Challenges

Help for students, part 4: Exam panic

Exam panic is a tricky problem, because once you experience it, it can make you worry about panicking in the future.  Once you are anxious about panicking, that makes it all the more likely. Fortunately there is a way to fix this. The solution is, go ahead and panic… sort of.

Brain sees exam monster

The problem: you see an exam but your brain sees certain death.

Your brain is an amazing bit of biology that has evolved over millions of years to serve the needs of our ancestors. Unfortunately, somewhere during that evolutionary process it became a toddler-like entity that, regardless of your good intentions, is willful, easily bored, and prone to inconvenient emotional outbursts. It learned a few good tricks that were suitable for helping our ancestors to escape from predators and each other, but since then it has stubbornly refused to acknowledge that those same tricks can be counterproductive when dealing with anxiety over situations that are not likely to kill you.

Brains in a panic

Brains do not react well to certain death.

When you see an exam and feel anxious, your brain sees something else entirely. As far as it’s concerned, that exam is actually a large carnivore about to eat you for lunch. Your brain will try its best to persuade you that you are about to die, and that you should run for your life. Your brain is wrong, but it is also convincing.

Expect some exam anxiety or even outright panic, but realize that you don’t have to accept what your brain is telling you about the situation. Sit back and let it have a fit, like you’re waiting out a child’s temper tantrum. Without your complicity, your brain will not maintain its high panic state, and will settle down again in a few minutes. If you happen to imagine it as an obnoxious pinkish-grey wrinkly thing running back and forth, waving its arms in the air, and screaming at the top of its lungs, that might speed things along.

Brains exhaused after their panic

Sometimes you just have to wait them out.

Exam panic is only a disaster if you think it is. If you begin to panic, and mistakenly believe that the panic is the result of an accurate assessment of your situation, then more panic follows. Even worse, when you panic, your cognitive functioning can diminish- amongst other things, you can forget what you’ve studied. So now you’re suddenly unable to remember anything you studied, and becoming convinced that you are facing catastrophe. This leads to the all too common experience of blanking on an exam only to suddenly remember all of the answers 30 minutes later, once you’ve begun to relax.

Brain not committed to behaving itself in future

Unfortunately, you can’t leave it at home.

Fortunately, this can be managed by expecting that your brain will do stupid things in response to stress, realizing that you might have to let it freak out for a while, and then just waiting until it has regained its composure.

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Help for students, part 1: Breaking the curse of the unknown unknowns

Students often ask whether I can offer any tips on preparing for and writing exams. Sometimes they are new students who haven’t developed study strategies yet, and sometimes they have just become frustrated with strategies that don’t seem to be working for them. Sometimes they are panicked and desperate, and end their emails with “HELP” followed by several exclamation points. (Never a good sign.) So I thought it might be time to jot these things down in one place, rather than writing them over and over again in emails to unhappy students who waited to ask for help until it was too late.

If there is one thing that causes more problems for students preparing for exams than any other, it would be the unknown unknowns:

“…as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”  Donald Rumsfeld, US Secretary of Defense, 12 Feb 2002

When studying, known knowns are the topics you are confident about, and which you are right to be confident about. Known unknowns are the deficits in your knowledge that you are aware of, and which you therefore have a chance to fix. Where you get in trouble, however, are the unknown unknowns- the deficits in your knowledge that you don’t realize exist. You can’t fix those because you don’t know they’re there. At least, you don’t know they’re there until you hit an exam question you didn’t realize you were unprepared for. Then they become known unknowns, but it’s too late to do anything about them.

Here are two examples of what a run-in with unknown unknowns can sound like. Unfortunately, I receive emails like this on a regular basis:

Sally:

“I realize I am not going to pass this course even with the 20+ hours I studied over the last week. I have trouble putting the definitions on paper, I remember reading them and seeing them but can’t find the definition…”

 Bert:

“I felt as though I at least I completed the test and did not leave it blank, and felt confident that half my responses where right, but must have gotten confused…”

Note: “Bert” and “Sally” are not the real names of these students, and may or may not reflect their gender(s).

