Volume V- 2000

Student-Written Tests: An Effective Twist in Teaching Language
by Lionel M. Kaufman, Jr.

         Lionel M. Kaufman, Jr., Ph.D., has taught English at the Humacao campus of the University of Puerto Rico since 1975. He received his Ph.D. degree in Teaching English as a Second Language from New York University. From 1990 to 1992 he was a senior Fulbright lecturer in Ankara, Turkey. He has also served as President of Puerto Rico TESOL (Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages).


         Turning the test-taker into a test-maker can transform the process into an imaginative, exciting game involving both student and teacher. Each tries to outguess the other's visions of the course, their "hidden agendas"! In this "game," you're trying to "psych out" the teacher and your classmates in writing your own test items while they're writing theirs. You're asking yourself: "Should I make it easy or difficult?" "What kind of questions will the teacher ask?" "What are my classmates thinking and writing?" Later, in the test correction stage, you're reinforcing your own knowledge while tutoring your peers.

         Initially, students are thinking and scheming; later they are helping themselves by helping their classmates, building up confidence in themselves while mutually sharing areas of expertise with their peers. Thinking, scheming, psyching out others, helping out their peers--these are all products of an active, creative imagination used in the process of learning and assessing progress in a second language.

         Here learning and assessment go hand in hand. There is no clear cut distinction between teaching and testing or between teacher and student since the test-taker also functions as a self-monitor and peer instructor. This kind of learner-centered, cooperative learning/testing activity involves imagination in the true sense of the word because it frees students from the tyranny of being accountable exclusively to the teacher's "hidden agenda" while it empowers them to be guided by their own perceptions of knowledge as well as those of other learners. This technique has elicited the following comments from students:

"I liked it because you knew what was coming in the exam."
"Things I couldn't understand well, my classmates could help me with."
"There is an exchange of knowledge and opinions, and a lot of our doubts are cleared up."

         The small-group, task-based activities required them to make up lesson plans, teach their classmates, write up questions and exercises, write up tests, and yes, even take the tests themselves! Two very different groups of students participated: (1) intermediate-level ESL students, and (2) ESL teacher trainees (subsequently identified as "bilinguals") taking more advanced English language classes.

Hidden Agendas

         Is it absurd to think that students can teach and test each other as well as themselves? Maybe not. Advocates of student-centered classes say students come to the test with preconceived ideas about what they consider important to study, a mental set that Nunan and Breen (1989) call the students' "hidden agenda." They point out that there is often a discrepancy between what is planned, what is taught, and what is learned. That is, students study what they think is important, which often differs from what the teacher had in mind.

         In addition, the second language literature has encouraged teachers to become sensitive to the contributions that learners can make to curriculum design. By making their own input in the class, learners become more involved and become what some have termed "stakeholders" in the educational process. So why not extend this to the test itself? Getting students involved in materials writing, including test writing, helps them to "internalize the material through their own creative involvement" while they assume the role of "collaborator" instead of merely "language receiver" Clark, 1989:136).

         Numerous studies of student-centered approaches to testing have appeared recently in the second language literature. In some experiments, students and teachers cooperatively plan and write formative or summative tests (Smith, 1990; Papadaki, 1991; Murphy, 1991). Another approach, used by Mejia & Ortiz (1993), is to get feedback from students on specific test items after taking a teacher-made test. In the present study, however, student input is present at numerous stages in the teaching and testing sequence. In addition, the strategies are implemented in classes at two different proficiency levels. It is felt that materials writing activities are especially valuable for second language students since in writing their own exercises and tests, students engage in a meaningful problem-solving task which they must carry out by negotiating meaning in the target language. On the other hand, teacher trainees, who are more proficient in English, would also profit from materials writing since it prepares them for similar tasks they will face in the classroom.

Gauging Attitudes

         The experiment, which gauged the attitudes of the two groups of students to materials preparation, used a sequence of five steps: Lesson Preparation, Test Preparation, Lesson Presentation, Test Administration, and Peer Tutoring. In the Lesson Preparation stage, students working in groups of three or four are given instructions to prepare a lesson on one part of their textbook unit to present orally to the class. In some cases, depending on the nature of the class, teaching the lesson also means conducting practice or drill on specific skills. In the case of a grammar lesson, for instance, ESL students assuming the role of teacher either use the grammar exercises from the textbook to practice with the class or prepare their own materials. In the classes of teacher trainees, lesson preparation involved directing a discussion on an assigned reading in a journal or one from a unit in their textbook.

