At the APS Distance Learning conference last weekend there was a session on dealing with cheating. We heard from Dave Pritchard from MIT and Gerd Kortemeyer from Michigan State. Both of them have run courses using online homework (the MSU one is a fully online course) and they had all kinds of data about how students use those systems. I found myself uncomfortable in that session and I wanted to jot some of my thoughts down before I forgot about them.
First, I thought it was interesting that they both pointed out that peer copying is the biggest problem. I’ve always felt that finding online solutions is a bigger problem, so I was interested to hear what they had to say. They showed timing data showing how many students were able to get problems right within seconds of seeing them, drawing a conclusion that they were using the results of a peer. The argument goes that if they’re using other sources, they’d have to spend time reading the problem and going to hunt for solutions, which would take longer than the few seconds they took to complete the problem. What wasn’t clear to me was whether you could analyze the people who took much longer to get an inordinate number of correct answers on the first try.
Second, I was struck by the futility of the “whack-a-mole” approach to deal with cheating. They do this, we do that, repeat. I started thinking about some of the more authentic assessment methods I’ve heard of, and I realized that one of the biggest problems with their mass adoption is their scale-ability. Take my standards-based grading with voice approach: I watch screencasts of students solving problems, assessing their confidence and approach as much as what’s on the page. It comes a close second in authenticity to oral exams, but, while it scales a little better than orals, it can’t scale easily past the 40-person class I’ll have this fall.
Then I started thinking about the impressive project/problem-based learning that so many of my high school teacher friends do. I think that teachers like that would have been a little bewildered by the session, as they don’t worry about things like peer copying, online solutions, and, to a certain extent at least, student motivation. Those students are given an opportunity to do things like launch a weather balloon with a cell phone attached and they jump to it, being involved in the brainstorming, design, execution, analysis, and communication about the project.
That reminds me of the conversations that we have so often in the Global Physics Department, about what the best high school preparation for a student would be. We almost always land on “deep, not broad” because we college teachers have recognized that taking a student who’s seen how science works can be helped with their content deficit better than students who’ve seen everything at a surface/homework level can be helped learn what science really is.
So what can be done with these huge introductory college courses, especially those that use online homework? Well, whack-a-mole is one way. Another is something like standards-based assessment, where homework is not graded, but is rather for learning. A third approach is to try to envision a project-based approach where students are encouraged (possibly in teams) to work toward something that’s easy to motivate and assess, but doesn’t have the cheating enforcement so prevalent. Now, admittedly I don’t teach such huge courses, but I guess I’m just expressing how depressed I was in those sessions. We kept hearing about students who would find ways to defeat the system, and then we’d see statistics showing how it would hurt their learning. THEN we’d learn how, if the researchers shared their findings with the students, MORE cheating took place, as, basically, the sharing simply introduced more students to the tools to cheat with. Ugh. Blah. Give me an oral exam. Or a weather balloon!
So, what do you think? Here are some choices to seed the conversation:
- Students aren’t motivated to learn, so we have to get them to jump through these homework hoops. Whack-a-mole is where it’s at.
- What do you mean with whack-a-mole? I love that game at the carnival. Another ugly mole pops up, and I whack it. I love being innovative in how I can predict where that next mole will be, and I know if I whack the one on the left, the next one will be on the right. Fun!
- Standards based grading, especially with voice, just can’t scale. So lucky you that you have small classes, it just won’t work for me.
- I think giving points for out-of-class work is unethical. Students can pay for cramster.com‘s premium package that’ll guarantee an eight hour turn around for even teacher-written homework, so the rich kids can get those points for free and the poor ones are left behind.
- I don’t care if students cheat on homework, they’ll always fail my test if they do so. I give points for homework just to get them to do it.
- I find the students who help their peers get their homework right are the ones who become the strong majors, and they get practice teaching this way, which is the best way to learn.
- Other thoughts?