Encouraging Student-Generated Content: Giving up Control and Liking It
Encouraging Student-Generated Content: Giving up Control and Liking It avatar

I teach English, and recently I have come up with an activity that encourages students to actively engage with the course material, take ownership of their learning, and define their own goals. What is this magic bullet? I call it “Quiz Creation.”

For a moment, imagine designing an assessment of material for your course. Now, isolate those steps you take to create an effective assessment. Typically, the sequence moves as follows: you familiarize yourself with the material, rereading sections, identifying key vocabulary; next, you evaluate what is important, what your students ought to know; after, you carefully craft questions that encourage critical thinking and reinforce the valuable content; lastly, you edit your assessment for precision and clarity. In the end, an effective assessment is not too easy, not too difficult, and reveals to the students what they should have been paying attention to all along. Now, consider your students in the role you just imagined yourself in: they are the ones having to show a mastery of the material; they must evaluate the content; the students have to pay attention to their language; and they must be held accountable for their work. All of these goals reflect the larger goals of a successful student.

The general lesson described above is actually a specific one I assign in my composition classes called “Quiz Creation.” Students select a chapter from our text and must create a quiz on this section that will be taken by other students in the class. This activity is prefaced with a discussion about quizzes in general. I ask students what makes a good quiz? What about a bad one? Students establish their authority here as experienced quiz-takers and therefore familiar with the genre. They feel empowered to take on this role. From our discussion, we determine a variety of effective types of questions from true/false, multiple choice, short answer, quote analysis, to fill-in-the-blank. Students then begin crafting quizzes on their section in class and polish up their assessments at home. The following class session is dedicated to taking and grading the quizzes.  Students are divided into groups with one group member covering a different reading section. Students take each other’s quizzes and one-by-one, the quiz creator reads aloud his question and explains the correct answer.

Of the many outcomes of this assignment, three stand out as particularly powerful. First, students reflected that they knew the material better after they made their quiz. Of forty-eight students polled, 71% of students said they were “more knowledgeable” of their reading section after the exercise.

Second, students were held accountable for their work. An unclear phrase or ambiguous answer resulted in a chorus of complaints from their peers—an experience we, as instructors, are all too familiar with. As such, students paid careful attention to the quality of their questions so as not to dissatisfy their peers who took their quiz.

Third, students felt empowered through the process. I trusted them to effectively quiz their peers. They established what was valuable in each section, not me. Students understood their authority as their peers grades’ were determined by the assessment they produced. A student acknowledged, she “had to know the chapter enough to be confident discussing correct responses.” Many students polled described the difference between the “memorization” required for taking a quiz versus the “critical thinking” needed for creating one. Encouraging confidence and relying on students’ evaluations empowered their unique voices.

While the outcomes of “Quiz Creation” clearly propel students toward engagement, confidence, authority, and accountability, the limitations of student-generated content must be acknowledged. First, using student-generated content takes a considerable amount of time in and out of class. Simply put, handing over the reins to students also means handing over the clock—an unsettling premise for many of us.

Second, when we give up control of classrooms, students will take lessons toward unexpected territory. Additionally, as instructor-apprentices, students will not place value on the same content that we would. I do not hover over my students’ shoulders and hint to them what should be covered which leaves poignant passages left out of the discussions on these reading sections.

Lastly, students can be resistant to the new authoritative role. As Ira Shor puts it, some students want instructors to “do education to them.” As we attempt to garner genuine interest and shared authority in the class, at times, our best efforts are met with self-doubt and even hostility. Admittedly, it may seem appealing to hold tight to the familiar power dynamics of a traditional learning environment.

Ultimately, though, we as educators know how to teach our students, which more and more subverts the roles of instructor and student. A metaphor enlightens us on the importance of this learning model. Imagine our goal is to teach students how to cook: why would we, the instructors, solely be the ones to shop for ingredients, test recipes, write clear instructions, demonstrate the techniques, and produce the finished dish while our students merely observe that crucial process? Does that sequence of “teaching” genuinely encourage students to become cooks? We, too, must acknowledge that designing a class—and all of its components—is where the true work lies. When we shift even some of that process over to our students it is no wonder that they feel empowered and invested in the course.