November 14th, 2012

Getting Answer-Oriented Students to Focus on the Questions


Are your students too answer oriented? Are they pretty much convinced that there’s a right answer to every question asked in class? When preparing for exams, do they focus on memorizing answers, often without thinking about the questions?

To cultivate interest in questions, consider having students write exam questions. Could this be a way to help teachers generate new test questions? Don’t count on it. Writing good test questions — ones that make students think, ones that really ascertain whether they understand the material — is hard work. Given that many students are not particularly strong writers to begin with, they won’t write good test questions automatically. In fact, you probably shouldn’t try the strategy if you aren’t willing to devote some time to developing test writing skills.

But having students write test questions benefits them in several ways. It’s an indirect but effective way to get them involved in trying to answer their favorite “what-do-I-need-to-know-for-the-exam?” question. Initially, they may write questions a lot easier than those on the exams. Questions that test recall and focus on details are a lot easier to write than question that require thinking. But if shown samples of questions that test knowledge at different levels, students can see the differences and begin to understand test questions better. If they write questions about content that will be included on the exam, you can use a set of their questions during the exam debrief to show how well they are figuring out on their own what will be on the test.

The strategy also deepens understanding and makes student thinking more precise, especially if they write questions that classmates must try to answer. In my classes, students wrote potential exam questions related to text material not discussed in class. They brought copies of those questions for the rest of the class, answered them first individually, and then in groups during the review session. Poorly worded, unclear, confusing questions generated all sorts of good discussion about questions and content.

The approach also focuses study efforts by connecting questions and answers, something that doesn’t always occur when students are memorizing answers. I’ve had students who could recite answers but were clueless as to the questions they answered.

If you work with students on writing good questions and are willing to do some editorial work on what they submit, some of their questions can show up on the exam. Then you will have a strategy that really motivates student interest in questions! Before considering student questions to include on an exam, it’s good to have decided what content merits questions and then select those student questions that focus on appropriate material. In the case that none of their questions meets your standards, simply add your own questions on that content.

If the idea sounds interesting, but you need some resources, the article by Green describes an assignment in which students created a test bank of questions (posted online without answers but with the question’s author identified). No more than 25% of the questions on the exams in this class were teacher-generated. Green’s article also includes a succinct set of guidelines for writing multiple-choice and short answer questions that models the kind of resources students need in order to write good questions. A more complete set of test question guidelines and discussion of the rationale behind them appears in Jacobs and Chase’s book, which has chapters on multiple-choice items, true-false, matching and completion items. Guidelines for writing good test questions are pretty much timeless, so don’t be put off by the book’s publication date. And if you might be persuaded that writing questions has some empirical validity, there’s a recent study of the strategy also listed.

There are lots of different formats for using this strategy. We’d love to hear yours and to know if it got student thinking about answers and questions. Please share in the comment box.

References: Green, D. H. “Student-Generated Exams: Testing and Learning.” Journal of Marketing Education, 1997, 19 (2), 43-53.

Jacobs, L. C. and Chase, C. I. Developing and Using Tests Effectively: A Guide for Faculty. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1992.

Papinczak, T., Peterson, R., Brabri, A., Ward, K. Kippers, V. and Wilkinson, D. “Using Student-Generated Questions for Student-Centered Assessment.” Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 2012, 37 (4), 439-452.

  • By Baylis ?2

    Having students write test questions, not only helps focus students on questions instead of answers and helps students learn how difficult it is to formulate good questions, it also can help the instructor see the course from the students' points of view. What are the students saying is important to them from the course? If these ideas are completely different from what the instructors think are important and has been trying to teach as the most important aspects of the course, then the instructors may have to rethink what they are doing and how they are doing it. It could be an eye opener to see the course from the student's points of view.

