Writing questions as a study strategy

When I started college, I had pretty poor study skills. I didn’t really need to study much to do well in high school, and so arrived in college pretty unprepared in terms of study skills.* At first, I mainly read over notes and tried the occasional flash card. Now I know that those aren’t effective study habits, but I didn’t know that then.

At some point, I happened upon the strategy of trying to come up with my own questions on different topics. Sometimes, it seemed pretty obvious what questions could be written on a particular topic, and I’d be pleased when a question on an exam was similar to one I’d come up with on my own. Other times, while thinking through how to write questions on a topic, I’d see linkages between topics that I’d missed before. And trying to figure out how to write plausible wrong answers (a.k.a. “distractors”) was really useful (even if it can be challenging, as I described yesterday!)

As an instructor, I now suggest this to students who ask me for help with studying. When I give this suggestion to students, I suggest that they try to link different learning objectives from a given lecture, as a way to try to make things a bit more concrete (and to remind them that they should be focusing on the learning objectives).

So, I was pleasantly surprised to hear that my Intro Bio co-instructor (and award winner teacher!) Trisha Wittkopp also recommends to students that they try to write their own questions. She had the further suggestion that they should share questions with their friends, so that they could think through why certain answers were wrong, or maybe why a couple of the answers were actually right, etc. In short, writing questions and sharing and discussing them with peers encourages students to think deeply about the material.

One hesitation I had about recommending this strategy to students is that I worried that some students who did not have strong peer groups would especially suffer for the lack of peers with whom to study. We were using Piazza as a platform for students to interact with each other, and I thought that I could set up a section where students could submit questions and respond to each other. Students had the option of posting anonymously, and my hope was that that would help them overcome potential embarrassment about submitting questions. But only a single question was ever submitted, and it was a very straightforward, Bloom’s Level 1 question.

So, I am left feeling like this is a useful study strategy, but like it is not being used — or, at least, not used effectively — by most of our students. As far as I can tell, many students don’t try this strategy in the first place, but I’m not sure why. And, based on office hours, for those who do try, many write very simple questions that can be answered just by memorizing a passage of the textbook or information given on a slide. These are not the types of questions that are challenging to students on exams.

So, I’m still wondering: how can we get them to move to that higher level? Or is this not really a strategy that works generally? (See the postscript below, which suggests that the strategy can work generally.) Which has me wondering: do you suggest a similar strategy for your students? If so, how well do students do with it? Have you found strategies that help them achieve these goals? Or, if you are a student, do you use such a strategy to study? What helped you learn how to write more challenging questions?

Suggestions and ideas will be very much appreciated!

*I think this is fairly common, which is part of why I try to give information to students about general study skills! This is a great summary of the information contained in Make It Stick.


Postscript: After writing this post, I learned about PeerWise during Software Carpentry instructor training. This looks like a formal version of what I tried (and failed) to set up in my course last year. It’s encouraging to hear that the strategy can work and be really effective. I would love to hear from any of our readers if they’ve used this or something similar. How did you implement it in your class? Was there an incentive or requirement for students to use it?

21 thoughts on “Writing questions as a study strategy

  1. One of my colleagues is a big fan of PeerWise so I tried it once in my large Ecology & Evolution lecture class this past semester. I can’t remember whether I incentivized it with actual points, but I assigned this in advance of an exam and suggested it would be a good way of studying. I also told students that if I used their question on the exam, they would receive a few extra points, hoping this would stimulate folks to aim for higher Bloom level questions. In addition to writing a question, everyone was also instructed to rate at least one question written by someone else.

    Almost everyone participated and I heard anecdotally that they liked it. Certainly the one request I get a lot is for more practice/exam problems so I hoped this would address that. Without having to actually read all 200 questions, I could quickly sort them by peer-judged question quality and difficulty. Didn’t end up using any on my exam, but I would definitely consider incorporating this again in the future. I know my colleague uses Peerwise regularly throughout the semester and I can see how students could actually learn both how to write better questions and how to think more critically when doing so if it was used more regularly.

