Building Strong Study Skills Series: Elaborative Interrogation

Building Strong Study Skills: Elaborative Interrogation

Note: This series details how to study smarter, not harder, to help students succeed in their academics. All information in this series draws upon principles from psychological research on learning and memory.

The other day, one of my high school students asked, “Where does wind come from?” My student had taken chemistry and physics already, so I helped him find the answer by asking him these questions:

“How does uneven heating of the earth create changes in air pressure? How do these changes in air pressure create wind?”

Together, we found that uneven heating patterns lead to high and low pressure patches of air around the globe. A rush of air, or wind, is created because air travels from high pressure to low pressure areas to reach equilibrium.

My student and I practiced elaborative interrogation, or using “how” and “why” questions to enhance memory and understanding of course material.

Proper Technique

Use “how” and “why” questions to study your course material. For example, say that you are learning about the greenhouse effect. A good question to ask is “How does the greenhouse effect cause global warming?” And you may answer, “Sunlight reflected from the earth’s surface is prevented by greenhouse gasses from leaving the atmosphere. This retained heat leads to warmer temperatures.”

Tips for Success

This technique works best for memorizing concepts related to processes, events, and people. Elaborative interrogation may be difficult or nonsensical to use for other topics.

Elaborative interrogation is only effective when the student has background knowledge on the subject to accurately answer their self-created questions. If a student creates incorrect answers, the point is lost.

Why It Works

Elaborative interrogation works by activating prior knowledge and connecting new knowledge to it. Think of your memory as a giant web of information. If a new piece of information fits nicely with an existing strand of knowledge, then it will stick better. But if your new knowledge has no strand to stick to, then it may get lost easily.


Elaborative interrogation is a helpful study technique, especially for memorizing and understanding information related to people, places, and processes. Students of all ages can use it. If you don’t have any prior knowledge on a subject, however, it may be difficult to answer questions or to come up with questions in the first place. It’s an easy method to use, so try it out for your next test!

Read Other Articles in The Building Strong Study Skills Series


  • Terry, W.S. (2018). Learning and Memory: Basic Principles, Processes, and Procedures, Fifth Edition. New York, Routledge, a Taylor and Francis Group. ISBN 978-1-13-864591-2.
  • Rhodes, M.G., Cleary, A.M. and DeLosh, E.L. (2020). A Guide to Effective Studying and Learning: Practical Strategies from the Science of Learning. New York, Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-021447-0 (pbk).