Thursday, March 24, 2011

Breaking News: Students Who Cheat Overestimate Their Abilities

This new study by researchers at Harvard and Duke fits so well with the "preventing plagiarism" series that I felt the need to post it here.

The study found that:

1. Almost 60% of high school students admitted to cheating or plagiarizing at least once during the most recent academic year, even though most considered it unethical. Honors students cheat, too, and about the same rate (55%).

2. About 30% of students admitted to cheating more than once in the academic year.

3. Cheaters tend to lie to themselves about the way they earned the grade. The study (read the article for a description--it's an interesting scenario) found that those who cheated on a first test predicted that they would do much better on a second test than they actually did, and the inflation increased if the cheater received some kind of additional recognition for his/her performance on the first test.

4. The study also found, just as the comments on the previous post discussed, that cheating was reduced when students were encouraged to think about learning outcomes other than grades (in this case, the value of academic integrity).

Monday, March 21, 2011

Preventing Plagiarism, Part III: High Motivation

So far I've addressed two of the three components of the "plagiarism prevention plan" presented at last month's faculty workshop. This week I'll discuss the third component: high motivation.

The theory is simple: the more motivated your students are, the more interested they will be in the content of your course, and the more likely they will be to complete the assignments themselves. They will want to learn, and they will realize at some level that plagiarism shortcuts the learning process.

Motivating students comes down to making them want to attend your class, and there are a variety of ways to accomplish this, some of which take more planning and effort than others. For example, teachers can (I would say "should") look for ways to connect course content to current events and issues and to individual student's interests. They can also include opening questions or interactive exercises (I like small group discussions and learning "games") that get students thinking about issues raised by the text from different angles. Being flexible enough to adapt your lesson plans and syllabus to address questions that students raise in class goes a long way toward improving motivation, too; for example, I made room last week for us to read an early martyr story because the students were obviously interested in the topic and it related to issues that had been raised in previous classes. The discussion was exceptionally good that day, so the adjustment paid off.

The workshop presenter concluded that high motivation was the most important of the three factors, but I'm not so sure. I kept thinking back to the plagiarism case I had last year and wondering if implementing any of these strategies could have prevented the situation. The student in question was undeniably the most motivated and interested student in the class. He always arrived early, dominated class discussions, and asked questions that showed that he was really thinking about the material and connecting it to what he was learning in his other classes. He was older than my other students, and his education was being funded by an off-campus internship which required him to take a set number of courses per semester and maintain a minimum GPA. His very career was on the line, and he knew how high the cost of failure would be. It was clear from the conversations we had that he understood and feared the consequences. So--high motivation: check. High cost: check. The missing element, if there was one, was high supervision. As I mentioned in my last post in this series, implementing the whole high supervision strategy in a course like mine is impractical. But supervision wasn't entirely absent in this case: I had referred this student to the university writing center after his first paper for me earned him a generous C-. He indicated to me that he appreciated the referral and knew that his writing needed to improve. I also told the class that I would review drafts. In the end, the student chose to plagiarize because he feared that he wouldn't be able to write a paper for me that would earn him the kind of grade he needed to keep his internship. As it turned out, he would have finished the course with a B- had his second paper (which was only 10% of the final grade) earned the same grade as the first. Requiring a rough draft for the paper might have prevented this case, but there's only so much I can do with the time that I have and the course parameters I've been given.

In the final analysis, I conclude that high supervision is the most effective of the three factors. High cost is not enough of a deterrent these days, and even students who are highly motivated may succumb to the temptation to plagiarize if other circumstances are present. As a (protestant) theology teacher, I believe that one of those other circumstances is something called the "sin nature," and it's a powerful force. When combined with other factors like poor time management or fear of failure, some students will choose to plagiarize, no matter what steps we take to make it more difficult for them to do so (in this I differ from the workshop presenter). High supervision is the most effective of the three factors simply because it places the biggest obstacle to plagiarism in the student's path. Unfortunately, it's just not always practical. All I can do is do my best to motivate students, stay vigilant, and enforce the policy when a case arises. Here's hoping the next one is a long way off.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Don't Drink the Green Beer

Beannachtai na Feile Padraig obhair! [lit. "St. Patrick's Day blessings be upon you]

I'm interrupting my "preventing plagiarism" series to pass along my wishes for a happy St. Patrick's Day, and to offer some advice as to how you can best celebrate the holiday.

First, remember that our modern English word "holiday" is a compound that derives from "holy day," the designation given in the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar to days set aside for feasts (commemorations of the lives of saints or of important events in Christian history) or fasts. Celebrating the life of a saint with a feast is a carryover from the early Christian tradition of holding a community meal at the saint's tomb on the anniversary of his/her death, to hold up his/her life as an example and to remind the assembled company that Christians who have departed this world are still a part of the Church. It is, therefore, appropriate to enjoy a special meal on St. Patrick's Day, and to read accounts of his life and work. It is not, however, appropriate to drink to excess and behave in an immoral manner simply because the folks at Hallmark and other retailers are selling St. Patrick's Day merchandise. If you're not Christian, you probably aren't interested in the work that St. Patrick is remembered for, anyway, unless you're a history buff.

Second, although it is appropriate to enjoy a special meal, may I urge you not to choose corned beef and cabbage and (God help us all) green beer? The traditional Irish feast-day meal includes potatoes and cabbage (OK, so most Irish meals contain potatoes and cabbage...) and what I can only describe as a slab of unsliced bacon boiled in water and/or beer. Corned beef came to be associated with Irish cuisine only after Irish immigrants began arriving in this country. The bacon that they were accustomed to eating was nowhere to be found here, and corned beef brisket was the nearest equivalent. I suppose this fact itself makes corned beef and cabbage an acceptable St. Patrick's Day meal in America, but these days you can get almost any comestible anywhere in the world, and I'm a traditionalist. If you wish to add soda bread to your feast, choose a plain white or wheat loaf--NO RAISINS. Soda bread should contain flour, baking soda, salt, and buttermilk (and possibly baking powder, although this one is debatable) and nothing else. No eggs, butter (except that which the consumer spreads on the slices before eating), or sugar--these ingredients were considered too luxurious in the Old World for daily use and only became common additions when the Irish immigrants found themselves in a better economic position. Adding raisins or currants to breads does have precedent, but the resulting bread is properly styled a scone or tea cake. And, please, don't get me started on the subject of green beer. Just do yourself a favor and stick to the unadulterated kind.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, take some time to remember the life of St. Patrick himself. Scholars these days debate almost every facet of his life--including the question of whether or not he really existed (although it's a minority view)--but the person we think of on this day is remembered for bringing Christianity to the people of Ireland on a wide scale. Although a foreigner, he learned the Irish tongue (no easy task, I assure you) and explained the gospel to the people in terms that resonated with them (the story about the shamrock, is, alas, legend), and by appealing to their leaders to convert. He encouraged those who converted to enter into religious (i.e. monastic, although the early Irish version of this is different from what we think of as monasticism) life, and he went to great lengths to ransom Christians who had been taken captive in the slave trade. He also chastised the slavers themselves and urged them to find other ways of earning a living.

You may not be called to foreign missions, but on this feast day, I'll bet there is some aspect of St. Patrick's life and work that can spur you on to greater things. Is there a cross-cultural bridge that you can begin to build in your workplace, school, or community? Is there a work of social justice (yes, I know that's a loaded term) that you can get involved with? Is there someone who needs to hear the gospel in a way that you can explain? Think about it--and please, don't drink the green beer.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Preventing Plagiarism, Part II: High Supervision

In the last post, I began to describe one CUA faculty member's approach to preventing plagiarism. You'll recall that in a recent workshop on the topic, he argued that an effective approach involves both high cost and high supervision. The last post covered "high cost;" this time, I'll address "high supervision."