Sally’s unknown unknowns turned into known unknowns during the exam. In contrast, Bert emailed me because he was shocked that his exam grade was so low- Bert’s unknown unknowns were so sneaky that he got right through the exam without even noticing them.

Both Sally and Bert blamed the exam format for their problems. Their exam was short answer, and they felt that if they had clues in the form of multiple choice questions, then things would have gone better. As Bert put it,

“… there is no way someone first year can be capable to do this, let alone without instruction, or scientific key terms without getting terms mixed up, since there is no multiple questions [for] deductive logical reasoning…”

I think that part of Sally’s and Bert’s problem was that they underestimated how much understanding they would need to be successful on the exam. Ultimately, though, exam format should not be an issue.  If you know the answers, it shouldn’t matter whether the question format is short answer, multiple choice, essay, or interpretive dance. If you know it, you know it, and if you don’t, it makes just as much sense to blame your pencil.

The main problem that Bert and Sally had is that brains can be deceiving. In Sally’s case, after more than 20 hours of studying, everything looked familiar to her, and thus she believed she was ready for the exam. Unfortunately for Sally, the appearance of the page was what was familiar, not the information on it.

For both Sally and Bert it would have been a simple matter to set a trap for the unknown unknowns: if Sally and Bert had put their notes away every few minutes and tried to explain verbally or in writing what they had just read, they would have found very quickly that they couldn’t do it. Then they could have fixed the problem. Unfortunately, this is very hard work and should not be done for more than 45 minutes or so without taking a break. In Sally’s case, after many sustained hours of studying, she would likely have been too tired to manage it. She probably continued reading and not absorbing partly because she was too tired to do anything else.

Some of the sneakiest unknown unknowns hide so well that you might need someone else’s help to find them. Those are the kind where you remember information, but don’t realize that you have some part of it incorrect. The best way to trap these is to work with someone who might be able to pick up errors in your understanding as you explain the course material to them. This could be someone else in the class, or just a friend who asks you questions by referring to the textbook. Here are a few strategies that I’ve found helpful for turning unknown unknowns into known unknowns:

  • Scare them out into the open: Imagine that your instructor were to call you out of the blue to ask you questions about the course. What would you not want them to ask you about? Along the same lines, what would you not want to be asked about on the exam?
  • Treat learning objectives as questions and attempt to answer them without looking at your notes.
  • Reorganize information into diagrams and tables. For example, if you made a table to compare and contrast Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons, you might find that you can say something about Neanderthal body size, but you don’t remember how that compares to Cro-Magnon body size.   Diagrams and tables have the added benefit of being much easier to remember than lists of facts.
  • Study by explaining topics out loud to yourself or a friend. There is a difference between reading facts and trying to mentally organize them so you can say them out loud, and that difference can be enough to throw you off balance and expose unknown unknowns.
Categories: Assessment, Challenges, For students, Learning strategies | Tags: , , , | 3 Comments

Why I don’t give extra credit assignments

I view extra credit assignments as problematic because they can be unfair to other students in the course, they don’t necessarily solve the problem of missed learning outcomes, and they’re a hassle for me.

Let’s say I’m teaching a carpentry class called Potting Sheds 101. Students sign up to learn how to build potting sheds. Their final exam is building a potting shed. They may or may not go into the potting-shed building industry after graduation. On the last day of class the final projects are evaluated. Bob’s potting shed is out of square, and collapses when the door is opened. Bob fails. Later I receive the following email from Bob:

“Hey, how are u? I’m Bob in Potting Shed 101. I failed my final project. It’s been a really hard month for me. I was sick for the last two weeks, plus I didn’t have money to buy the textbook or a hammer. I found the final project did not suit my learning style, and was shocked at how difficult it was. Talk about being expected to run before even learning to walk! I will definitely be commenting about this in the course evaluation. Plus I was delayed getting started because I had to borrow a hammer from the library, and it was recalled and still hasn’t been returned yet. Potting Shed 101 is the last class I need for my degree, and I don’t plan to build potting sheds for a living, but I really need to pass the class to graduate. Is there some extra credit work I could do to pass the course with a high enough grade to get my degree? I feel I already learned a lot, and I would need at least 65 to graduate.”

