Tag Archives: professor

Students respond to UCF cheating scandal

As a kind of rebuttal to the cheating scandal at the University of Central Florida, some students have posted this video that raises the issue of whether students were misled as to the source of their exam questions:

I think the students have a point here. Prof. Quinn did say that he “writes” the exam questions. This doesn’t necessarily mean that he creates the exam questions from scratch; “writing” an exam could refer to the act of assembling a particular mix of questions from the test bank. But it’s unrealistic to expect the average college student to know the difference between creating and assembling an exam when the word “write” is used in this context; and anyway he said he writes the questions not the exams.

This entire video goes back to a point that involution made in the comments to my first post on this story: Did the students know that the exam was going to come from the publisher’s test bank, or was there at least a significant chance that it would be? If not — if the students had no reason to believe that the test bank should be off limits — then what the students did can’t be called “cheating”. How could it? Cheating is when you use an unauthorized resource to substitute for your own knowledge. If the resource isn’t unauthorized, it’s just another resource, not a cheat-sheet. If Prof. Quinn didn’t make it clear that the test bank was off-limits, I’m afraid he doesn’t have much of a case here after all. What exactly was said in the class or the syllabus about and test banks? Does anybody know?

Of course, by telling the students that the test bank is off-limits, you are basically telling students that the exam comes straight from the test bank and therefore making it that much more likely that this sort of cheating will take place. But I consider that a strong reason not to use test banks at all, rather than a reason to keep the test bank under wraps. In fact, the more this situation unfolds, the more unhealthy it makes the whole educational environment surrounding it seem. Class sizes in the multiple hundreds: Check. Courses taught mainly through lecture: Check. Professor at a remove from the students: Check. Exams taken off the rack rather than tuned to the specific student population: Check. And on it goes. I know this is how it works at many large universities and there’s little that one can do to change things; but with all due respect to my colleagues at such places, I just can’t see what students find appealing about these places, and I wonder if students at UCF are thinking the same thing nowadays.

As to the students making the video, I think they can bring something fruitful out of all of this if they stay on point and act professionally. But I have to say this video doesn’t help. First of all, calling yourself “UCFScam” on YouTube; it’s not a “scam” and business majors should know that. In fact, calling Prof. Quinn’s actions a “scam” implies fraud, and that can be interpreted as slander on the students’ part, landing them in the same place they want to land Prof. Quinn by suggesting he violated copyright. Second, speaking of which, accusing the prof of copyright violations and calling him lazy are off-point and counterproductive. Pejorative words don’t win you an audience. And the last subtitle:

…is absurd. Right now the students, rather than sounding like mature young men and women who have been legitimately put on the wrong side of an issue in an unfair way, sound like whiny undergraduates asking for class to be cancelled and wanting more points. If you have a point, make it — respectfully and logically. You might also try not making spelling errors such as “frustated”. I’m assuming the students want to succeed in the business world, and this is how it works as far as I understand it.

What a sad situation. Why don’t they just make up their own tests at UCF?

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Filed under Academic honesty, Education, Higher ed, Life in academia, Teaching

Do you re-test?

Students sitting a Mathematics C exam.

Image via Wikipedia

If you give a major, timed assessment (test, exam, etc.) and nearly all of your students do poorly on it — as in, really poorly, 3/4-of-the-class-failed-it poorly — do you give a re-test and let them try it again? Or do you stick with the grades they got the first time? Do you invoke some kind of wigged-out grade curving scheme (no offense, Dave)? Or what?

Fortunately this hasn’t happened to me this semester, but it has happened to at least one of my colleagues, and we have an email discussion going on right now about what to do about it. Here are my thoughts on this. (Most of this post is verbatim from my contribution to the email discussion.)

For simplicity, I’m leaving the question of curving the grades out of this for now, and focus on whether you simply have a do-over for the exam or not. With that choice as the only one in play, I have been known on very rare occasions to give retests. I keep a couple of basic criteria in mind every time giving a re-test comes to mind:

(1) There has to be widespread failure of student learning in the class as demonstrated on the assessment. That is, I do not give retests to individuals or small groups, for fairness reasons, unless there is some incontrovertible reason for it.

And more importantly:

(2) There has to be evidence, the preponderance of which points to me as the main source of failure. It’s not a good idea, in other words, just to give a retest because the grades were bad. Without knowing WHY, exactly, the grades were so bad, retests can actually do far more harm than good, reinforcing among students the notion that if everybody blows it on an exam, it’s OK because the prof will just give a retest. (He can’t fail EVERYBODY, can he?)

If it’s practical, I’d have a colleague look at the exam for a second opinion on its design; talk with my students or give anonymous surveys about their preparation strategies; look honestly at my teaching and office hours work prior to the exam; etc. If the evidence points back to me or the exam, then I’d be the first person on board for a re-test. But if the evidence points to students — the exam and your instruction were reasonable, but they didn’t ask questions, come to office hours, do the reading, study appropriately, participate in class, or some linear combination — then students must bear the responsibility of their actions/inactions, and they must live with and learn from the grades they earned the first time.

It is not automatic that a class-wide failure on an exam means that I failed as a teacher and must therefore somehow make it right. Students (anybody, really) can just sometimes be irresponsible in large groups, and it takes a large-scale wakeup call to get them on track. The responsibility for student learning is shared, but just as students can learn with a bad professor, sometimes large groups of students can fail despite the best efforts of a great professor. Therefore I have to know WHY the grades were the way they were before you can make an informed decision. Just giving a retest without knowing the “why” will make grades go up and students happier, but it doesn’t really solve the root problem or prepare students for the next exam — and it doesn’t do much service to my college’s stated commitment to Responsibility either.

