Cheating and Course Design

It is that time of summer when many of us begin thinking about our return to classes. We work on our syllabi as we design new courses and redesign old ones. A number of articles at the Chronicle for Higher Education have me thinking about one of the most challenging aspects of teaching: student cheating.

  • Here is their recent article on how an Economics professor tracked cheating in his course. This article raised several concerns that I also have:
    • First, he had a major concern with the perception of students that a significant portion of their colleagues cheat (they estimated between 30 and 45%). His comment: “such an overestimation of the real amount of cheating can become an incredibly damaging social norm”. I agree! I’d be curious to see whether Wesleyan students think a similar portion of their colleagues cheat.
    • Second, what is cheating? A look at Duke’s honors code (where the Economist teaches) suggests to me that there may be some areas that Wesleyan’s honor code does not quite addressed. The article mentioned specifically that “‘Obtaining documents that grant an unfair advantage to an individual is not allowed”. In this case, that document was an exam from a prior year that the entire class may not have access to. Now, this prohibition may be implied by Wesleyan’s honor code, but is “improper assistance” a clear enough phrase? I hope so.
    • Third, what is the purpose of honors codes in this process? At Wesleyan, we have students reaffirm their pledge to the honors code with a comment and signature on exams and papers. I find this very interesting as I never had to do this in all of my years at UCSD as an undergrad and UC Berkeley as a graduate student. I just always “knew” that cheating was something I shouldn’t do and that I could get in trouble for doing. Such a pledge seems superfluous, though I understand that the psychology of requiring the pledge may help discourage cheating in some individuals.
  • An article that appeared earlier this summer,“NYU Prof Vows Never to Probe Cheating Again—and Faces a Backlash”, discussed a professor who found that pursuing cheaters with Turnitin only led to a very dissatisfying teaching experience. In particular, he found that students do plagiarize; that pursuing this required he spend more time with those students rather than the students that don’t cheat; that it poisoned the atmosphere of the classroom; and that it may have hurt his salary. Now I have used Turnitin before and I had a much less severe experience. There were a couple students who were, it seems unintentionally, writing with insufficient acknowledgment of their sources. But I was very concerned that the use of turnitin violated the trust I share with students, that it led students to believe that I suspected they are cheaters.
  • Finally, last Fall a story appeared about a writer who confessed to writing students’ papers. This so-called “shadow scholar” made me doubt my current strategy for preventing cheating on research projects. On such large projects I have students turn in a range of smaller assignments (outlines, bibliographies, rough drafts, etc.) primarily to help them with the writing process. But a small part of me also hopes that it discourages the purchase of papers online. However, from this article, I come to realize that students are able to purchase the services of writers who will also complete all of these small projects on the way to completion of the final project. I’m not sure there is a way to address this.

So, once again, here I am at the beginning of a new term trying to consider whether and how I might deal with the prospects of plagiarism and cheating. The key questions (no answers yet) include:

  • Do I even try?
    • Of course, one should pay attention to the obvious cases. I’ll never forget the freshman (not at Wesleyan) whose paper began with the statement “After three years of research, we have concluded…” It only took a second to google a couple sentences and find the real research article that was the original source. But what about the less obvious cases?
  • Should I use a system like Turnitin?
  • Is it possible to use Turnitin without harming the atmosphere of the classroom and the student-teacher relationship?
    • Perhaps I should just have students use the service to check their own work before turning it in? Does that even make sense?
  • Do Wesleyan students think that cheating is a problem here?
  • What about the use of “performance enhancing drugs”? Wesleyan’s Code of Non-Academic Conduct was mentioned in Inside Higher Ed for including a ban on such drugs. But can we even monitor that?

News: Skimming the Surface – Inside Higher Ed

This is such a common problem in student writing!  When I ask students how they go about writing a research paper I find that a common practice is to begin by creating an outline and paste lots of material–found online–into the outline.  It’s no wonder that the result is a lack of original ideas (as suggested in the article cited below).

But I have one additional concern:  this practice probably encourages students to simply search out material that fits their predetermined conclusions rather than challenging such presuppositions.

I think I might share the article with my students next term.

The researchers analyzed the students’ 1,832 research citations and assigned each of them to one of four categories:

Exact copying — a verbatim cut-and-paste, either with or without quotation marks.

“Patchwriting” — the copying of the original language with minimal alteration and with synonyms substituting for several original words (patchwriting is often a failed attempt to paraphrase, they said).

Paraphrasing — a restatement of a source’s argument with mostly fresh language, and with some of the original language intact; it reflects comprehension of a small portion, perhaps a sentence, of the source material.

Summary — the desired form of citation because it demonstrates true understanding of a large portion, if not the entirety, of the original text; summarizing was identified by the researchers when student writers restated in their own terms the source material and compressed by at least 50 percent the main points of at least three consecutive sentences.

Only 9 percent of the citations were categorized as summary. “That’s the stunning part, I think: 91 percent are citations to material that isn’t composing,” said Jamieson. “They don’t digest the ideas in the material cited and put it in their own words.”

via News: Skimming the Surface – Inside Higher Ed.

