meanwhile. I’m not actively unlearning, I just let forgetting to do its job.

We might keep a reference to the material, store it in some bookmarking app like Diigo or Pocket, or even copy it to a CMS like Evernote. In my view, it’s lost after a few months. Without proper reading, there are little chances indexing was done right. It’s more a trick to reduce FOMO and move on our tasks. We should have a forgetting algorithm in our brain extensions too 🙂

One exception: if the content was sealed behind a paywall or likely to disappear. In all other cases, Google will do a better job of finding it again.

Retrieval practice for SDL

If I ask myself those questions again two days later, it’s very likely I’ll come with answers. Let say for me it happens 1 time out of 4. Meanwhile, I moved to another topic part of my work, or I read a tweet from someone I consider insightful mentioning the said idea. It makes me think again, and now I have an application. It’s interleaving followed by retrieval practice. The best of modern learning skills.

2 or 3 days is still in time to practice retrieval. Don’t jump back to the link to what you read or scroll to your notes. Pause, take a piece of paper and write down how you could apply it from what you retained. Better: mindmap it. This time you can keep the possible use in your journal and take a picture of your paper.


You learned 3 ways to have questions ready for retrieval practice. Questions seem worthless to keep. They are nuggets with this objective in mind: Use them for retrieval practice. Nuggets I discarded like the packaging. Let’s upcycle our questions into skilled Self-directed Learning practice 🙂

The first option is to write your questions before or shortly after learning.
The second to keep your queries
The third to seek applications of what you just learned.

Imagine yourself with a bank of questions and testing yourself to cultivate long term retention. Isn’t it a benefit? Questions are short, we can skim them at full speed.

In another post, I’ll explain why in the age of computers everywhere, we could focus on retaining those questions only.

Do you have other ideas to find good questions? I listed 3 but I’m sure there are other places to mine. Let me know on Twitter at @brunowinck.