 So what should I do with Bob? Here are some considerations:

  • Bob knew he would need a hammer to build potting sheds. Other students made sure they had the supplies necessary before signing up. It is unfortunate that Bob doesn’t have a hammer, but does this justify extra credit work?
  • Bob says he was sick, but I can’t verify that independently. Previously, Bob didn’t say anything about being sick, but if he had I would probably have granted him an extension to complete his potting shed.
  • Bob should have expected that building a potting shed would be part of Potting Sheds 101, so I don’t accept his argument that the final evaluation was unreasonable.
  • Bob is suggesting that the class doesn’t mean anything to him, but is just a course that his program required for some reason, and that he won’t use the skills (although he still claims to have learned something).
  • Bob expects that whatever he will do for extra credit will get him at least 65% in the course, and can be done in time so that he will graduate as expected.
  • If I give Bob the opportunity for extra credit, are the other students any less deserving? Should they not be allowed extra credit projects too?

What if I cave in to Bob’s request? Bob suggests that he make ten bird houses for extra credit. Bird houses are not potting sheds, so he would be getting credit for doing a task that is much easier than the original task. Bob assumes that demonstrating a willingness to work hard is equivalent to demonstrating competency in potting-shed building. While a good work ethic is admirable, it is not the same as being able to build a potting shed. If Bob changes his mind about working in the potting shed industry, he will use the grade I gave him to convince an employer that he can build potting sheds. If Bob shows his grade in potting-shed building to prospective employers who don’t deal in potting sheds, they may take it as a sign that he is somewhat handy, has reasonable hand-eye coordination, and can handle complex tasks that require precision and attention to detail.

Let’s go one step further and assume I let Bob hand in his 10 bird houses. They are consistent with his skill at potting-shed building. Am I required to give him extra credit even though his work is substandard? If I don’t, must I allow him to do extra extra credit work?

What if the day after Bob hands in his 10 bird houses, Carrie sends me an email:

 “I heard you let Bob build bird houses for extra credit. Can I build bird houses for extra credit, too? I’d really like to improve my grade because I want to get into the Advanced Potting Sheds program.”  

This is a very competitive program, and if I let Carrie do the extra credit work, her grade would not reflect her skill at potting-shed building, but it would give her an advantage compared to other students who apply to the program.  Is that fair?

Then I hear from Marty:

“I heard you let Bob hand in bird houses for extra credit. I made some when I was in grade four. Can I hand those in for extra credit?”

If Marty has demonstrated the skill, does that not count? If he had brought a completed potting shed to class on the first day, should he have received credit for the course? Some would say yes.

Beatrice:

“I heard you were taking bird houses for extra credit. My neighbours have some. Can I get credit for those?”

I would have to explain to Beatrice that she must make the bird houses herself. She would then request step-by-step instructions on how to build a bird house, and ask if she could come to my office hours to get help.

On a box delivered to my front door, containing 20 bird houses with the “Made in China” stickers still attached:

“Here are my bird houses for extra credit. Thx. Pete”

In an email from the department head:

“WHY are you letting students build bird houses for credit in Potting Sheds 101? They’re supposed to be building POTTING SHEDS!”

You see, it’s just way too complicated.

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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

Is plagiarism funny?

Generally I would say no, but I’ve tried to make an exception with a new video project.

A recent onslaught of assignments highlighted the futility (yet again) of what amounts to grading the textbook. My brain started churning out cartoons about the ridiculous ways students attempt to skirt the requirement of having to answer in their own words. Jeff Foxworthy’sYou might be a redneck if…” came to mind, and my productivity screeched to a halt: “It might not be in your own words if…” (Does that make Jeff Foxworthy my muse?)

The point was to get students thinking about plagiarism without taking a “thou shalt not” approach. I plan to build additional resources, including a video and/or handout with tips on how to answer in one’s own words. I like to point out that the textbook is one way to say something, but not the only way, and not necessarily the best way. And it isn’t about some pedantic exercise in avoiding a specific set of words- it’s about turning words on a page into knowledge… and that doesn’t happen unless you think about what those words mean.