[N. B. In reviewing the presentation notes, I remembered a third component, "high motivation." I'll address that topic next time, and I've edited last week's post to correct the oversight.]

The cost of plagiarizing at CUA is high, but cost alone is not enough to prevent students from cheating. Students also need high supervision. In this case, "supervision" doesn't mean assigning proctors to watch students as they conduct research and write their essays. Treating college students like elementary school children won't solve anything. "Supervision" has two different meanings here. On the negative side, it means letting students know that you are aware that plagiarism occurs and that you are on the alert for it. Teachers can convey this message in any number of ways: they can set aside some class time to discuss the issue and how they plan to respond to suspected cases, or they can require students to submit papers through a plagiarism-detection service like Turnitin, to name just two.

On the positive side, "supervision" means checking in with students at multiple points in the paper-writing process, giving them an opportunity to ask questions and receive feedback (so that they don't feel like the only time they get feedback is when it's too late to act on it), and giving the teacher the opportunity to assess the student's motivation and progress, and to catch potential problems early. For example, the workshop presenter requires his students to submit a prospectus early in the semester stating the question or topic they wish to investigate, why they are interested in the project, and what they expect to learn from it. Later in the semester he meets with students to discuss the state of their research so far, and a few weeks before the final paper is due, he either has them turn in a rough draft or gives them an opportunity in class to pair off and evaluate each other's drafts.

High supervision helps prevent plagiarism by directly addressing some of its most common causes. Discussing school policies in class helps counter the perception that plagiarism is easy to get away with (although it doesn't eliminate the temptation). Breaking papers down into smaller assignments can ease the performance anxiety that many students feel when they perceive an assignment to be "high stakes" (many students perceive all written assignments--whether they're worth 10% or 50% of the final grade--as "high stakes"). It also encourages students to begin the writing and research processes early, reducing the number of cases that result from poor time management. Requiring students to meet with you in person reduces plagiarism because it helps students get to know you, and some students who wouldn't think twice about plargiarizing a paper in a class in which they are just another face will find it more difficult to do so if they feel they have some level of relationship with the teacher.

High cost and high supervision together have been shown to reduce plagiarism (Notice I didn't say "eliminate." I'm not as optimistic as the presenter--I think that some students will plagiarize no matter how I adapt my course and my teaching methods. We'll get to that one next time or in a fourth installment.), but there's a third component to the formula: high motivation. That will be the subject for the next post. In the meantime, I'll leave you with some thoughts about the pros and cons of the "high supervision" approach the presenter recommended:

Reasons I would adopt this strategy:

1. It would make me a better teacher/give me more opportunities to teach. For me, at least, teaching is more than a job. It's a calling, and therefore a large part of my identity. My desire is not just to impart content to my students--it's to cultivate in them the desire to learn, and to give them the skills they need to do so. Teaching them about the writing process, as opposed to focusing narrowly on the completion of the assignment, is appealing, because it's the kind of lesson that can be applied to all my students' courses, and I'm not one to assume that someone else will have covered it.

2. Building off the first point, it would give me more opportunities to get to know my students and their interests, and to steer them toward programs and resources that would help them achieve their academic and professional goals. I had one or two professors who invested in me in this way, and their mentoring played a large role in my decision to pursue graduate studies and teach.

3. Anything that reduces plagiarism reduces my own stress. An ounce of prevention...

Reasons I would not adopt this strategy:

1. It is completely impractical in my current situation. I have 33 students, each of whom is required to write 3 papers for this course--and since I didn't set that requirement, I can't change it (the only thing I can do is set the details of the assignments). That's 99 papers per semester. I am also part-time faculty, sharing an office with 6 other part-timers, which means I get the office for 3 hours a week. There's no time to meet with each of my students individually once, let alone multiple times per semester. And while I have made it clear to my students that I will happily review rough drafts, I don't have time for more than a quick assessment of those that I do receive. It seems ridiculous to double or triple my workload in the hopes of preventing one or two cases of plagiarism.

