My first year at Waterloo was also my first year teaching my own courses. In mid-November I found myself overwhelmed by the task of writing exams for my large second-year political science course. Since I’d never taught the course before, I had no question bank, no old exams to adapt, and not a whole lot of spare time. I struggled to write enough questions to populate my exam, plus a make-up or two. I mentioned this demoralizing state of affairs to Nicola Simmons at a CTE event.
Why don’t you get your students to write the exam?” she suggested. Surely this was wrong, I thought. I’m the teacher, and writing the exam is my job. Surely letting my students write the exam would be tantamount to giving them the answers beforehand. But then I thought about it a little more, and decided it was worth a try. At the very least, writing exam questions would be a good review for students.
This year, when teaching the same course again, I offered students the opportunity to write multiple choice and short answer questions (and answers!), and promised to consider using them on the final exam. I set up discussion pages in UW-ACE to receive the questions so all students in the class could use them as a review tool. I offered up to a 2% bonus their final mark for students who submitted questions I used: 1% for a question I used more or less intact, and half a percent for a question I had to modify significantly (for instance, re-writing the distracters on a multiple-choice question). I provided two links to resources on how to write multiple-choice exam questions, available here and here, and asked them to consider how short-answer questions would fit into Bloom’s Taxonomy.
The initial response to my announcement that I would let my students create the final exam was disbelief, followed by silence on the discussion boards for most of the term. I was sure my experiment was a bust. But as the exam period drew near, students finally began to submit questions. I was pleased with the results: many students wrote questions similar to ones I had drafted myself, suggesting that they were grasping the important points of the course. Others were certainly worthy, sometimes with a little editing, of being included in my question bank, and I used several on the final exam (without telling students beforehand which ones I had used, of course). Students used the questions for review, although some of the student-written questions made them a little panicky. I had to re-assure them that I would not be asking questions on the model “On page 67 of the textbook, which of the following arguments does Author X make?”, and that I would only ask short-answer questions that really did have short answers.
The class average on the final exam was fairly close to the previous year’s average, so my concern about giving away the answers was obviously unfounded. Writing the exam(s) and answer key was still tedious, but having students write the rough draft of questions helped by pulling together important concepts from each lecture and the readings, and by generating examples and applications I didn’t have to dream up on my own. For the students, the exercise resulted in a set of review questions everyone in the class could use. There is probably a larger discussion here on students writing their own assessments—and I’d be interested in hearing how other instructors have used this technique to manage their own time and to benefit their students.