INTRODUCTION: Instruction in my English composition and literature courses can easily turn into lectures when students don’t do the assigned readings. Consequently, I give numerous quizzes to see if they are keeping up with the reading. As an experiment, I decided to let the students make up a quiz. I wanted to turn the tables and have them take responsibility for their own learning and also get a sense of how teachers create grading and evaluation tools. I hoped the students who had done the reading would learn the stories better, while those who had been cruising along thinking they could skip the reading would get a wake up call. This strategy could be used in almost any course where the instructor gives quizzes.

PURPOSE:

  • To confirm students’ completion of home reading assignments
  • To help students learn more from their home reading assignments by thinking like a teacher
  • To encourage students to take more responsibility for their own learning

SUPPLIES/SETUP:

  • Course textbook
  • Paper
  • Writing utensils.

DIRECTIONS:

1. On a day that students are expecting a quiz, tell them they will have a chance to construct their own quiz. My students’ task was to write three multiple choice questions for each of two assigned stories: Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and Katherine Anne Porter’s “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall.”

2. Continue with these directions: “You have 15 minutes to write your questions; you may use your books, but the questions should not ask for picky details or obvious information like ‘Who is the author?’ Circle the correct answer. I will include the best questions on the next class quiz.”

3. I offered 5 points added to their overall grade for those whose questions appeared on a future quiz. I felt I needed to add this carrot because I had some students who already had an A average on their quizzes, and I wanted them to take this activity seriously. The five points was an incentive because even an A student can stumble, and the five points became a safety net for them.

4. Hold a class discussion on their experience of writing quiz questions. You might inquire, “How did you decide what to ask? Did you find it easy or difficult to write questions? Why? Do you think your questions are easier or more difficult than the ones I’ve been asking? What did you learn or relearn from writing your quiz questions? As a result of this experience, do you plan to make any changes in the way you do homework or study?”

5. Create a quiz from student questions. I look for questions that are not too picky, but that cannot be guessed at by a student who had not read the stories. I put the students’ names next to their questions and then give the quiz at our next class meeting.

6. Hold a class discussion on their experience of taking the quiz that they created. Many of the questions asked in the earlier discussion are still appropriate; now the students will have a different perspective on them.

OUTCOMES/EXPERIENCES:

My students took this activity seriously, especially since they had an incentive of bonus points. I found that many of them asked questions that were far more difficult than the ones I had asked on previous quizzes. Some questions were so obscure I couldn’t answer them, and I know both of these stories extremely well. Some of the students had wrong answers to their own questions, so I knew they had not read the stories before hand.

Here are some examples of student questions that I did NOT use:

  • What did the mother feed to the baby? a. strained peas  b. apricots  c. hamburger
  • Where was the family headed for vacation? a. Georgia  b. Tennessee c.  Alabama

I decided these questions ask for information that is too obscure or, as in the second one, doesn’t even list the correct answer (Florida).

Here are some examples of student questions that I DID use:

  • What did Granny do in her past that made her a strong woman? a.  put up a fence   b. climbed a mountain  c. nurse during the war  d. all of the above
  • The story deals with what process in life? a.  death   b. birth   c. raising children

I chose to use these questions because I believed that students who had read the stories would have no trouble answering them, but students who had not read the stories would have difficulty making lucky guesses and passing the quiz.

When students took the quiz with their own questions, their responses were enlightening. Many of them looked up during the quiz and commented, “These questions are hard!” They’d look at a student who wrote the questions and say, “What do you mean here?” We had class discussions both after they constructed their questions and after they took the quiz, and many students commented that it was very difficult to figure out what to ask and how to ask it. A few students realized they had asked ambiguous, confusing questions. One student said, “I never realized it was this hard to make up good questions. How long does it take you [meaning the instructor] to make up a quiz?” I explained that devising good questions is a skill that I have become much better at over time, but that much of what guides me in asking questions is what I want to get from the students. If I want to see how well they have understood a reading, I ask different sorts of questions than if I’m merely checking to see if they have read the assignment. I asked some students why they had chosen such obscure details to ask about, and one young man answered that he wanted to “get” the other students.

One thing I was not prepared for was the amount of time it took to create a quiz from my students’ questions. I had to make decisions about what was a good question and what was not. Several students asked the same or similar questions, so I had to decide whether to include that question and give all students who asked it extra credit. I chose to include questions that only one student submitted because they usually showed more originality and deeper thought than questions that had occurred to several students. I also had to occasionally modify a question that had two possible answers that were confusing or conflicting.

Overall, this activity worked in my students’ behalf because they received much higher grades than on my previous quizzes. I believe they had become more familiar with the stories by creating their questions in the previous class. It seemed to accomplish my purposes of making them more responsible for their own learning and helping them understand that asking the right questions and wording them well can be difficult.

PERSONAL LESSONS:

One of the best things that I took from this experience was the importance of letting go of control in the classroom once in a while. I was a little scared allowing the students to make their own quizzes, but I found that it was also liberating in a sense. I was gratified to see that they had gotten a glimpse into the pedagogical process. Students commented that thinking up the questions was difficult, something I don’t think many had considered before. They also realized that making up a good, fair quiz took practice and effort. This activity also really worked to benefit the students who consistently did the reading and came to class prepared. Those who hadn’t done the reading struggled to write questions and often theirs didn’t even have any right answers! However, with this exercise they realized themselves how unprepared they were and that they had no one to blame for their poor grades but themselves. It took the burden of “judging” them off of me for once and onto their classmates and ultimately themselves.  I had several students who were becoming lazy and didn’t seem to care if they passed the quizzes. With this strategy, those students still had to work, and work hard, on creating their questions. In retrospect, I think 15 minutes was too long for writing their questions. I would shorten the time to 10 minutes next time because some students who had not read the stories still had time to come up with 6 questions.

I had a few students who had been complaining about the number of quizzes I had been giving. I had tried to explain that since I didn’t give tests on these readings, and all they had to do was write journal entries on them (the complaining students were also not writing their journals), the only real way I had of knowing if they were reading was by quizzing them. I also saw quizzes as a way to reward the students who were keeping up with the work; however, some students still were angry about facing quizzes that they could not pass if they had not read the literature. This activity allowed them no “out” and no one to blame but themselves. The students who had been working hard all semester enjoyed this opportunity, while the few who were not saw that failing to do the work only reflected on themselves, not me. On the other hand, a few of the questions I eventually selected for the second quiz did come from students who were perceived as being “weaker.” This gave them an emotional boost since I added their names to the questions, and other students could get a picture of who was really thinking well.  

I am now trying to devise a way to have my Internet class (same subject) do a similar activity. I really like the idea of having the students teach in some way. They become much more responsible for learning material if they have to teach it, and I find that they enjoy the class much more than a lecture-oriented class.

–Joan Johnson, Faculty, English, Hagerstown Community College, MD

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