Nine Benefits of Student-Generated Discussion and Exam Questions

Students collaborate on readings to create exam questions

As someone who mostly teaches composition and the occasional literature or creative writing class, I use quizzes most semesters, and occasional midterms and final exams. Over time, I have come to appreciate the value of short quizzes, in particular for reinforcing topics we’ve studied. I also use discussion questions for exploring my university’s annual common book, a required reading for all incoming freshmen. But writing these quizzes, exams, and discussion questions can be quite time consuming. So, several years ago, I decided to outsource these tasks to my students—or at least the first drafts of them. The results were far more useful than I’d expected.

Admittedly, students are often not great at writing these kinds of questions—and why should they be? The truth is, most faculty aren’t great at writing exam questions either. In fact, there is both art and science to writing exam questions that are well formed, perform well, and ask for substantive information or analysis rather than trivia. But nevertheless, if you ask your students to write exam questions, the results can be incredibly beneficial, both for students and for faculty. These are nine of the benefits I have seen in my own classes:

Benefits of Student-Generated Questions

  1. Having students prepare exam questions is a great way to test that students have read the text and to encourage them to put time into doing so. (Admittedly, they could try Googling “War and Peace discussion questions,” but I don’t think they often do.)
  2. The time they spend writing questions is time spent considering the text or subject, where they decide what is important or worthy of further discussion and where they think about what questions the text left them with. All of this is time well spent that should further their understanding of the content. 
  3. As an additional benefit, they should also learn about developing good questions, which is something any composition class (and college in general) should ask of them. 
  4. It’s a fairly easy assignment for students to do well on if they’ve done the work, and for faculty to grade, which makes for a win-win situation. 
  5. It’s a great way to identify trends or problems in student thought about a text. This was tremendously valuable for me one semester when the discussion questions students wrote showed me that they had some very inaccurate and stereotypical notions about immigration and immigrants. I was able to take a couple extra class sessions to have students research and report on those misconceptions before moving on. Though it was time consuming, valuable discussion of the text itself would have been next to impossible without first addressing their inaccurate beliefs. Similarly, student-authored discussion or test questions can surface a variety of misunderstandings about a novel, cultural, or linguistic confusion, and uncertainty about how to perform experiments or calculations.
  6. While the questions may not be great as written, I’ve always been able to use them to help me develop fruitful discussion questions, or to act as a starting place for about half of the questions on midterms and finals. While there’s often a fair bit of editing involved, it’s still a very meaningful jump start on what can be a time-consuming part of course development. 
  7. Another benefit is that students like having their ideas and writing direct the flow of their classes or exams. It gives them the sense that they are helping create the class by making them feel more engaged and their ideas more valued. This is especially useful because it can be the quietest students who write the best, most insightful questions. Getting their voices into the open is another win. 
  8. If you like, and you use an open system for submitting questions (like Blackboard discussions), you can also encourage students to read other students’ submitted questions to help them study or think about a topic, while warning them that the questions and the proposed answers might have errors in them. 
  9. As a final point, I also find it rewarding to read these clever and interesting questions. I have been positively stunned by the depth and insight some of them express. How much of this is the case for you will depend on your students—but I bet they will surprise you. 

Student Instructions

To help make the questions students write more useful, I provide instructions asking them to write open-ended discussion questions where the answer is complex rather than just a yes or no. For exam questions, I often ask for two multiple choice and a short answer or essay question.

I generally use graded discussion boards in Blackboard for these assignments, though other technologies work fine, too. I recommend grading gently based on the question’s thoughtfulness rather than its suitability as a question. And I don’t lower their grade for misunderstanding or for holding misconceptions, unless it’s something they should clearly understand from their reading or studies. 

This approach has worked well for me every time I’ve used it, and I find myself looking forward to reading and grading the results. Even better, students don’t complain about the work and they typically get it done on time, or nearly so. Note, that it’s important to get discussion questions submitted early enough to allow you to think about and revise them to suit your needs.

Bio: Meriah L. Crawford is an associate professor at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) with an MFA in creative writing and a PhD in literature and criticism. Prior to working at VCU, her experience includes systems and business analysis, software testing and coding, technical writing and editing, graphic design, and project management at companies including Microsoft and Dominion. 

Meriah Crawford’s website: