Friday, November 19, 2010

Who Took the Easy Way Out?

Cheating... on an exam?!

After years of giving exams to students, an instructor at University of Central Florida, was shocked to discover that students cheat on exams.

Is it really all that hard to imagine that students would take the easy way out, when that appears to be exactly what the professor did? Instead of creating a novel and authentic way to assess student learning, Richard Quinn used his 20 years of teaching experience, to draw his exam from the question bank supplied by a textbook company. Instead of sharing his own work with students, he administered an exam created by a publisher, leaving me to wonder: Did the test acknowledge the source for the exam questions?

When I study at an institute of higher learning, I prefer to take courses that are not the same year after year; courses that recognize the realities of today's hyper-connected world; courses that don't place such a huge emphasis on a written exam to demonstrate the stickiness of course content.

In watching the 'lesson' below, I can't help but sense the emotional vibrations from the teacher: disappointment, frustration... disillusionment. As the audience for this 'lecture' learns that statistical variations, forensic analysis, and data tracking have narrowed the pool of suspected cheaters to about a third of the class, I'd have been just as interested to read the faces and body language of the 400 students.

The rant appears to have led to 200 confessions. Self-identifying cheaters will be allowed to complete the course and graduate, provided they take a four hour course in ethics. I can't help but wonder if/when any teachers at the school will see themselves as culpable.

At the close, we learn that the instructor was too distraught to load the slides for Chapter 8 and Chapter 9. Whether or not the slidedecks were also provided by the publisher, Mr. Quinn's closing comments indicate that he has much to learn:

"The days of finding a new way to cheat the system, are over!"

I suspect that the system will need far more than a new exam in order to make learning relevant, and cheat-proof. What do you think?

For more food for thought, visit a few true stories of students from the University of Windsor.


William Kierstead said...

Seems like the teacher learned a valuable lesson. I find it interesting that a crew worked for 96 hours to come up with new questions. When I was in was teaching both at the Secondary and post-Secondary levels, I had to come up with my own assessments. Apparently the lesson learned had more impact on the TA's than on the teacher.

DDignam said...

I received my B.Ed. in spring 2009, and as of yet, I have no real desire to teach in "educational institutions" (ie: public schools, university) because I don't like the milieu. Of course, even if I wanted to get a job at one these places, I'd be out of luck because all of the older employees (some just don't deserve the title "teacher") hang on for years and years, depriving the system of the new ideas it so badly needs.

Right now I'm trying to find jobs in the field that aren't constrained by politics, bureaucracy, outdated traditions, and in places that encourage critical thinking. Strangely enough, I haven't been successful so far - go figure.

Some of my "colleagues" at Teachers' College became certified science teachers despite "not believing" in the theory of evolution. I have tons of stories - don't get me started on this topic.

You may also find this post interesting:

Kudos to you Rodd - as an establishment member, you have no real incentive to care about your job as much as you do (other than, you know, caring about education). With the help of people like you, perhaps the system can be modernized.

jabrons199 said...

I'm a little confused...200 + students, aged 17 or older, knowingly cheated on a mid-term exam at the post-secondary level and we're harping on the Prof?

I'll concede that drawing from a test bank is hardly a novel or innovative way to evaluate your students, but lets not lose sight of the fact that there were *hundreds* of students in that class. The post says 400 but the prof indicates that a third of the students cheated. If that third was 200, then there should be about 600 total.
TAs and Lab instructors or not, making and marking 600 midterm exams is a lot of work. Do class sizes amount to even a comparable fraction of this in high school or elementary school? Not where I work or any school I've ever been to.

Don't misunderstand me, I get the point. The education system needs a massive overhaul, on all levels. I see it in myself and the teachers and students around me. I just find it a little askew that we seem to be letting all the blame rest on the prof(s), while validating the actions of these adult (or at least young adult) students.

Lisa M Lane said...

Boy, not sure where to start at this one.

About the test itself: in a huge class, you should have a massive test bank, and everyone can study it and use it for learning. "Cheating" is for "objective" questions, but the point of objective questions is memorization, so give them the means to memorize. I recall a story once about a teacher who added to a massive test bank privately, and discovered an unauthorized printout just hours after doing so. At first he too was angry, but then he realized if they were all sitting around together memorizing 450 questions, they were learning it anyway.

About lecturing the students on it: Transparency is good, and showing students you have an emotional response to something going on with the class can elicit all sorts of positive behaviors. Students tend to see profs as automatons.

About exams like this in the world today: I still use some multiple choice questions, but they have access to them in advance and I decrease their weight as the semester progresses and we get more into analysis. The essays, which are based on questions where you can't really cheat because it's up to you what evidence you use, increase in weight. To me multiple choice questions are like a security blanked and foundation, a check on reading and studying. The true knowledge is expressed in the essay. Facts are for practice. They can be looked up, these days more easily than ever.