Preparation and Administration

         In the Lesson Preparation phase, student groups present their lessons to the class. Group members are expected to participate equally in the presentation and are evaluated individually on their oral performance. At the same time, the students listening to the group presentations are encouraged to take notes since they know they will be tested on the material in the near future. After preparing the lesson, students write quiz or test items to assess their classmates' comprehension of the material. During this activity, the teacher initially gives orientation on strategies for writing test items and sets guidelines on types of items to be used. Then, while students are writing their items in their group, the teacher circulates around the classroom giving feedback. Both student-made and teacher-made test items are incorporated into either short quizzes for checking comprehension of the material or used in unit exams. In general, in any quiz or unit exam, the ratio of teacher-made to student-made items is 50-50. Thus, all students are aware that the test will include both items that they and their classmates have written as well as teacher-made ones.

Peer Tutoring

         When the corrected and graded quizzes or tests are returned, the students are given a correction task. They must correct their mistakes or weak areas on the test, and, in some cases, supply a rule explanation or an expansion of an idea. For example, in a grammar item, the student corrects the error and supplies the rule. However, in a discussion or essay item, "corrections" may involve writing a short paragraph to clarify or expand on an idea. These corrections are done with the added incentive that additional points will be added to their test grade. However, before beginning the correction task, students are to seek help or advice from their classmates who prepared these items. Thus, each student is both "test writer" as well as "test taker." As test writer he or she is an "expert" on some portion of the test and is in the position to help or advise classmates in the correction task. As "test taker" the student seeks advice from other "experts".

         This activity requires considerable independence of movement, as students move around the classroom seeking and giving advice. Meanwhile, for the ESL group, purposeful negotiation of meaning is taking place in the target language (although students who share a common L1 may use it to explain grammatical rules).


         These activities, which took place at the University of Puerto Rico, Humacao campus, were repeated throughout the semester in both groups. The ESL group was composed of first year students taking a required course in Basic English. The ESL teacher trainees, mostly proficient English-Spanish bilinguals, were taking courses in language acquisition and English-Spanish contrastive analysis which are offered in a program leading to a B.A. degree in Teaching English as a Second Language. At the end of the semester both groups were asked to fill out an open-ended attitude questionnaire which asked for reactions to the following tasks: working in groups; writing their own materials, including tests; taking combined teacher-made and student-made tests; and correcting their tests by consulting their peers.


         Although both groups of students were positive toward these learner-centered strategies, the ESL students appeared to be more enthusiastic when asked if they learned more using this approach. The ESL students pointed to the benefits of sharing knowledge with their classmates. One student said, "I learned a lot because in this way we know what our classmates are thinking. It was beneficial since we were able to exchange ideas and having to explain these ideas to others resulted in having clearer and more understandable ideas." While many of the bilinguals felt similarly, many others from this group pointed to the need for more teacher input. One teacher trainee commented,"I learned what the other students taught, but at times it is necessary for the professor to explain more."

         Next, when the two groups were asked to express a preference for either small group work or learning through a teacher-directed class, the ESL students were overwhelmingly in favor of group work while the bilinguals appeared divided on this issue. One comment by an ESL student was:

"Through the group we get more motivated, we put more effort into our work, and our mind is open because we do the work ourselves."

         The bilingual students, on the other hand, either preferred a teacher-directed class or alternating between the two approaches. Said one:

"I don't believe it is good to completely depend on a mentor. The strategy of working in groups should complement but not substitute the work of the teacher."

Test-Writing Popular among Students

         As for writing their own tests, both groups found the experience beneficial. Most teacher trainees remarked that writing test items helped them to comprehend the material better. "It was beneficial," said one bilingual, "because it helped us not just to memorize facts but to really understand the material." This comment was echoed by many ESL students, but, in addition, many of them pointed out the advantage of having a clearer idea of what was expected of them. Said one:

"I liked it because you knew more or less what was coming in the exam," adding "many times professors put items in the exam that students don't understand."