This project is shorter than my last project, which could make the difference between students watching it and not. Another difference is that it consists of text, music, and my own drawings… so no fifteen takes required to get a voice-over without stumbling or stuttering. The drawings were the fun part. While I have at some pont generated drawings and paintings that look like actual objects and people in the real world, doing so quickly and consistently is another matter. I came up with scribble people after searching for examples of line figures that others have drawn, and then doing my best to create something else. At one time I would have opted for stick figures, but after discovering Randall Munroe’s brilliant webcomic, xkcd… well, you wouldn’t try to out-drip Jackson Pollock, now would you?

In the process of making this video, I learned some things that might come in handy for anyone trying a similar project.

Timing

If you’ve made the slides, then you know way more about them than a first-time viewer will, so you’re probably not the best judge of how fast the slides should move along. What worked great was having someone else advance through the slides using the “Rehearse” mode under the “Slideshow” tab in PowerPoint. This records the duration over which each slide is viewed. Not only did I get an idea of how much time viewers might need, it became very clear which slides would benefit from a redesign. Set the intervals for transitions between slides, and run it with “Use Timings” selected. Then it is a simple matter of starting and ending a screen recording.

Music

I am not musically astute. If you ask me about Country and Western music released between 1950 and 1969, or Tom Waits, or Leonard Cohen, I might be able to help you. Lyrics to “The Battle of New Orleans?” Got you covered. Otherwise, you’d best ask my husband, who has a much larger musical vocabulary, and likes to ask me “Who sings this?” when he knows full well I can’t answer. But I needed music, so what to do?

Where to get it

I learned that there is a lot of royalty-free music online, and a subset of that is free royalty-free music. There is the Free Music Archive, which, amongst other things, has recordings from Edison cylinders! How cool is that?! I also found Kevin MacLeod’s website, where he offers his music under a Creative Commons license. His music is searchable by genre as well as by “feel” (bright, bouncy, driving, mysterious, etc.). Each song comes with an excellent description, suitable for the musically challenged, which makes it clear what an appropriate context would be for that song.

How to use it

Odds are, your song and your video won’t be the same length. If the song is longer than your video, it is easy enough to fade out the volume at a convenient spot. If the song is shorter, it’s more difficult to maintain continuity. Some songs come with versions that are suitable for looping, or in versions of different lengths. You can buy a little extra time by delaying the start of the song slightly, and fading in the volume, and then fading out the volume at the end. You could perform audio surgery and create a Frankensong… but if amputating musical body parts and stitching them back together again isn’t for you, then throwing continuity out the window might be the better choice. I didn’t know any of these things when I started, and it took a lot of experimenting to get something I could live with. Hopefully villagers with pitchforks and torches won’t be a problem.

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Syllabus strategy: The Quick Start Guide

The manual for my coffee maker starts on page two with the words “IMPORTANT SAFEGUARDS” in very large print. This section cautions me against touching the hot parts, or swimming with the coffee maker, and also advises “Do not place this appliance… in a heated oven.”

The first part of page three lists what not to do to the carafe (“Avoid sharp blows…”). The second half concerns the dangers of extension cords, and ends by offering the helpful advice that if the plug won’t fit in the electrical outlet, you should turn it over so the big prong goes in the big hole.

Page 4 is the Table of Contents, page 5 covers features (“Comfort Fit Carafe Handle,” “Lighted ON/OFF Indicator”), and finally on page 8 it gets around to the coffee-making process.

There are 17 pages, and the only part I ever paid much attention to is the instructions for cleaning the coffee maker.  I only looked those up because the coffee maker has a “Clean Cycle” button, suggesting that my usual non-automated procedure might not apply.

So, let’s review. I haven’t read the manual for my coffee maker cover-to-cover because:

  1. I deemed the first several pages as not useful to me, and I concluded that the majority of the manual was likely to be that way.
  2. I know what I’m looking for, so I quickly scanned the manual to find those details, and filtered out everything else.
  3. It is 17 pages long.