  • Terbreugghen

    I've been using this method over the last 10 years in my art history courses. It absolutely lifts the course participation and student engagement. I assign a reading for the week (in the course outline/syllabus) and students write four questions that they would like to see on the section exam and submit to me via the course website. I collect the questions, compile them, and distribute the following week. I "fill in the gaps" with my own questions, and the week is spent dialoguing about what interests the students and the larger context. I recommend the process highly. It is a bit of work, the first few class sessions tend to be more about construction than subject, and there are always a few students who will read the first paragraph and write four inane questions about it. I regularly remind them that they truly will get out of the course what they put into it. The method also helps students learn about one another and conduct a respectful dialogue about ideas and often values and convictions. This method simply generates so many opportunities to engage. I don't think it would work for a science or math course, but this seems to me to be where humanities courses can shine.

  • Washington

    I ask intro to literature students to begin studying two class sessions ahead of the exam and post potential questions with answers in the electronic dropbox. I then respond to each individually, correcting misunderstood material and offering advice about what and how to study. These questions are worth 1% of the final grade–basically an effort point. Once the student makes the corrections, s/he can re-post the questions and answers in a Class Study (discussion) room in the e-course, to allow others to test themselves and see correct answers as part of their later studying. For this, the students earn participation credit, much valued by quieter class members. By the class period before the test, the students are more aware of what they do not know and ready to ask questions during the review portion of the class. I often use "suggested by" composite questions, which allow many students to see their work has been incorporated in the exam–but, yes, plenty of editing is necessary.

    • Jane

      I really like the idea of using this exercise for participation credit. Responding with corrections to questions they submit provides for instructor input and corrects errors before the questions are submitted to the class for study purposes. Great idea. This is a multi-purpose exercise.

  • jms

    I started using the first 20 minutes of class for a student generated quiz session last quarter. I substituted that session for the weekly quizzes I used to create and administer. We have had some bumps in the road but overall, I observe greater student engagement in the reading before class for about 50% of my class. That alone makes the use of the 20 minutes worthwhile. I keep it light and the students seem to enjoy the process!

  • Peerwise is a system developed here in New Zealand for student-generated questions:

  • Weimer that is peer assessment in the true sense

  • matt

    I think I want to try this in my classes. I just registered for peerwise, that sounds really interesting

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  • Harry

    This is an idea that I had considered awhile back, but now you (and a recent experience) have convioinced me to try it. In my intro chemistry class, I was discussing acids and bases, and started to ask a question, and two people shouted out an answer (an acid donates a proton), without hearing the rest of the question… which was completely unrelated to their response! Yes they were focused on memorizing factoids, rather than thinking critically. Now to intervene and change that.

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  • Karen Boswell

    Generating test questions is an assignment I've used for many years. To help students appreciate the difference in "levels" of knowledge, I teach them to write a pair of questions that assess the same concept, and then give them a question-writing assignment. One question is written at a definitional level, while the other is written to tap a higher, more conceptual level of understanding (e.g., could involve applying the concept in some way). This assignment is helpful in getting students to grasp the idea that there's more to "knowing" a concept than memorizing a definition. I have had students write multiple choice as well as short essay questions. Upon collecting the assignment I compile their questions (editing to some extent, and omitting redundancy if multiple versions of similar questions are submitted) and post the collection for students to use in preparation for exams. It is time-consuming for all, but student feedback is always positive.

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  • Jan

    I've made asking questions (as an assignment turned in before class starts) a component of their semester's grade. My thinking was that this would help these advanced students write better thesis statements for their essays. (assignment and its mechanics described here:… ). As the semester has evolved, I've started asking them to also provide a "start" to an answer. With those instructions, I'm trying to promote asking nuanced and difficult questions that we can then take up in class. By sending them to me ahead of time, I'm also better prepared to guide the discussion if it needs an expert guide…

    I can imagine some good tweaks to this assignment: more freewrites at the beginning of class based on their questions; evaluate the quality of their questions at various points of the semester, reflect on what makes a good question, save our favorite questions…

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  • Sagarika Sahana

    Right teaching strategies – in need is quite indeed; yes, especially with something like what the title ever expects from children (wanting them to focus on questions, instead of jumping into an answer; which is quite a robotic way of learning). Targeting the answers may probably make the students (first memorize them) instead of understanding it; and with someone understanding the questions at first will get quite a reverse effect – fortunately, an entire identification of the topic. Approaching the students with practices making them to write the questions too (while they actually practice writing the answers) would be a great idea, somewhat!

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