  2. I think you’re right that this is a rare study strategy. I never did it as a student (although my study skills were good, or at least good enough). I’ve never run into a student here at Calgary who does it. Well, some of them quiz each other with Bloom’s level 1 recall questions, but that’s it. I think writing good higher-level questions is hard–harder than answering ones you’ve been given. And I think there are other ways to get students talking with one another and thinking about the material.

    But on the other hand, I’ve never tried to get students to write their own questions and I bet there are techniques to help them to write better ones. So I too will be curious to hear if anyone has their students do this and how effective it is relative to other study techniques.

  3. I love this idea! I vaguely remember this being something that professors would sometimes do as an assignment. We’d be asked to write exam questions as part of our homework or as essay questions on tests.

    Actually I wonder if this strategy could be used by the professor to simultaneously get their students to think deeply about topics and in class AND provide ideas for questions on exams. I could see a course that incorporated question/answer writing as part of a weekly assignment that students had to complete. The faculty member could then cherry pick good ones or at least use them for inspiration when their writing tests.

    Does anyone out there currently do this or something similar?

    • In the intro biology course I was recently a TA for, the instructor had a “write your own exam questions and answers” assignment similar to what you are suggesting. There were two incentives for students: it was mandatory and worth 5% of the course grade, and the instructor chose some of the best questions to appear on the final exam. The questions had to be “curious” (not just recall) and it was a small group assignment so students could work together to come up with the answers.

      I’m not sure how well it worked as a study tool for the students but I think they really liked knowing that their own questions might appear on the exam, and several of them did end up being used.

  4. Writing questions can be a great learning tool at every level. John Janovy from University of Nebraska describes a use for graduate students in his lovely book “Dunwoody Pond”. When a new graduate student joining his group becomes interested in a topic (usually an organism), Janovy asks them to go off and write fifty questions about it. By the time they do, they know enough to begin a thesis project. I’ve done this myself with several new endeavors. It can be really difficult. When it is, it’s especially effective.

    I have also had students in intro courses write questions for one another, sometimes motivating it by telling them that I will include some of the questions they write on the final exam. In this case, I asked them each to write a question based on what they’d learned in a journal reading exercise, then to turn in the question along with their own solution. The biggest problem was that the questions they wrote were really hard! They seemed to think that any question they could answer was too easy, so they made it more elaborate. In the end, I circulated all the questions they wrote, then selected at random just a few to include on the final. I’ve always meant to explore this further, dreaming of a day in which the students challenge, learn from, and assess one another, but haven’t done it yet.

    • Interesting, I like the 50 questions idea. Were all of the questions meant to be potential research questions or were they simply 50 questions on the topic of interest? Following on that latter, did the new graduate have to answer those questions too 😉

      This kind of reminds of something similar from graduate school. At Notre Dame one of the faculty there, Jessica Hellman, used to try to get new students to do a meta-analysis project on their topic of choice. I think Gary Lamberti and some of the other faculty did this as well. Similar idea to the 50 questions issue, it helps new students get oriented in the literature space of their topic.

  5. I used a similar strategy when I got into the nitty-gritty of upper-level course work in biology and chemistry, and always endorsed it when teaching. My formula was to always rewrite all of my lecture notes within 2 hours of the lecture- so material was fresh in my mind & I could fill in the gaps. As I did these rewrites, I always left blank space on the page between major concepts. Then, as I studied, I would insert questions about the material that would force me to recapitulate the content. I also spent about 15 minutes per day, per lecture section of notes, reviewing the content. The questioning phase of this was great, because I eventually got to a point where I could verbatim recite everything I had written down. Thus it never mattered if my questions were the same or different as what I saw on exams, because I knew the content well enough to answer any question concerning it.