I suspect that these points also sum up the reasons why my students won’t read the course syllabus. I haven’t electrocuted myself [with the coffee maker], so my assessment in point #1 was likely a reasonable one.  Not so for my students who don’t read the syllabus.

The ones I’m most concerned about are taking introductory physical and historical geology courses through the Centre for Continuing and Distance Education (CCDE) at the University of Saskatchewan. Their syllabi describe procedures that are unique to the distance education format, such as having to submit an application to write the final exam. More than one student has assumed that he or she could simply show up at the right time and place, and be permitted to write the exam, as with on-campus classes.

Syllabus for Geology 108/121

My syllabus design

For my face-to-face classes, I’ve designed a syllabus to address point #1 by putting the details that students are most likely to look for (e.g., textbook, grading scheme, contact information) as close to the beginning as possible. I’ve addressed point #2 by using sidebars with interesting images, facts, and quotations, to disrupt the scanning process. As for point #3, my syllabus is seven pages long, and that was a very tight squeeze.

For my CCDE courses, the CCDE puts together most of the syllabus following a modified version of the U of S syllabus template. They specify what information I am to supply, and indicate where I have the option to make additions or modifications. Whatever isn’t on the list stays as is. This arrangement allows me to add content, but it does not permit the kinds of modifications that I think are necessary to address points #1 and #2. The syllabi are 13 and 29 pages long, so there’s no help for point #3.

Quick start guide

The Quick Start Guide

These syllabi are not working, and I’m not allowed to fix them.  I fumed about this for a while, and then came up with an idea. Back when computer hardware still came with paper manuals, manufacturers often included a quick start guide. These were posters or pamphlets that showed simply and clearly the most basic steps needed to get up and running. I decided that my syllabus needed a quick start guide.

The quick start guide I came up with has some key features:

  • Fonts and layout that invite browsing, including images, plenty of white space, and text blocks of limited size
  • A place for key information (dates, contact information, assignment submission procedures) that is scattered throughout the syllabus
  • Details that are too important to leave to a chance encounter in the syllabus
  • Motivation to read the syllabus, including a “Top Ten Reasons to Read the Syllabus” list. The list combines humour with items in the syllabus that students usually ask about.

It is two pages long, so printable on a single sheet of paper.   It doesn’t look like any of the other course materials, and this is good, because curiosity motivates inquiry far better than obligation does. I’m trying it out for the first time this term, so we’ll see how it goes.

 

Categories: Challenges, Syllabus | Tags: , , , ,

Here comes trouble

Sometimes it is fairly evident that a particular student was in trouble well before he or she ever started with my class. Some of these are students who think that getting an education is like getting a haircut: you show up, someone does something to your head, and when they’re done you’re educated (or your hair is shorter).

Some are students who are chronically unaware. This might be the result of laziness, but I suspect it is more often because a student has simply not understood the responsibilities that he or she has taken on by coming to university. Everyone gets confused now and then, but there are some things one really should make an effort to know.

These are students who email me regarding a question about the geography class they are taking from me. They ask what room the lectures for their distance education class will be held in. Throughout numerous back-and-forth email conversations, they get my first name wrong. Most memorable would be the student who showed up at 7am for a 7pm midterm. Despite being assured otherwise, he complained bitterly and publicly that I had changed the time of the midterm without telling him.

If a student is firmly committed to taking a passive role in his or her education, or is eager to remain blissfully unaware that he or she is blissfully unaware, then the extent to which I can help is limited.

The problems these students inevitably run into are mostly self-inflicted. There are other situations, though, where that may not be the case, and I am at a loss as to how to deal with these instances. What I am referring to are students who appear to have deficiencies that could make it next to impossible for them to succeed in my class, or probably any other university course: I’ve had two students in as many years who have English as their first language, and who appear to be barely literate.

I’m not complaining here about poor spelling and grammar (both of which I tend to overlook, given that I must pick my battles). These students submitted assignments that contained words from approximately the right part of the textbook. The words were grouped into what were clearly meant to be sentences, but the sentences themselves were only the barest fragments of disjointed ideas. Here is a characteristic example, in response to a question about the evolution of four-legged vertebrate animals (tetrapods) during the Paleozoic era of geological time:

Paleozoic tetrapods: (term) Latin: four feet-both vertebrates either to water-dwelling and land-dwelling vertebrates expand.

