Have Students Generate Content to Improve Learning

Online instructors face the challenges of keeping a course up to date, engaging students, and maintaining integrity. Having students generate some of the course content can address all three of these challenges.

“I think it’s a really good pedagogical practice to have the students involved in the mental task of generating content for a course. They’re more invested in [the course] if they’re generating it themselves,” says David Wilson, associate professor of biology and chemistry at Parkland College, a two-year community college in Champaign, Ill.

Student-generated quiz questions
One way to have students generate content is to have them take part in the creation of assessments by writing quiz questions. This is a technique that Wilson and his colleague Toni Burkhalter, associate professor of biology and kinesiology, use in their online courses.

Having students write quiz questions can increase the course’s bank of questions, which decreases the likelihood of cheating. But beyond that, it can engage students in ways that improve the learning experience.

For one, this approach gives students some say in which content to emphasize in a course, presumably the content that is most relevant to their learning goals. “There are specific topics in a class that I feel are very important. With that in mind, I create test questions to assess students on those topics. However, there are other concepts covered that students may find particularly engaging that I may have overlooked including in course assessments. If students generate quiz questions on concepts that excite them, I can then revise course material to include that information in more detail,” says Burkhalter.

Sometimes student-generated questions need some modification before they can be added to the test bank. Burkhalter typically uses them in future sections of the course. In addition to creating the questions, students must also provide the correct answers. However, with a randomly generated quiz from a test bank, students may not see the questions they create in an actual quiz.

The process of writing the questions engages students in higher-order thinking. To help students understand different levels of thinking, Wilson sometimes has students create questions for a specific level of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning Domains.

The questions also provide an excellent assessment opportunity. Wilson has his students submit quiz questions via email and uses Jing (a screen capture program) to create a video response to each student’s set of quiz questions. Each video is approximately five minutes in duration, pointing out spelling and syntax errors as well as misconceptions about the content.

“To me it’s been a really powerful way to identify what sorts of problems the students are having with the content. It has also had this interesting side benefit: Students in online courses often report this feeling of isolation. They’re working out there and don’t have a lot of contact with the instructor. My students have reported that they really appreciate these videos. They like the frequent interaction,” Wilson says.

Student-written learning outcomes, class notes
Wilson has tried a couple of other approaches to student-generated content in his online courses. He’s had students write learning outcomes and essentially write the course textbook by maintaining a wiki of group-written class notes.

Both these techniques had potential for improving the course, but Wilson has discontinued these approaches for logistical reasons.

“One semester I had students develop the learning objectives for each module. That’s a challenge because students are not looking at the same things the instructor is. They don’t perceive the same things as important. I would give them some clues on what to look for in the textbook to use as an inspiration for their objectives. But having students generate the objectives is kind of tricky. I’m not sure I would suggest doing it unless you’ve got the time to monitor and check that. But it does give the students ownership of the material,” Wilson says.

Wilson has taught online courses without a textbook and instead gave students the responsibility of contributing to a course “text” in the form of a wiki. In this wiki Wilson posted the course objectives and assigned each student one or two objectives to research and to provide content for.

Although this was an engaging approach to learning, Wilson found it to be difficult to implement logistically. “The problem is that as the instructor, I had to go in there and constantly monitor that information to make sure it was being presented well, but more important, that it’s accurate,” Wilson says.

Instructions to students
For best results, it’s important to explain why you’re asking students to generate content and to provide detailed instructions. “I explain ‘You haven’t had a chance to create anything up to this point. You haven’t had a chance to choose what you want to learn. I’ve been dictating it all. Now you have a chance to show what you’re excited about and would like to learn more about,’” says Burkhalter.

Burkhalter and Wilson recommend explaining this approach to students by bringing pedagogical research that highlights the benefits to students when they generate content for a course.

It’s essential to provide detailed instructions and expectations for students, particularly if they have never done anything like this before. Without clear expectations students might not understand the knowledge needed to create appropriate quiz questions. Burkhalter provides the following guidelines (among others): “If you give the question to someone who has never taken the course, would they get it wrong? If the answer is yes, chances are it’s a decent question. For someone who has taken the course, can they get it right if they study? If they answer yes, you hit on something that requires students to learn and apply the material.”

Excerpted from Managing Curricular Conflict, Online Classroom, 12.10 (2012): 4,5.