Thanks to the wonders of the internet, these days you can learn just about anything you could possibly think of online, and usually for free. This wealth of educational material is an incredible resource, but it's also quite a different way to learn than the traditional classroom instruction many of us grew up with.

How do you make the most of this vast sea of instructional tools and videos? A new study published in the Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition may hold the key.

Why you should quiz yourself before you learn

We're all familiar with the benefits of asking ourselves questions about the material we're learning after we've encountered it. That's what much of studying and testing consists of, after all. But for this study researchers Shana K. Carpenter and Alexander R. Toftnes turned the usual approach to increasing information retention on its head. Rather than ask learners about what they remembered after a video, they gave them questions about the material before they sat down to watch.

You might object that, obviously, learners don't know the answers to questions before they learn the material. And you'd be right. Carpenter and Toftness found, as you'd expect, that most of the time students were lousy at guessing the answers to questions before watching the videos.

Nonetheless, when they tested both a control group who hadn't encountered these "pre-questions" and an experimental group who had, those who were exposed to questions actually ended up learning more in the end. And not only did they do better at answering specific pre-questions when they made a reappearance post-video, but they were also better at answering new questions they were encountering for the first time.

Why does this simple technique seem to work so well? Possibly because it humbles us into actually paying attention. "The researchers think pre-questions probably have this benefit because they act as an 'orienting device', directing viewers to look out for specific information, and perhaps also because they reduce viewers' complacency and overconfidence in their knowledge, thus motivating them to pay more attention," reports the British Psychological Society Research Digest's write-up of the findings.

A particularly good study technique for videos

BPS also notes that previous research found only limited benefits for the use of pre-questions when students were learning by reading. Why were the effects so much stronger when learning was via video rather than text? The answer seems to be inherent in the instructional medium.

With a textbook, you might respond to a pre-question by simply skimming the material ahead, searching for that one specific answer. In that case, you end up missing out on a lot of surrounding information. But this approach is less practical in videos, where sections tend to be less well marked and skipping around is more cumbersome.

That means that, when it comes to video-based learning, pre-questions pique our interest without tempting us to skim. And it also makes pre-questions a particularly good learning hack for those trying to get the most from a webinar or instructional video.

Perhaps you should give it a try next time you're faced with either designing or learning from one.