Rodd Lucier said...

We need fresh ideas in schools all across North America. I urge you, don't give up on the profession!
FYI, As the educational lives of my daughters move into post-secondary institutions, my incentive for enlivening K-12 school-based education, in inspired by my 7 year old son.

Rodd Lucier said...

Knowing the importance of building relationships among learners, and between teachers and students, perhaps the overwhelming class sizes are the most significant part of the problem. While it may seem that I'm pointing at the professors as the source of the problem, I suspect that for the most part, they are trying to make the best of an awkward situation.

Not that it justifies academic fraud, but maybe you agree with me that the students in many of today's college classes are also victims of circumstance, dealing with assessment practices that fail to address much more than the ability to study for the short term.

If the end goal is to have students understand a specific body of knowledge, maybe it's most fair to provide samples of the type of questions you'd expect them to be able to answer? Lisa's comment, along with reference to her personal experiences, addresses this point in some detail.

Rodd Lucier said...

It struck me that this instructor may well remember this talk as one of his most impassioned. He clearly cares about his course and his students, and has responded as one who has been betrayed.

As we move more and more towards a world that communicates in sound bytes and short video clips, I wonder if/when essays and multiple choice tests may be replaced by alternate, differentiated responses.

But before we get too radical, maybe we should consider the purpose and origins of grading?

jabrons199 said...

I do agree that the typical multiple choice test used for large classes rewards those who can cram well the most but I think we've made an assumption AND missed something that may be significant.

The assumption: that this bank of questions was all multiple choice. Given the size of the bank that the prof held up, I would be surprised to see that they were all multiple choice questions. In my experience, textbook publishers usually provide more than just multiple choice questions anyway.

The significant fact(s): the Prof *did* mention labs, which would clearly be an applicable way to assess learning. In many cases, labs are worth just as much or more than the final exam are they not? Nevermind the midterm.

Even if the midterm exam *was* all multiple choice, I think it's reasonable that in short post-secondary semesters, (at a point where students probably haven't yet received any marks from their labs yet because of ongoing collection) a quickly made multiple choice midterm is the tool used to give the students some idea of how they are doing.

Lisa M Lane said...

Rodd, as you mentioned in your response to Jabrons199, class size is a huge issue. I handle 200 students at the start of each semester, in five classes of 40 each, a standard contract load, without a TA or a grader. Whether grades are a good idea are not, I cannot do without them, as check points for students throughout the semester so they can see how they're doing, and as checks on skills so I can tell what still needs to be taught. If I didn't have grades, I'd invent something similar just to keep track of them all.

In thinking further about this professor and the emotional aspects of his lecture, I became concerned that he might be genuinely hurt and distressed by what happened. When things like this occur, one can demonstrate distress for the purpose of engendering response, but it isn't a good idea to actually feel betrayed by such a thing. The students' intention was to get higher grades, not betray their prof.

Rodd Lucier said...

Jabrons199; Lisa
As classes get larger and larger, teachers get fewer and fewer opportunities to truly know their students. And with such scaling up, the students get limited opportunities to interact with one another.

The use of tests and exams in such environments may be the most practical ways to assess students, but I'd love to see greater weight placed on more personal, interactive lab sessions. Maybe that's just not possible if we expect professors and instructors being the final arbiter?


Last year when I administered the Grade Six standardized test, I had to ensure that students could not see each others work, all devices were removed from their possession and they didn't ask me any questions. I had to ensure students could not see anything posted on the walls, nor on the walls in any other classroom. For accountability purposes, administration checked regularly to see if I was following the rules- to ensure that I wasn't cheating, or that my students weren't cheating.
It doesn't matter that it is 2010 and that we talk "collaboration" in the real word. From a very young age, students are taught that unless they know the information all by themselves - in their heads, they are cheating.
Standardized testing is not going away - at any level (k-12/post secondary). If we want to curb the desire to cheat, to take the easier way out, then maybe we should change the type of questions asked (rocket science,I know). My idea exam would be to GIVE students devices, computers, internet access and encourage talking and collaboration, BUT - ask critical thinking questions, problem solving questions, questions to change the world, to make students excited, that have multiple response. The problem: This would be very difficult and time consuming to mark and who has that much time, especially when some professors have classes of 200.

jabrons199 said...

Some subjects lend themselves more to collaborative assessment than others I guess. For a standardized math test of basic math skills, it would indeed be difficult to assess an individual student's knowledge without having them work alone.

I'm not quite sure what you're saying Rodd, about professors being the final arbiter. In terms of what?