As the school year comes to an end, we have an opportunity to reflect on our teaching, our assessment, and our learning. In this post, Scott Reed, a teacher at Niles North High School in Skokie, Illinois, shares how he incorporated student-designed questions in his classroom and engaged students in reflecting on the impact of this strategy, and some of the benefits they saw with this approach.
I take great pride in the questions I ask. They have a specific purpose, a foundation in the learning targets, and have been refined from years of experience. These daily queries are used to reflect on our learning, clearly articulate our understandings, and propel us along future learning paths. A lot of effort and soul go into the questions I ask, and yet, my favorite questions are those that students ask.
This semester I tried something new to bring a greater emphasis to the students’ questions. On weekly three-question quizzes, I removed the third question and replaced it with the prompt: “What is one other question that Mr. Reed should have asked on this quiz based upon your homework/reading assignment – ask the question and then answer it!”
The student-designed questions have required some refinement by some of my own, “Was this in the reading?” or “Is this the level of question you would expect from Mr. Reed?” To mix it up, sometimes I asked the students to make their question about a specific topic, still giving freedom to share their understanding, but with some bounds. One of my students shared this reflection about the questions he asked: “It helps me put what I read into my own words, and express my knowledge of the subject. It works both ways – if my question is too easy, then Mr. Reed knows that I didn’t do too much of a good job reading.”
I recently asked my students to reflect on the impact of this new strategy on their learning. About two-thirds were in favor of the opportunity to ask their own questions and answer them, but one-third did not see educational value in the process for their learning. Some voiced concern, “It shows that I am not learning anything new, I’m just demonstrating what I’ve learned already.” I understand this perspective, but see value in giving students an opportunity to demonstrate and communicate what they have learned, even if framed in a question and answer with which they feel confident – I actually hope that students feel this way about all of the questions on the quiz, no matter who wrote them. Other students voiced a concern that I, as the teacher, know what questions challenge my students to grow the most. As one student said, “Mr. Reed knows what the problem areas are so that way people are challenged on quizzes, and it will help them apply concepts that they don’t even know they don’t know anything about.” Though I do know the concepts that are especially sticky and tricky for the students, I found that students do an excellent job of revealing other preconceptions, especially when students ask questions that they answer incorrectly. Balance is met by including two questions of my own that address these key concepts and are aligned specifically with the learning targets and goals of the unit, and one of students’ own design.
Many students shared that they enjoy writing questions and personally gained from the experience, and that this allowed them to define what they did and did not know. “Writing my own questions helps me to think about and understand what I already know and what I do not know. This helps me to figure out what I still need help with understanding and improving.” and “By writing my own questions, it challenges me to know the topic well enough that I can come up with a question about it. It also allows me to see what I really don’t understand, so then I know what I still need to learn.” Still others shared that it elevated their preparation for the quizzes and their focus on understanding instead of recall. One student reasoned, “Writing my own questions helps me think about the concept rather than just how to get the answer. You have to be aware of the information you are given and the different ways to use it. Instead of memorizing how to find the answer, writing a question makes me think about what we are studying.” Another added: “Writing my own questions on the quizzes helps me learn because I gain a better understanding, make connections to past knowledge, and I have a better sense of what I learned from the assignment.” There certainly is a benefit for students when we discuss the wide range of questions from the quizzes as a class. “Going over the questions as a class and coming up with the questions helps me learn because it requires us all to be present and really think about what we are writing down.” and “When I ask myself questions, I challenge myself. Other students might have not known the answers to questions other students write. When it is shared, they do. Challenging myself gets me thinking instead of regurgitating what I read or solved the night before. Being introduced to more questions gets me thinking more.”
In this process, students improved their skills and gained confidence: “It allows me to recall knowledge from my work if it does not already get asked in the quiz . . . the questions I write give me more confidence = more wanting to learn = me trying harder = more success in class!” They were motivated to be more thorough: “When I do my homework, I have started preparing a question for the quiz on the chance that we would need to write one. Evident in my notes and problem work, I have started to go more in to detail when preparing for quizzes. With the more detailed work, I have been able to learn better and understand the material better.” The students’ abilities to recall and connect their new understandings to others has had a lasting impact: “Whenever I make up a question and answer it on a quiz, I end up remembering the concept better” and “In my experience, writing questions reinforces learned topics just as much, if not more so, than the other questions on quizzes, homework and tests. I find myself thinking about the relationship between equations and concepts when I write my own questions.”
These student reflections show benefits: an emphasis of understanding over recall, increased attention on preparation, the focus to connect new knowledge with prior knowledge, and the collective benefit for the class as a whole. One student summed it up well: “Knowing I will have to write my own question forces me to pay attention to more concepts while taking notes and doing my homework. I end up remembering more in efforts to prepare for the quiz. Each student will have a different question, so when we go over it as a class we can cover more concepts and review our assignment better. Talking about these questions can also lead to students coming up with more questions for Mr. Reed and the class, furthering the class’ understanding of the concepts.” Students gained confidence, greater awareness of what they know and don’t know, and increased accountability for learning. These results happened when students were empowered to communicate their understandings in ways that allowed the opportunity for them to take ownership of their learning. I have seen similar results when I have asked students to assess their own labs, write responses and generate a plan for grading them, and present material followed with an assessment designed to show evidence of understanding the material. Real benefits occur when students are meaningfully involved in their learning and allowed to make choices on how they will learn and be assessed.