  6. Last semester, as part of each lecture’s worksheet, the last question was to post a potential exam question on Blackboard. At first, I rated student questions to highlight ones that were most similar to ones that I would ask on an exam, but I was unable to keep that up throughout the semester, and toward the end, they were all Bloom’s level 1 questions, whereas my exams are almost entirely levels 3 or 4. I felt only a few of the students really took advantage of that, and I think they needed more of an incentive to try to make good ones. I gave them the full point for the question if they posted a question, regardless of quality. I’m curious to check out PeerWise to see if that can help students become more engaged with this process.

  7. We ask students to write a few test questions (3 MC and 2 essay) prior to each exam in Ecology. We use it as a study tool and also to point out examples of questions we wont ask (like route memorization of a list of small details). Students bring their test questions to class and we let the groups toss out the questions and go over some of them. If they come up with a good question in class (or later when we grade the assignment), we tell them to give it a star- 3 stars equals full credit for the assignment. We also tell them that if they come up with a good question, we might use it on the exam, giving them an advantage and giving them more rewards for coming up with good questions. We usually have the same problem when we start out where students questions turn in easy level 1 questions, but by test 3 they usually get better with the exception of a few students who just turn it in for some points.

  8. That is really interesting! As a new college teacher, I’ve been thinking on ways that I can make my students think and not just use recall questions. I will try to apply it to my students and see how they respond! Thanks!

  9. There is a large literature on what effective learning entails. Writing your own study questions or tests is part of it. There is a lot more, though. I like the insights of Mark McDaniel here at Wash U, https://psychweb.wustl.edu/mcdaniel, and of course Henry Roediger, http://psych.wustl.edu/memory/. A paper I like a lot has a revised Bloom’s taxonomy, http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10648-013-9248-9. The key thing is to use the information, not just learn it. Study questions, writing quizzes for others, tutoring, teaching high school students, writing all work. That is why my course is a Wikipedia course and students generate new articles for Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Education_Program:Washington_University_in_St._Louis/Behavioral_Ecology_%28Fall_2014%29

  10. Just remembered the one time I have seen this approach used. In the introductory biostats course I teach, we often have peer mentors–undergrads who’ve previously taken the course and done well, and who are now taking a mentoring course to learn how to help their fellow undergrads learn. Last term our biostats peer mentors wrote a bunch of review questions for the students, which I and my co-instructor checked over before they were distributed. They did a good job coming up with questions higher up on Bloom’s taxonomy–and said they found it *really* difficult and had a new appreciation for how hard their instructors work to write exams! 🙂

  11. Great post Meghan! And particularly interesting to read of your motivations for this, based on your own study experiences.

    I’m pleased to hear you learned about PeerWise, and if you give it a go, I do hope you and your students find it a useful tool. I don’t think it will immediately solve some of the challenges you have highlighted, in particular how to encourage students to spend the time to create high quality, effective questions. However because it is specifically designed for this activity it may help to remove some of the barriers preventing students from getting started. And that can be a big part of the battle – once the repository of questions starts to grow, students can rate them which helps to surface the most useful ones, and these can then serve as examples.

    It is also possible that the lower quality questions (of which there will be many!) play a useful role in bringing students’ critical analysis skills into play – students can comment on one another’s questions, providing feedback and making suggestions for improvement. In many cases, this peer feedback prompts the original question author to edit and improve the quality of their question. In fact, there was an interesting comment about this made by a student in response to an excellent blog post on the Education in Chemistry blog written by Michael Seery (Chemistry lecturer at the Dublin Institute of Technology). Have a look at the comment written by Matt Bird (the student) at the end of this post:


    At the end of their comment, this student writes: “Having loads of questions helped more than if there had been 50% less question but all of high quality.”

    Of course ultimately, the hope is that this peer-driven activity actually helps students learn (which comes back to your original motivations). This is a well-studied topic, but there is increasing evidence emerging that students who author questions as preparation for exams perform better than students who simply study by using questions created by their peers:


    If you have any questions about PeerWise specifically, please let me know – I’m always happy to help. Although it is really straightfoward to use, so I’m sure you won’t have any problems 🙂

    Thanks again for your post, really interesting to hear about your experiences!