2. Other strategies--such as taking the time to create "plagiarism-resistant" assignments (e.g., assignments that are course-specific, require students to compare multiple texts, and/or interact with or build off of class discussion)--reduce plagiarism without creating extra work for me during the semester.

My overall assessment: this strategy is good for a course in which students write one big paper, but isn't really practical in my situation.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Preventing Plagiarism, Part I: High Cost

Like all professions, teaching has its high and low points. One of the most stressful scenarios a teacher can face is a plagiarism case--it's a breach of trust between teacher and student, it frequently indicates that, in spite of the teacher's best efforts, the student just isn't interested in the course content, and it says that the student is willing to cut corners, which doesn't bode well for establishing a good work ethic. Most teachers (myself included) have a visceral reaction to plagiarism cases--they make us physically ill. When the case I was involved in last spring drug itself out unnecessarily (the student's fault), I had to resort to taking acid reducers.

So naturally, I was excited at the prospect of attending a faculty workshop "double feature" on preventing plagiarism a couple of weeks ago. The first workshop was intended for TAs and TFs and focused on making sure we all understood the extent of the problem and how the university expects faculty to handle cases that arise. Nothing new there, but the presenter did conclude with a few suggestions for making it more difficult for students to plagiarize. Among other things, she recommended requiring students to hand in photocopies of their research materials with the relevant portions highlighted (completely impractical in many situations--can you imagine having to do that for a senior project, thesis, or dissertation?), having students give a 3-minute oral summary of their papers in class on the due date (a good idea but still not foolproof) and designing assignments that are course-specific and unique (which we should all be doing anyway).

The second workshop was presented by a member of the faculty of the School of Theology and Religious Studies, and was open to anyone affiliated with the school. The presenter first related his own negative experience with plagiarism (he calls his first semester of teaching his "semester of plagiarism" because he had several cases) before sharing his solutions to the problem with us. The workshop was thought-provoking and practical.

The presenter said that he'd done a lot of reading on the craft of teaching after his first difficult year, and that what he'd read led him to change his entire approach to teaching. His goal in doing so had nothing at all to do with preventing plagiarism--he was simply looking for better ways to help students engage with course content in and out of class--but that's what ended up happening. In fact, in the three years since he adopted his new teaching methods, he has not had a single case of plagiarism. He concluded, therefore, that the key to preventing plagiarism is becoming a better teacher.

According to the presenter, preventing plagiarism comes down to three equally important factors: high supervision, high motivation, and high cost. I'll deal with the last factor in this post; the other two will have to wait. [N.B. The ideas that follow are not my own, but I didn't want to give the presenter's name away in a blog. If you would like to cite anything that you read, please ask me. I realize that this approach is, ironically, flirting with plagiarism itself.]

"High cost" means that the sanction imposed upon students who cheat is sufficiently disruptive to academic progress to deter them from cheating in the first place. At CUA, the "presumed sanction" for plagiarism at the undergraduate level is failure for the course. Not for the assignment, as at some schools, but for the entire course. This is a high cost because the university requires to students to maintain a 2.0 GPA or higher, and receiving 0 points on a 3-credit hour course significantly lowers the student's GPA. Additionally, CUA's academic honesty policy specifically states that the student can not withdraw from the course once a charge of plagiarism has been filed. There is simply no way to avoid the hit to the GPA.

It's also worth pointing out that CUA's policy does not include an "intentionality clause." Some schools define plagiarism as "the intentional attempt to pass off someone else's material as one's own." Instructors at these schools must not only prove that the student has copied and/or improperly cited someone else's work, but also that s/he did so knowingly and with intent to deceive. Proving intent is difficult, and in order to ensure that no students get out of the charges by claiming ignorance, CUA's academic senate deliberately left "intention" out of the language of the policy. Plagiarism is serious business, and the wording of the policy is designed, at some level, to strike fear into those who would break it.