Another error was the persistent reversal of cause-and-effect relationships. Instead of my dog having muddy paws because it rained, the rain was caused by my dog’s muddy paws. Attributes and the things they described were also reversed. Instead of “muddy” being a characteristic of my dog’s paws, “muddy” was the thing being described, and its characteristic was “paws.”

Overall there were serious problems with reading comprehension, even where the root cause was unlikely to be a misunderstanding of the course material. For example, the sentence below is from the textbook:

Decimation of life at the end of the Permian Period 251 million years ago has been described by Smithsonian paleontologist Douglas Erwin as “the mother of mass extinctions.”  (Levin, The Earth Through Time, 10th ed., p. 308)

The student wrote the following:

Smithsonian paleontologist Douglas Erwin, who is “the mother of mass extinctions” has concluded in the 251 million years ago in the Permian Period, that all other extinctions have diminished by changes of the Earth.

Presumably it would occur to even non-experts in geology that someone named Douglas is unlikely to be considered the mother of anything.

So what’s going on here? Are these students who just could not care less? Are these students with learning disabilities?

I dealt with the situation by grading the parts of the assignments that made sense, and recommended that assignments be proofread before they were submitted, preferably with help from a friend. That resulted in a slight improvement. I struggled with what else I should be doing. If the assignments are indeed indicative of these students’ abilities, then the students need to be learning the basics of reading and writing, not going to university.

If these students really are as ill-equipped as they seem, then someone has done them a grave disservice by allowing them to graduate from high school, much less enroll in a post-secondary institution. Do the students themselves know they are in trouble, or have they been led to believe that their skills are sufficient? Is it my job to tell them? Perhaps it is, insofar as I can demonstrate as much with respect to their coursework. Maybe the reluctance of well-intentioned people like me to be frank with them is how the problem started in the first place.

These students will be spending an awful lot of time and money on their educations, and it is troubling that they may have been doomed to failure before they ever got started.

Categories: Challenges, Student preparedness | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

Repeated class, repeated assignments?

When I grade assignments I tend to add a lot of comments to explain errors and address misconceptions. If I ever deduct points from a student’s assignment without explaining why (often in some detail), it’s simply because I’ve forgotten.

The situation I’m facing now is that my good intentions have come back to bite me. What happens when a student whose assignments I’ve so carefully annotated has to repeat the course? Ideally, the student would use my comments to supplement his or her understanding, and then do a better job of answering the question in his or her own words. There may be only one correct answer, but there is often more than one way to explain why it is correct.

That’s how I’d like it to work, but that isn’t what I’ve got. What I’ve got is Rosalie. (Rosalie is not the student’s real name, and may or may not be consistent with the student’s gender.) Last term was a continuous struggle with Rosalie over plagiarism. She copied passages from the textbook and internet verbatim, even after I tried to explain that this was not acceptable and allowed her to revise her work instead of giving her a zero outright. Unfortunately, Rosalie failed the final exam with a sufficiently low grade that she also failed the class. This was the last course Rosalie needed to graduate, but her final grade was so low that it was well past any help from discretionary wiggle room.

So Rosalie is back in my class this term, and as you may have guessed, Rosalie had no qualms about plagiarizing my comments from last term’s assignment. It appears she started from the Word document that I graded and then proceeded to swap out the odd word for its synonym, or change a verb tense. Sometimes the synonym did not make sense in the context of the sentence. Sometimes she added her own comments that directly contradicted a previous sentence which she copied from my comments. In some places she forgot to delete more conversational parts of my comments along the lines of “As you pointed out earlier in your answer, …”

I started by giving her the benefit of the doubt, but the problem soon became too obvious to ignore. She had not made a good-faith effort to answer the questions in her own words, or even to improve her understanding of the course material. Toward the end she ceased altogether any attempt to modify my earlier comments, other than changing the text colour from red to black.

I don’t know what to make of this behavior. Did she forget the ongoing discussion about plagiarism that we had last term? Did she not understand it? Did she think I wouldn’t notice? Did she feel entitled?

