Writing test questions is educational

Students learn by coming up their own test questions, writes Annie Murphy Paul on her “affirmative testing” blog.

PeerWise, a free program now in use at 700+ colleges and universities worldwide, lets students construct multiple-choice questions (with answers), then share with classmates who “rate the questions according to quality and level of difficulty.”

The “processes of generating, answering and rating” the test questions “encourage self-reflection and the development of communication and problem-solving skills as well as boosting subject knowledge,” observes an article about PeerWise in the publication Education in Chemistry.

Creating multiple-choice questions “involves complex thinking and reasoning,” writes Paul. “I see student-generated test questions as a natural extension of affirmative testing: using tests as occasions for student learning and growth.”

Students say authoring questions is more valuable than answering them, adds Paul Denny. When student-authored questions track course material, scores go up.

Middle-class kids are ‘squeaky wheels’

Middle-class parents train their children to be “squeaky wheels” in class, asking teachers for help, a new study finds. That may annoy teachers at time, but it pays off in the long run, concludes sociologist Jessica McCrory Calarco of Indiana University Bloomington.

“Middle-class parents were explicitly telling their children to go to the teacher and ask for help, to ‘not take no for an answer,'” Calarco said. Working-class students worried about “bothering” the teacher.

“Working-class kids were most comfortable asking for help when the teacher came to their desk and said, ‘You look like you are having trouble, do you need help?’ Sometimes the working-class students working in a pair would ask their partner to go for help rather than going themselves.

. . . By contrast, middle-class students were more likely to ask repeated questions, and further negotiate for help even if a teacher rejected initial requests.

Middle-class students were more likely to get in trouble with teachers for talking out of turn or disrespect, but they treated reprimands as “joking,” Calarco said. “Middle-class students see help-seeking [behaviors] as opportunities for reward; working-class students see them as opportunities for reprimand.”

Calarco suggested teachers discuss with students how to ask questions.

Teaching students to ask questions

What would education be like if students knew how to pose, prioritize, and use their own questions? Vastly better than it is now, argue Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana, authors of Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions (Harvard Education Press, 2011). If students learned how to formulate good questions, according to the authors, they’d be that much closer to becoming “independent thinkers and self-directed learners”  and practitioners of “democratic deliberation.”

On the face of it, the idea sounds terrific. The ability to ask good questions can enhance both individual lives and common culture. Many people need special instruction in this skill; most of us have room for improvement. I am not convinced, though, that any of this requires the elaborate group processes that Rothstein and Santana describe.

The research started when the authors were working in a dropout prevention program. They heard from parents that they wouldn’t come to meetings at school because they “didn’t even know what to ask.” Rothstein and Santana began by giving them questions but then realized that this was only increasing their dependency—that they needed to know “how to generate and use their own questions.” Over time, the authors developed a technique for teaching just that. They and others founded the Right Question Project, now known as the Right Question Institute, which teaches the technique to people around the country and abroad.

The book explains the Question Formulation Technique, which consists of six components: (a) a Question Focus; (b) a process for producing questions; (c) an exercise for working on closed and open-ended questions; (d) student selection of priority questions; (e) a plan for the next steps; and (f) a reflection activity. The authors provide numerous case studies to show how these components have played out.

Before starting the process, students are introduced to the four rules: “(1) Ask as many questions as you can; (2) Do not stop to discuss, judge, or answer any of the questions; (3) Write down every question exactly as it was stated; and (4) Change any statements into questions.” Students are supposed to reflect on these rules before proceeding. The authors explain:

The rules ask for a change in behavior, officially discouraging discussion in order to encourage the rapid production of questions. Students thus need to think about how they usually work individually and in groups. They name their usual practices and become aware of how they generally come up with ideas. They then must distinguish their present learning habits from what the rules require of them.

After receiving their Question Focus from the teacher, the students begin producing questions in groups. They are reminded to ask lots of questions and to refrain from judging, answering, or editing them. The teacher is not supposed to give examples of questions, even if the students are having difficulty.

From here, the students work on improving the questions. [Read more…]

Driven and dependent

I am honored to be guest-blogging with Michael E. Lopez while Joanne is away on vacation. Like Michael, I haven’t had much time for blogging; Joanne’s vacation allows me to make time and, with it, posts.

Do students in our hyper-collaborative, hyper-interactive environments learn to struggle with problems on their own? Or is that sort of work subtly discouraged?

The San Diego-based virtual charter school iHigh Virtual Academy recommends that prospective students take its iHigh Readiness for Online Learning Quiz to determine whether the school is right for them. Most of the questions (which are all multiple-choice) have to do with competence, organization, and drive. The points accorded to each answer are generally what one would expect, with a few exceptions, such as the following:

8. When I encounter a problem during class, or with my homework:

a) I review the directions, check my work, and try to work through the problem myself. Score 2 points. It is good to try your best to work things out on your own, but you also must be willing to contact your instructor whenever you need help.

b) I do not hesitate to ask my instructor for help. Score 3 points. Successful online students feel comfortable and confident in asking questions and contacting their instructors for assistance.

c) I skip the problem and move on. Score 1 point. Willingness to ask questions, especially asking for help when needed, is a significant success factor in an online independent study program. If your instructor does not hear from you, he/she has no way of knowing that you are not understanding the material.

Why should a student lose a point for trying to work through the problem alone? [Read more…]


FreeRice is a very cool site. It’s practically addictive.

Via middle-school teacher Robert Wright, who says his students love to answer questions and donate rice to the poor.