The cost of plagiarizing at CUA is high, but cost alone is not enough. We all know that the threat of fines or jail time doesn't deter all would-be criminals from breaking the law. Would-be plagiarists are no different, and the temptation and and opportunity to plagiarize are even greater in today's digital age. To prevent plagiarism, students also need high supervision. We'll explore that angle next time.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

The (Poly)Rhythm of Life

Every Tuesday evening, I take the train home from campus,scarf down dinner, and head over to Wolf Trap for an African Drumming class. Yes, you read that right--African Drumming. I fell into the art form accidentally--but that's a story for another day. Suffice it to say that I've now taken about 3 years of lessons from a master drummer from Ghana, and I am thoroughly enjoying my new hobby.

African drumming differs from Western-style drumming, and even from the djembe-playing that I do in church, in several ways. First, African drumming is ensemble drumming. It's not a solo; even though the group is led by a master drummer, the leadership of the group circulates from one session to the next, and often circulates within the sessions themselves, as drummers tire and switch to other instruments or dancing to rest their hands for a bit (I don't dance--my knees aren't up to it anymore). All drummers know that they will spend most of their time as "supporting drummers."

Second, African drumming is based on polyrhythms. That is, part of the ensemble will play a pattern that can be counted in 4, another part will play a pattern that can be counted in 3, and a third part may play a pattern that needs to be counted in 8, or something else entirely. All parts play simultaneously, and over the several drum patterns there may also be people playing rhythms on a bell, a bass drum, a talking drum, or a shekere. The really amazing thing about polyrhythms is that you would never guess that all these patterns could be played at the same time to produce a harmonious sound--you would think instead that the result would be total cacophony. But because all the patterns converge at a single time in the music (think fractions and common denominators), the result is a rich and wonderful tapestry that has to be experienced to be believed (I tried recording a class session, but it didn't turn out, and there's no easy to embed an mp3 in blogger anyway).

Finally, African drumming, more so than Western-style drumming, imitates life on many levels. Here are a few:

1. Everyone has a specific instrument or pattern to play in the ensemble. Your job is to nail the part that is given to you, because if you don't, the music won't sound quite right. Worse, the drummer next to you might play his/her part incorrectly, and the result will now be even less pleasing to the ear. Before you know it, you have noise instead of music.

2. Roles within the ensemble change all time. The trick is knowing when you are supposed to play which pattern/role. Sometimes you know in advance. Sometimes it's sprung on you unexpectedly. Regardless, your job is to fall into that role and get into the new pattern as quickly and seamlessly as possible. This is not always easy and takes years of practice.

3. It's easier to play in pairs or groups. If you are seated next to someone else who is playing the same pattern as you, you can help keep each other stay on rhythm.

4. The music may sound impossibly complex when heard in totality, but it's composed of many individual patterns that are usually easy to learn. Drumming, like so many tasks we face in life, is easier when broken down into manageable components.

5. The more complex the rhythms are to join together, the more consistent your internal sense of tempo needs to be. Sometimes it's easy to hear how and where the patterns in a circle converge, and you can take cues from the other drummers. But there are some rhythms, like the traditional agbadze rhythm, that aren't so obvious. The first few times months you play these patterns, you have to concentrate on maintaining a steady tempo just to play your part. You don't dare listen to what others are doing, let alone try and get a sense of the whole piece. But the longer you play and the more you practice, the better your internal sense of rhythm becomes and the more grounded and steady you become, and then you can listen to the whole thing. This also takes years of practice.

6. You'll never be the master drummer if you don't practice--and you won't always be the master drummer. This one needs no further comment.

In the West, where we tend to compartmentalize our lives, music and philosophy don't often mix. It's our loss.