As instructors, we’re used to writing exam questions and having students answer them. But, what if the students had the opportunity to develop their own test questions? What if those student-generated questions were then shared with the other members of a class and used as study guides? That’s the premise behind a site called PeerWise. With PeerWise, students can create content-related questions and answer and discuss questions created by their peers. The site is free to use and instructors can sign up and invite their students. Once in the space, students in a class form a community where they write questions that their classmates answer. With over 700 universities, schools and technical institutes using the site, PeerWise houses more than 600,000 student-generated questions.
As most instructors know, writing good exam questions is difficult work. Initially, I wondered whether students would be able to develop good questions and whether other students would even want to answer them. Having taught assessment courses where students wrote assessment questions, I knew that some students can struggle with the process. How can a student without educational background write effective exam questions? Some instructors are facing this challenge head on. Take Amanda Sykes, a professor at the University of Glasgow. In her class, she instructs students how to write and answer good exam questions and scaffolds students through the process. With a little instruction, Sykes finds, students are able to meet the challenge. In a blog post on the PeerWise Community site, Sykes writes
“My experience with our students is that if we make our expectations clear, and provide them with good reasons for those expectations, our students rise to the challenge and are more than capable of writing multiple choice questions that are at least as intricate and challenging as the best multiple choice questions we can write on a good day.”
Still, I wondered whether students would even want to answer questions written by their peers. Looking at the responses from some of the students who use the site, it’s pretty clear that they find the site beneficial. A quick search on Twitter for “PeerWise” came up with numerous instructors and students who excitedly shared their love for their site. But, does the site have educational value? In a recent study conducted by instructors at the University of California, San Diego, researchers found that student use of PeerWise is not only positively correlated with student learning gains at statistically significant levels (p = 0.001), but also that it promotes student perceptions of learning and motivation to learn. The rationale provided by the site is convincing. Challenging students to author their own assessment questions helps them focus on the important concepts and learning outcomes of a course. Developing effective alternatives encourages students to reflect on possible misconceptions, and explaining an answer to a question in their own words reinforces student understanding. While it might be a little radical to get students involved in writing exams questions, PeerWise allows students to take ownership over the study and review process and to take an active role in constructing their understanding of course concepts.