Like I said, I think I’ve re-done exams five times at the most in the last ten years. Once it was because there was at least one horrible typo on a problem, uncaught until grading time, that made the problem ten times harder/longer than it was supposed to have been — my fault, and I had no qualms giving a retest. Other times, I forget the details. (I’m old, you know.)

When I do this, I give the retest as a “pop” retest — students are not warned that I am doing this — using the exact same exam as the first time through. That way, students who really studied and prepared for the exam — and who therefore still retain the knowledge they had the first time they took it — benefit the most, and those who didn’t prepare as well — and who flush knowledge out of their brains immediately following an exam — don’t benefit as much. Since it’s the same exam, I will grade using the same rubric and then refund half the difference between the first and second takes. So a person who made a 30 the first time and a 100 the second time would end up with a 65. (Assuming that their failure was not some unambiguous, abject failure of teaching on my part; if it is, then they are entitled to a full refund of credit if they can repeat the task, such as was the case with the horrible typo I mentioned.)

That’s my take. What’s yours?

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Filed under Education, Grading, Higher ed, Life in academia, Teaching

Simul kids et adults

I’m working on updating some of my professional documents, including my curriculum vitae and my Statement of Teaching Philosophy (SOTP). Both of these are badly out of date; I don’t think I’ve touched either one since I was up for tenure in 2005. That’s too bad, especially the SOTP; it seems like professors ought to be constantly re-examining their core philosophies behind teaching and having a critical look at what really characterizes what they do in the classroom.

The new SOTP is absorbing some flavor of recent developments in my personal life on the faith front. Since joining the Lutheran church, I’ve become more exposed to — and more appreciative of — the concept of holding paradoxical pairs of ideas in tension with each other and having a real truth emerge out of the dialectic between the two. In Lutheran theology, for example, we have the idea of simul justus et peccator — the notion that a Christian is, at the same time, both righteous and a sinner. My teaching philosophy turns out to have some of the same kinds of pairings.

The pair of opposing ideas that struck me as I was brainstorming it out was the following:

  • Teaching is best done when the teacher remembers that each of his students is somebody’s child.
  • Teaching is best done when the teacher remembers that none of his students are children.

(This is being written in the context of undergraduate education. In K-12 the students really are children.)

On the one hand, my teaching changed drastically once I had kids of my own, because getting an up-close look at how kids act, think, and react makes me a lot more sympathetic to them and to their parents. There were times past when I would get extremely upset at students for some kind of (truly) dumb behavior and have some awfully unkind thoughts about them. I can’t say I don’t do that anymore, but it is a lot less frequent and I feel the wrongness of it much more viscerally when it happens. Because those students are somebody’s kids. My girls, as smart as they are, have a long way to go before they can do the kinds of things my students do. Once they get there, I am going to be extremely proud of just about anything they do. The thought of having some priggish college professor ripping into them — even if they deserve it — for something they do or don’t do in class just makes me horrified.

So these days I tend to view my students as products of a long (long!) process of development, having gone through years of trial and risk and hard work on both their parts and their parents’ parts. Yes, students do dumb things and make bad choices and are often ill-prepared. But to even be in the position to do those things implies that they have come a long way, and I guess I “get” this and respect it more than I used to. And my teaching is better when I don’t objectify them. (I’d also argue that their learning is better when they don’t objectify me, but that’s another post.)

On the other hand, I really bristle when we profs refer to college students as “kids”. They aren’t children, not in the developmental sense at least. College students are fledgling adults. They don’t necessarily know how to act like adults (I didn’t, at that age) or even desire to act like adults (I didn’t). But that doesn’t mean that professors absolve them of the very adult world of actions, responsibility, and consequences. Just because those students are young and look like they are just out of high school, it doesn’t mean that we conceive of them as children — taking on their responsibilities, absolving them of the consequences of bad choices, etc. — and thereby teach them that they are children and can be expected to be treated as such.

And the truth that seems to emerge out of the tension between these two ideas is that teaching involves respect at its core. Profs ought to respect students for getting to where they are, and respect their intrinsic value as human beings. (Which is something Christian professors ought to find to be second nature.) But respect also means respect for who those students will be. If we cut students breaks all the time or give second chances when settling for the consequences of a bad choice would make them better-equipped to face the future, then we might be acting nicely towards our students and winning their approval, but that’s a long way from respecting them.

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Filed under Christianity, Education, Higher ed, Life in academia, Student culture, Teaching

Show and tell

Today, my 4-year old (who goes by “L” here) is “Student of the Day” at her Montessori preschool. I’ll be spending most of the morning in school with her, hanging out with her and joining her in some of the activities they do. One of the activities we’ll do is take some time to pass around a photo/scrapbook page we put together about L and to let L do a show-and-tell of a special item for her. During that time, she’s supposed to introduce me to the class and then I’m supposed to describe what my job is. 

That’s where you readers come in. How would you describe the job of mathematics professor at a small liberal arts college to a room full of 4-year olds? 

What you have to work with: The kids are bright, active, know their shapes and numbers, know how to count (most of them to 100 and beyond), and know a tiny bit of basic science. 

Both humorous and serious replies are welcome in the comments. 

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Filed under Early education, Geekhood, Humor, Life in academia, Teaching