Easy-Medium-Hard: One way to generate (and grade) differentiated problem sets quickly

Sometimes I need to have all the students in my class improve their speed or accuracy in a particular technique.  Sometimes I just need everyone to do a few practice problems for an old topic so I can see where I should start.  But I don’t have time to make (or find) the questions, and I definitely don’t have time to go through them with a fine-toothed comb.

One approach I use is to have students individually generate and grade their own problems.  They turn in the whole, graded, thing and I write back with narrative feedback.  I get what I need (formative assessment data) and they get what they need — procedural practice, pointers from me, and some practice with self-assessment.

Note: this only works for problems that can be found in the back of a textbook, complete with answers in the appendix.

Here’s the handout I use.

What I Get Out of It

The most useful thing I get out of this is the “hard” question — the one they are unable to solve.  They are not asked to complete it: they are asked to articulate what makes that question difficult or confusing.

Important Principles

  • Students choose questions that are easy, medium, and hard for them.  This means they must learn to anticipate the difficulty level of a question before attempting it.
  • If they get a question wrong, they must either troubleshoot it or solve a different one.
  • They turn in their questions clearly marked right or wrong.


  • I don’t have to grade it — just read it and make comments
  • The students get to practice looking at things they don’t fully understand and articulating a question about it
  • I get to find out what they know and what they (think they) don’t know.
  • Students can work together by sharing their strategies, but not by sharing their numbers, since everyone ends up choosing different problems.
  • It makes my expectations explicit about how they should do practice questions in general: with the book closed, page number and question number clearly marked, with the schematics copied onto the paper (“Even if there’s no schematic in the book?!” they ask incredulously — clearly the point of writing down the question is just to learn to be a good scribe, not to improve future search times), etc.

Lessons Learned

I give this assignment during class, or at least get it started during class, to reduce copying.  Once students have chosen and started their questions, they’re unlikely to want to change them.

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