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Teaching and Evaluating All at Once: Asking Students to Write Their Own Questions

Posted by on Friday, July 23, 2010 in News.

This is a guest post by Isabel Gauthier, professor of psychology specialized in cognition and cognitive neuroscience.  Thanks to Isabel for sharing this insight into her teaching. We welcome contributions to the CFT blog by others in the Vanderbilt teaching community!

It is difficult to write meaningful and discriminative multiple-choice questions that students find clear and fair. Years ago, I met with CFT assistant director Derek Bruff, who gave me useful pointers to perfect this skill. But a side effect of this interaction transformed entirely the way I teach: I learned so much by working on writing better questions, surely my students could learn too! Derek said something like, “You know, some teachers ask their students to generate questions…” This idea took me on a path to use this strategy, cautiously at first, and then more boldly, as the central pedagogical and evaluative strategy in some of my courses, including Brain Damage and Cognition and Principles of Experimental Design.

I teach these courses three days a week. On two of these days each week, I lecture on course material. These lectures are informed by questions about the readings posted online by students and issues that emerge from a hands-on, semester long project I assign my students. On the third day, we use clickers to go through student-generated multiple choice questions.

Each week each student is responsible for turning in a single question on the weeks’ readings. Students use a PowerPoint template to submit their questions which facilitates use of the question in my clicker software, TurningPoint. In the notes area of the slide, each student includes their name, the correct answer, the page(s) that inspired the question, and, optionally, a justification for the correct answer. Before class, I concatenate all the questions in a single file and read them, grading each on a scale of 1 to 5. The grade goes in the notes area, and, in a textbox on the slide, I write comments about the question. This allows me to print the slides as a PDF with student names removed so that all questions and comments can be distributed to students. I then reorder the slides to choose the right mix of questions I want to use in class with the clickers.

This provides me in a single step with my preparation for the next class, an idea of what I need to focus on during my lecture days, an evaluation of each student, and a mechanism for providing students with feedback on their learning. This weekly feedback allows students to realize how difficult it is to write a good question, one that raises an important issue clearly and is appropriately challenging for their peers. Students eventually learn to key in on critical concepts and relationships in the readings and sometimes even go beyond the readings in interesting ways. They take a more active part in their own and their peers’ learning, and their questions keep me focused on what is most challenging for these students at each point in the course.

Each week students answer the best of these questions in class using clickers, accumulating points for their answers using a generous but motivating grading scheme. If there’s controversy over the correct answer to a question, the class can decide to eliminate a question or to accept multiple answers as correct, provoking interesting discussions. As needed, I can lecture for a few minutes, but issues are generally clarified in class discussion. Questions are used anonymously in class, but students want their question to be picked and use wit and humor to this effect, making the experience more enjoyable for everyone.

This method completely replaces any exams I used to give: They are no longer needed since my students now share the responsibility to evaluate their own learning throughout the semester.

Isabel and her use of clickers were featured on Nashville’s NewsChannel 5 last year.  Here’s the video clip:

See our guide to teaching with clickers for more information on this educational technology. If you’re interested in borrowing the CFT’s set of clickers to try out in your classroom, just call the CFT at 322-7290.

Image: “Questions” by Flickr user Oberazzi / Creative Commons licensed

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