Monthly Archives: January 2015

Plagiarism-proof assignments: The Up-Goer Five Challenge

up_goer_fiveOk, so there’s probably no such thing as a plagiarism-proof assignment, but I think I’ve got a reasonable approximation thereof.

It originated with my frustration with the perpetual struggle to have students in my distance education classes answer questions in their own words. My students are using their textbooks to answer questions, and many seem to feel that a textbook is the exception to the rule when it comes to plagiarism. Some simply don’t understand that they’re doing anything wrong. From experience, I can tell you that many people who are not my students also see it that way, and complaining about it is a great way to be branded as unreasonable. The problem, as I’ve documented before, is that students who copy from their textbook also tend to fail the class. After last term, I’ve decided that it’s in my best interest to consume alcohol before grading assignments. I’m not allowed to ignore plagiarism, but what I don’t see

Absent blissful ignorance, the only way to deal with plagiarism (without causing myself a variety of problems) is to change the assignments so that plagiarism isn’t possible. Now, if you’ve attempted to do this, you know it isn’t easy. A search online will give you tips like having students put themselves in the position of a person experiencing a historical event, and explaining their perspective on the matter. That’s something students (most likely) can’t copy from the internet. But suggestions like that are not especially helpful when the topic is how volcanoes work. (Although now that I think about it, “Imagine you are an olivine crystal in a magma chamber…”)

The solution came from my online source of comfort, xkcd. Randall Munroe, the creator of the webcomic, set himself the challenge of labeling a diagram of NASA’s Saturn 5 rocket (Up Goer Five) with only the 1000 most commonly used words in the English language. Soon after, members of the geoscience community took up the challenge of explaining their fields of research in the 1000 most commonly used words. Here are two examples from a blog post by hydrogeologist Anne Jefferson. Anne writes:

” So I decided to see if I could explain urban hydrology and why I study it using only the words in the list. Here’s what I came up with:

I study how water moves in cities and other places. Water is under the ground and on top of it, and when we build things we change where it can go and how fast it gets there. This can lead to problems like wet and broken roads and houses. Our roads, houses, and animals, can also add bad things to the water. My job is to figure out what we have done to the water and how to help make it better. I also help people learn how to care about water and land. This might seem like a sad job, because often the water is very bad and we are not going to make things perfect, but I like knowing that I’m helping make things better.

Science, teach, observe, measure, buildings, and any synonym for waste/feces were among the words I had to write my way around. If I hadn’t had access to “water”, I might have given up in despair.

But my challenge was nothing compared to that faced by Chris, as he explained paleomagnetism without the word magnet:

I study what rocks tell us about how the ground moves and changes over many, many (more than a hundred times a hundred times a hundred) years. I can do this because little bits hidden inside a rock can remember where they were when they formed, and can give us their memories if we ask them in the right way. From these memories we can tell how far and how fast the rocks have moved, and if they have been turned around, in the time since they were made. It is important to know the stories of the past that rocks tell, because it is only by understanding that story that we really understand the place where we live, how to find the things that we need to live there, and how it might change in the years to come. We also need to know these things so we can find the places where the ground can move or shake very fast, which can be very bad for us and our homes.”

Is that brilliant, or what?! To make it even better, Theo Sanderson developed a text editor to check whether only those words have been used. This is what happened when I typed part of the introduction to the chapter on volcanoes:

Up-Goer Five text editor

Yes, fortunately it has the word “rock.”

I decided to test-drive this with my class. I gave them the option of answering their assignment questions in this way. It’s difficult, so they got bonus points for doing it. A handful attempted it, and that was probably the most fun I’ve ever had grading assignments. If you’d like to give this kind of assignment a shot, there are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Students (and colleagues) may be skeptical. Explain that the exercise requires a solid knowledge of the subject matter (in contrast to paraphrasing the textbook) and is a very effective way for students to diagnose whether they know what they think they know. In my books, that gives it a high score in the learning per unit time category.
  • The text editor has some work-arounds, like putting single quotes around a word, or adding “Mr or “Mrs” in front of a word (e.g., Mr Magma). Head those off at the pass, or you’ll get “But you didn’t say we couldn’t!”
  • You may wish to allow certain words for the assignment or for specific questions, depending on your goals. For example, if I were less diabolical, I might consider allowing the use of “lava.” The other reason for not allowing “lava” is that I want to be sure they know what it means. In contrast, I probably wouldn’t make them struggle with “North America.”
  • Make it clear that simple language does not mean simple answers. I found that students tended to give imprecise answers that didn’t address important details. I don’t think they were trying to cut corners- they just didn’t think it was necessary. If I were to do this again I would give them a rubric with examples of what is and isn’t adequate.
  • Recommend that they write out the key points of their answers in normal language first, and in a separate document, and then attempt to translate it.
  • Suggest that they use analogies or comparisons if they are stuck. For example, Randall Munroe refers to hydrogen as “the kind of air that once burned a big sky bag.”
  • Make the assignment shorter than you might otherwise, and focus on key objectives. Doing an assignment this way is a lot of work, and time consuming.
  • And finally, (as with all assignments) try it yourself first.

In that spirit:

I like to make stories with numbers to learn what happens when things go into the air that make air hot. Very old rocks from deep under water say things that help make number stories. The number stories are not perfect but they still tell us important ideas about how our home works. Some day the number stories about how old air got hot might come true again, but maybe if people know the old number stories, they will stop hurting the air. If they don’t stop hurting the air, it will be sad for us because our home will change in bad ways.

