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Imagine that it’s April. It’s exam time in universities across the country. You’re reviewing what seems to be an insurmountable pile of lecture, reading, and tutorial notes. You highlighted a theory from a lecture in October as “IMPORTANT,” but can’t remember why. Your professor mentioned that a class from November is really important, but you were fighting a cold that day, tuning in and out, and your notes are pretty meagre. These are scenarios that many undergraduates will face, but ones you’ll want to evade as best as you can. Why put yourself in these stressful situations?

One very efficient way to stay on track in a course, and to ensure that you are in a strong position to write an exam, is to form a question following each lecture, tutorial, and reading. This may seem completely trivial, however, forming a question after lectures, tutorials, and readings is an important exercise that can help you perform well in a course.

How and Why Forming a Question Helps You

In forming a question, you will be forced to synthesize the lecture’s/reading’s main arguments and relevant points. You will also be doing this while the course material is fresh in your mind. If you are taking this activity seriously, you will have a great resource to help you study for the course’s final exam. Rather than having to review all of your notes to figure out what is important, you will have a one-sentence guide pointing you to the most relevant themes. This should give structure and clarity to all of the facts, theories, and arguments you have written in your notebook. Rather than reading all of these notes as disparate and random puzzle pieces, an informed question will provide a narrative to make sense of course material.

Consider the following example, imagine you are in a Canadian history lecture on Canadian Confederation. Your professor tells you about July 1, 1967, Sir John A. Macdonald, the Charlottetown and Quebec Conferences, the American Civil War, and how contemporary political ideology influenced the event. Individually, each of these facets of Confederation consists of tremendous detail. However, for an undergraduate course, you could organize these pieces of knowledge by asking the following question: what were the most important influences that led to Confederation? This neatly organizes information in a way that is useful to your understanding of course material, but it also becomes much easier for you to employ this information on an exam or an assignment.

This brings me to how you should be constructing questions. The simple answer is that you should not be able to respond to your query in one sentence, with yes or no, or with one fact. Questions that help you synthesize should never be clear cut. They should involve you giving an opinion. Your professors and TAs will highly reward this type of thinking and writing, you can be sure of it.

Beyond a Study Aid

Forming a question after each lecture and course reading is also a great platform for starting a conversation with your professor or TA during office hours. As I have said elsewhere, you should proactively visit your course directors during posted hours to take advantage of their free and generous feedback. If you ask for guidance on your question from week to week, you will have an enviable study resource at the end of the term. Additionally, you can bring these questions to tutorial discussions and hear what your peers have to say. Remember to take notes!

Forming a question at the end of lectures, tutorials, and readings will organize information into ways that will be useful for your learning and for strong execution on exam day. Initially, it may strike you as an insignificant process, however, it is a great way to synthesize and organize vast amounts of information in ways that professors and TAs expect of their students. Additionally, don’t keep the questions to yourself. Use them as a conversation starter with your course director. If you make a sincere investment in this process, you will have an informed set of notes; you will get a lot out of the course; and you will be in a stronger position to perform well on assignments and exams.