         Another second language student said the use of this strategy showed that the teacher recognized that students can make valuable input to the class. She put it this way,

"I thought it was a good idea because the teacher was taking us into account and is recognizing that we can also express our own ideas."

         One of the most interesting findings of this study related to the validity of the tests themselves. Some of the questions that were running through this researcher's mind were the following: How valid are test items which the students write and then give to their classmates or take themselves? Would the students merely give away the answers to items they were writing to their classmates in the other groups? However, in the final analysis, this didn't seem to be a serious problem with either class. In fact, when asked if the test-writing activity was beneficial, the only negative reaction came from a student who in complete honesty replied, "Not as effective as it could have been because the groups did not share their items with other groups because of lack of time." Another student's comment reinforced my feeling that perhaps the strategy of knowing only some of the items in the test had a kind of "tease effect"; that is, it was an incentive to study for the items you didn't know. When asked if she liked test-writing, this student responded: "I loved it! When I prepared my exams I always made very difficult items. But my group mates wanted to make them easier. I didn't want them easy because we never knew how difficult the teacher's exam was going to be. I felt it was better to prepare yourself to the maximum so that you won't regret it later on."

Students Positive to Peer Correction

         The last question referred to the "peer correction" stage where students were asked to correct their exams after consulting classmates who wrote the items. The question was: "When you corrected your exams, did your classmates help you to understand your errors?" Here again both groups were positive to this approach with the only dissension coming from a few bilingual students with mixed feelings about the procedure. An ESL student wrote:

"Now that we see that we can learn by asking our friends, we don't have to depend so much on the professor."

A bilingual student, however, felt that giving and seeking advice at the same time was too demanding:

"My classmates helped me. But I didn't want to bother them too much because they also had difficulties and had to ask for help from other groups."

         The commentaries from the two groups--bilingual and second language learners--would seem to indicate that the appropriateness of these activities depends on the task at hand and the proficiency level of the student. The bilingual students seemed to favor more teacher input, especially at the lesson preparation stage, while the second language students liked group work because it gave them the opportunity to participate more in the class in a non-threatening way and helped to vary the class routine. Both groups, however, were positive to the idea of test writing, but for different reasons. The bilinguals thought it helped them to understand the material more thoroughly, while the second language students liked it because it gave them the opportunity to know in advance what was coming on the test.

         Student-centered learning is not for everyone. As this study demonstrates, the success of this approach depends on the nature of the class, the proficiency level of the student, and the specific task the student is undertaking. But there may be other variables as well-- for example, the student's individual learning style or the teacher's own teaching style. Finally, the cultural background of students may be important to the extent that it influences how the students view their own roles in relation to the teacher (Kaufman, 1993; McCargar, 1993). However, for these students in Puerto Rico having them teach and test themselves is one way of narrowing the gap between two "hidden" agendas--those of the teacher and the student.


Clark, D. 1989. "Materials Adaptation: Why Leave It All to the Teacher?" ELT Journal 43.2: 133- 141.

Kaufman, Lionel. 1993. "Students Writing Their Own Tests: An Experiment in Student-Centered Assessment in Two Cultures." Paper presented at the 27th annual convention of TESOL, Atlanta, GA.

McCargar, David F. 1993. "Teacher and Student Role Expectations: Cross-Cultural Differences and Implications." The Modern Language Journal 77.2: 192-207.

Mejia Flores, Ana and Myrna Ortiz. 1993. "Student Participation in the Evaluation Process."Puerto Rico TESOLgram. XX.1: 9-10.

Murphy, T. 1991. "Student-Made Tests." Modern English Teacher 17(1,2): 28-29, 41.

Nunan, D. and M. Breen. 1989. "Classroom Implementation." In Robert K. Johnson, ed., The Second Language Curriculum. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Papadaki, Georgia. 1991. "The Student-Constructed Test: An Alternative to Teacher-Constructed Tests." Paper presented at the 10th International Conference of the Greek Applied. Linguistics Association,Thessaloniki, Greece.

Smith, K. 1990. "Let Your Students Write Their Own Tests." Paper presented at the annual meeting of the International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language, Dublin, Ireland. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service, ED 322 572).

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