Categories: Assessment, Challenges, Distance education and e-learning, Learning strategies, Learning technologies, Teaching strategies | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

Of Dogs and Collective Agreements

This post is a kind of public service announcement for sessional lecturers at the University of Saskatchewan, so if you aren’t especially interested in labour relations at the U of S, you might want to come back another time. On the other hand, if you prefer a data-based approach to cynicism, then read on…

Once upon a time there was a union newsletter that said the following:

“Members who have taught more than 10 x 3 credit units should be paid at level 2 rates; those who have taught more than 20 x 3 credit units should be paid at level 3 rates. Adjustments should be made automatically by the employer.

Courses taught while on regular faculty appointments or while on an ASPA contract, including as facilitator for an online course, should count in your progression through the levels, but it may be necessary to inform Human Resources of this part of your teaching experience.” [emphasis original]   

“Hey!” the sessional lecturer said, “the majority of my work is through ASPA as a facilitator, and I must have accumulated enough credit units to get past level 1 by now. I’d better check.”

So the sessional lecturer added up her credit units and found that she had surpassed the requirement for level 3 pay rates. She double-checked her employment records, and confirmed that she was actually paid at level 1 rates.

“I’d better look into this,” she said. “It must be an oversight by HR.” And so the emailing began.

The sessional lecturer contacted HR only to find that they weren’t sure about whether the ASPA work counted, and she began to doubt her understanding of the newsletter. They said they would check and get back to her. Two months later she got the news: she would be changed to level three as of the new year.

“That’s great!” she said. “But that means some of my earlier work should have been paid at level 2 or level 3. Will I be compensated for that?”

“Of course!” said HR. “It’s in the collective agreement, and we value our employees, so we will take care of that right away!”

No, HR didn’t say that. If they did, this wouldn’t be much of a story.

What they actually said was, “Well no, we don’t do that. And besides- we don’t actually check ASPA records unless someone asks. You didn’t ask us soon enough to check that our records are in order, so we don’t have to pay you. It’s in your collective agreement. You should have read it.”

The sessional lecturer was speechless. She thought to herself, “The agreement says they have to count ASPA work, but they choose not to check on it unless someone raises the issue… that’s not at all what I understood from the newsletter. I’d better read the collective agreement to see if it actually says that’s ok.”

So she made a cup of tea, and curled up with two dogs and her computer, and prepared to slog through pages and pages of legalese. To her surprise, the agreement wasn’t difficult to read at all. She hit paydirt right in the Definitions section:

SERVICE POINTS provide a measure of the teaching performed as an employee at the University of Saskatchewan and are used to determine the appropriate basic stipend. Each service point represents six credit units of teaching as the principal instructor of a credit course or courses and may include, but is not limited to, teaching as:

 1) a sessional lecturer,

2) an applied music instructor (See Article 16.04),

 3) a member of faculty in a term position as set out in Article 14.01, or,

 4) an administrative or professional staff member at the University of Saskatchewan

Sessional lecturers who have accumulated up to five (but not equal to five) service points will be paid at a Level I rate; sessional lecturers who have accumulated five and up to ten (but not equal to ten) service points will be paid at a Level II rate; and sessional lecturers who have accumulated ten or more service points, and retired faculty members appointed as sessional lecturers, will be paid at a Level III rate.”

“It’s right there!” she said. “Number 4 on the list refers to ASPA work. I wonder why it took so long for them to decide that it counted?”

Then she thought, “I wonder if HR was right about not having to pay me.” She read the collective agreement, read it again, and then put down the computer. She turned to her dog and said, “I just don’t see it. I don’t see anything anywhere.” Her dog said, “That’s odd. Scratch my ears?”

In a feat of remarkable dexterity, she patted one dog’s head, rubbed the other’s tummy, and shook her head all at the same time. “I can’t believe it,” she said. “Maybe something elsewhere says otherwise, but everything I can find suggests that USask is UScrewing me.”

Suddenly she stopped rubbing and patting- an appalling thought had occurred to her: “If sessional lecturers think HR is keeping track of their ASPA work, but HR has made a point of not doing it unless they are asked to… If HR doesn’t have to pay anyone if they avoid checking for long enough… that’s a system designed for UScrewing!”

Brought back to reality by prods from two cold noses, the sessional lecturer resumed her patting and rubbing. She sorted through her options, and concluded that if the University were not troubled by the ethics of its system, it was a hopeless cause. She thought back to a blog post she had read about a self-respect threshold, and then got up to make another cup of tea.

After evicting a dog from her spot on the couch, she settled in to read again, this time with her copy of Trading for Canadians for Dummies. She smiled.

 

Epilogue

You may wonder if the sessional lecturer ever contacted her union. That’s what her dogs recommended. In fact, she did, but she got the impression that they would prefer she went away quietly.

When she explained this to her dogs, one put down the tennis ball she was chewing and said, “So the words you were reading before don’t actually mean what they say? People words are confusing.” Her other dog began to wonder whether people words like “sit” and “stay” were also open to interpretation.

Sensing the potential for chaos, the sessional lecturer answered, “It depends on who the people are and why they say the words.” The tennis ball connoisseur put down her ball again. “That makes no sense at all. But then again, I’ve never had a collective agreement.” A pensive look came across the sessional lecturer’s face. “Maybe I haven’t either.”

 

 

Categories: The business of education | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Blog at WordPress.com.