What I’ve done in this case is to review her assignments from last term and look for questions where her grade could benefit from revision, but where I had not expounded at length on the answer. I will let her resubmit those questions but use last term’s grades for the others. This means she will not earn a passing grade on one of the assignments. I’m not sure how she will take this, because I suspect that she has no expectation of passing the final exam. I think she intended to pad her grade with high scores on assignments, and she hopes to scrape by that way. I can’t fathom why she thought this would be the best way to do it.

I don’t know if there is an official policy to cover this sort of thing. I certainly haven’t come across any guidelines. In a different context the assignments could be varied from one offering of the course to the next, but in this case the course is intended to run several years before revisions are authorized. Even if the assignments could be changed up each time, it might not be desirable to do so. The assignment questions were chosen to focus students’ attention on key concepts. These are central ideas that need to be addressed each and every time the course is offered, so creating new assignments would involve finding multiple unique pathways to get students to exactly the same place. How many ways can you ask what colour a buttercup is? Limiting overlap between assignments could undermine what the assignments were intended to do in the first place.

So how do I proceed? Should repeating students be given the benefit of the doubt each time, and then be dealt with if and when they behave unethically? Where would the line be drawn, and how could it be applied consistently? Should limits be fixed at the outset on what can be resubmitted? What about cases when the time limit for document retention has run out and I don’t have my original comments to reference? What if the student failed all of the assignments the first time around and I annotated the heck out of everything in an effort to be helpful? (Sigh. It would be so much easier if they all just passed the course.)

Even if I find a way to manage students who are repeating the course, I realize that not all students cheat in ways that are conveniently foreseeable. If the ones who should know they are likely to get caught still cheat, what is the extent of the problem with students who fly beneath my radar?

I have decided to do two things that I really don’t want to do. One is to go back to having a “must pass” stipulation on the final exam. This means that even if a student has full points on all of his or her assignments, failing the final exam would mean failing the class. I stopped doing this because there are students who work very hard throughout the term and are just not good exam writers… but I don’t see any way around it.

The other thing I’m going to do is limit my comments. If an answer is missing information I will pose a question that prompts the student to look up the information, but not supply it myself. If an answer is incorrect, I will indicate where the problem is, but not go much further than that. If there is a misconception, I will address it briefly and refer the student to additional reading. This doesn’t mean I won’t answer questions to the best of my ability if students ask them. It just means that they will have to ask.  Unfortunately, they don’t do that very often.

Categories: Challenges | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

Thank you very much John Wiley & Sons

Folded beds of Totoralillo Formation (Lower Cretaceous). Quebrada de Las Penas. Atacama Province, Chile. No date. (USGS)

Folded beds of Totoralillo Formation (Lower Cretaceous). Quebrada de Las Penas. Atacama Province, Chile. No date. (USGS)

This week’s post was supposed to be about using Twitter to teach geology, but work intervened.  One of the textbooks I use, Structural Geology of Rocks and Regions (Davis, Reynolds & Kluth), was updated as a third edition in 2012.  Unfortunately I didn’t become aware of this until two days ago when I received a copy in the mail and found that a course amendment document was urgently required for my structural geology course at Athabasca University.

This third edition was released for exactly the right reasons.  The authors have made substantial changes and, so far as I’ve been able to tell, many improvements.  For example, I’ve already found updates that cover material I wrote for the course in order to remedy gaps in the second edition.  The fact that the second edition was issued 12 years after the first, and the third edition 16 years after the second, suggests to me that the authors have a commitment to meaningful changes.  This is in contrast to the suspiciously frequent updates to introductory historical and physical geology textbooks.

In the past, I’ve had to modify course materials because of the release of new textbook editions.  This happened recently for one of my other distance education courses.  The process took part of an afternoon and consisted largely of changing out a few page numbers.

Not so this time.  I relied heavily on the textbook when designing the course (why ask students to buy it if they aren’t going to use it?), and incorporated readings and image references throughout the course materials I’d written.  I knew I was in trouble when I read the preface to the new edition and found the phrase “sea-change” more than once.