    • Thank you for those links and thoughts! Those are very helpful.

      Do you know how often instructors use PeerWise on a purely voluntary basis? And, if so, do the students engage?

      • I am not sure what proportion of all courses on PeerWise are voluntary for students (almost certainly a minority), but certainly there are various approaches being used by different instructors.

        Where I have been aware that participation is voluntary, as expected, fewer students take part. Students are much less inclined to voluntarily author questions than they are to answer questions (I think answering is a more natural activity for students when studying). So my feeling is that you would need quite a large class for this to work.

        To put some concrete numbers on this, one very large first-year biology course taught at the University of Otago (in New Zealand) used PeerWise as a completely voluntary activity this year. Students were given a link to PeerWise, but received no formal credit for engaging with it. With just over 2000 students enrolled (yes, this is a really big class!) only 76 produced questions. Collectively, they created 380 questions which were actually very high quality (as these were highly motivated students). However, 761 students voluntarily answered these questions (more than a third of the class).

        These numbers are fairly similar to what I have seen in other courses where participation is voluntary – where approximately 5% author questions and closer to 50% answer questions. (To be fair, I don’t think there are many voluntary activities that 50% of students would engage with!)

        Anyway, in my opinion the authoring process itself can be an effective learning activity, and so I usually justify (to myself) the use of a small amount of course credit (as a carrot!) to encourage students to get started!

      • Thank you for the reply (and the numbers) — this is very helpful! I agree that writing the questions themselves is a very useful learning activity. I just need to decide when I want to tackle this!

  12. My guess as to why students don’t do it is because it is hard. Remember, they’re not necessarily trying to optimize learning retention. They’re trying to optimize learning retention at minimal effort. So, two axes to consider. My two cents.

  13. Hi Meg,
    A bit late, but I’m sharing my experience here, as promised:

    In my old Genetics course, many of the discussion activities I developed forced students to write questions. For example, after teaching them about inferring modes of inheritance from pedigrees, each group of ~4 students was assigned a mode of inheritance (X-linked dominant, autosomal recessive, etc) and told to draw a pedigree with at least 10 individuals and 3 generations showing this mode of inheritance (ideally, uniquely). Groups then traded pedigrees and were asked to figure out what mode of inheritance the other group was assigned. Some pedigrees were always compatible with more than one mode and this lead to good discussions of why this was and how the pedigree might be changed to resolve the ambiguity. I had the Graduate Student Instructors choose the best pedigree in their section and give it to me. I then chose the best from that set and included it (often with some tweaking) on the exam.

    I agree students struggle if they’ve never tried to write questions on their own and aren’t given much structure. For me, this was a study strategy that came naturally and developed early. For example, I remember writing practice tests for myself in 8th grade with lots of fill-in-the blank questions. But, maybe this is just something that people like me that hate memorizing things discover on their own?

    • I really like that pedigree example Trisha, it gives the students enough structure that they’re not going to just flail. Indeed, you could see it as them answering a question, albeit a fairly open-ended one, rather than coming up with their “own” question. But whatever, I really like that approach. Will have to come up with a way to use it in one of my own courses.

  14. I’m an astrophysicist and used PW in a recent “cosmology for non-scientists” second-year course with abtou 190 students. Participation was incentivized: 3% of final course grade for writing 5(?) questions, 2% of final course grade for answering 20 (?) questions and the participation rate was quite high.

    Technically the site was very easy to use for both students and instructor/TAs; I heard from a few students who had problems logging in but these were usually solved by switching to a different web broswer. I didn’t get much feedback about what students thought of it, but I think if they’d hated it I would have heard.

    The questions generated were mostly memorization although there were some higher-level. Some were copied-and-pasted, which I didn’t try to police. A few questions were good enough to be adapted for use on the course tests. The class as a whole did better on the MC parts of the tests than I had expected, so perhaps the PeerWise practice helped.

    If I were to teach this course again I’d definitely consider using PeerWise. It was a relatively painless way to introduce my students to a new way to study.

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