As I said earlier, the changes are not minor.  Readings I used from the second edition have been chopped up into little pieces and sprinkled throughout the chapter.  Figure 1.42, “(A) Geologic map and structure profile of a medium-sized pepperoni pizza.  (B) Kinematic model of the translation and rotation of the pepperoni,” has moved from page 33 to page 9, becoming Figure 1.9 with an additional “(C) Detail of displacement vectors.”  This means that words like “kinematic,” and “vectors” have come into play much sooner than I would like, and spoiled the gentle introduction to the subject that I had intended.  Whole chunks of the chapter on plate tectonics, including key images, have been excised.  This probably makes sense for this textbook, because the students who use it should have been introduced to the concepts in prerequisite courses, but my students tend to need the background.

My course amendment document is at 4 pages and I am only at the beginning of Unit 2 (of 7) in the theory section of the course.  I feel sorry for the students who will have to use this document to navigate the course until the necessary revisions are implemented.

Categories: Challenges, Textbooks | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

Anti-plagiarism au naturel

Spider web with water dropletsThe process of screening students’ papers for plagiarized content is disheartening and mind-numbingly boring.  Inevitably I find a non-trivial number of cases despite efforts to inform students about academic integrity.  For those of you who have done your level best to teach your students about plagiarism, and are completely baffled by their continued transgressions, I recommend the following as therapeutic reading:  Baggaley and Spencer (2005), “The mind of the plagiarist,” Learning, Media and Technology, 30-1, pp. 55-62.

After the last round of plagiarism patrol, I began to wonder if a tool existed that would automate the process of comparing students’ answers to their textbook.  This, I found, is territory well trodden.  There are many tools, free and otherwise, that can be used to check for plagiarism.  Most of these would not help me because they search freely available online content, and that excludes my textbook.  One tool that might help is Turnitin.  This company maintains a repository that includes proprietary content, but whether it contains my textbook in particular is difficult to determine.

A good overview of the debate regarding Turnitin can be found in a March 2004 University Affairs article entitled “The cheat checker”.  Turnitin gained prominence when students raised philosophical objections to its use.  One complaint was that Turnitin adds students’ papers to its repository when they are checked.  Students argued that they shouldn’t be forced to give up their intellectual property to a for-profit company.  What isn’t mentioned is that students’ papers don’t have to be added to Turnitin’s repository to use the service, and if they have been added, they can be removed.  I wasn’t able to find this information at Turnitin.com, but it is a fairly common detail in documentation prepared by schools that subscribe to Turnitin, such as the University of Regina.

The other objection was also the explanation offered by the University of Saskatchewan as to why it opted not to subscribe.  (We will have to take the word of the University Affairs article on this one, because I couldn’t find a relevant policy statement by the U of S.)

“Gordon Barnhart, university secretary at the University of Saskatchewan, says his institution “wrestled with this issue” of anti-plagiarism software a couple of years ago. In the end, he says, “we very consciously decided not to go that route” because of the reverse onus it places on students.”

Léo Charbonneau, “The cheat checker,” University Affairs, 15 March 2004

This is the argument that by checking students’ papers for plagiarism using Turnitin, we automatically assume they are guilty of cheating.  If this is true, then presumption of guilt is not limited to the use of Turnitin.  When I grade papers, I am always comparing students’ answers to my own mental database of what the textbook says, and looking for similarities.  The only difference is that Turnitin does it more efficiently and accurately than I can… if not as cheaply.

It is unlikely that I will catch all instances of plagiarism that come across my desk, and the fact that some cheaters will prosper diminishes the value of academic credentials for everyone.  Some would put a finer point on it, though:

“Whatever the causes [of plagiarism], the presenters agreed that teachers who do not act to create a culture of honesty in their classrooms, and who do not enforce ethical standards, lack integrity as much as their students who cheat and plagiarize.”

“One step ahead of the palm pilots: Creating a culture of academic honesty at the U of S,” Bridges, January 2003

Without the right tools, the degree to which I can enforce ethical standards depends an awful lot on how well my spidey sense is working that day. Does that mean I lack integrity?

Categories: Challenges | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

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