The Winchester Award

The nice young gentlemen at Psi Upsilon gave me their Teacher-Scholar award this year and have posted my remarks on their website:

The following remarks were delivered by the 2011 Caleb T. Winchester Award Winner, Professor Michael B. Nelson of Wesleyan’s

Government Department…

I want to begin by saying how truly honored I am to receive this award. Receiving an honor such as this from our students is especially meaningful and I think it is a great service that you do to the University by honoring us, encouraging us.

I was asked if I might make some remarks on the theme of critical thinking and leadership.  One of the first things that came to my mind was a quote that was on the wall of my 6th grade classroom, Mr. Farrar’s Classroom. It said: “The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be lit.” That quote has stuck with me ever since. However, I couldn’t remember who it was attributed to for a long time. But at some point in graduate school, when Google was finally around, I looked it up and found the source: Plutarch. In particular, the quote is from Plutarch’s Moralia.

This is a lesson on “How to listen to lectures.” He describes a range of students that one might encounter: the over-enthusiastic student who is a nuisance, the contemptuous student, the unappreciative, the over-confident, and—finally—the “lazy”.  Plutarch must have had a lot of very bothersome students—not at all like I’ve had here at Wesleyan!  Let me read to you what he had to say:

“But after those lazy persons whom we have mentioned, let us urge them that, when their intelligence has comprehended the main points, they put the rest together by their own efforts, and use their memory as a guide in thinking for themselves, and, taking the discourse of another as a germ and seed, develop and expand it. For the mind does not require filling like a bottle,”

At this point in reading the passage I realized that my quote on the wall was really a general paraphrase of a much longer passage. The “mind is not a vessel to be filled”, so…

“…the mind does not require filling like a bottle, but rather, like wood, it only requires kindling…”Or, a fire to be lit!

“… to create in it an impulse to think independently and an ardent desire for the truth. Imagine, then, that a man should need to get fire from a neighbour, and, upon finding a big bright fire there, should stay there continually warming himself; just so it is if a man comes to another to share the benefit of a discourse, and does not think it necessary to kindle from it some illumination for himself and some thinking of his own, but, delighting in the discourse, sits enchanted; he gets, as it were, a bright and ruddy glow in the form of opinion imparted to him by what is said, but the mouldiness and darkness of his inner mind he has not dissipated nor banished by the warm glow of philosophy.”

This more than anything else animates my scholarship and teaching.

As a scholar, my goal is not merely to collect and organize the information in my fields — though those are often useful tasks. But instead to find ways to search out the conventional wisdom on a subject and test it, and if there is no clarified wisdom yet on a subject to create it.

As a teacher, my goal is not to fill my students’ heads with knowledge, but to get them to apply it an analyze it. That is why in every class I teach, even my international law course which may sometimes feel to my students as an information-shoveling exercise, I include a research project.

The skills of my discipline—how to find information, how to analyze information, how to communicate your analysis—these are skills that one can use throughout their lives. I often tell my colleagues that while the substance of what we teach—African politics and international relations in my case — are undoubtedly important, very few of our students will go into fields where that information is critical and in today’s world much of that information is readily discoverable. But they will need the skills that we can impart. For these are skills that don’t just apply to writing a research paper, but to a whole range of post-college activities from writing grant proposals and legal briefs to developing business plans and conducting policy reviews to voting and participating in public institutions..

There is a link to leadership here as well. Plutarch’s essay is embedded in his volume Moralia. These are his moral teachings and he is addressing them to a young individual who will likely become a leader in Roman society. Moral action may indeed be linked to our ability to think critically. The Milgram experiments are a famous series of experiments conducted in the 1960s.  Subjects were placed in a room and told to answer a series of questions. If they got the questions wrong an individual in a separate room was to receive an electric shock (but not really).  The question here was whether subjects would continue behaviors that they believed harmed another individual just because they were told to do so.

The people telling them to continue with answering the questions looked and seemed authoritative, given the laboratory setting. And, indeed, most of the subjects allowed for the shock treatments to go on for some time. But some did not. Some questioned the experiment and ended their participation. Indeed, had all the participants thought critically, they may have realized that theydid have a choice. They did not have to just follow orders.

To be a strong leader requires that one be able to make good independent judgments. Good judgment, in turn, rests on the ability to think critically. I am told that many of you are likely to become leaders in our world. So I truly hope all of you apply the skills we impart, to take the information that we have been feeding you in the classroom and let it burn.


For Teachers: What I’m Reading

I’ve been doing a little reading online to gear up for the new term.

  1. One of my favorite annual online visits is to the Beloit College Mindset List. They provide “a look at the cultural touchstones that shape the lives of students entering college this fall.” As a professor of international relations and african politics, some favorites from the list are:
    • 32. Czechoslovakia has never existed.
    • 41. American companies have always done business in Vietnam.
    • 43. Russians and Americans have always been living together in space.
    • 64. The U.S, Canada, and Mexico have always agreed to trade freely.
    • 68. They have never worried about a Russian missile strike on the U.S.
  2. Profhacker has become a favorite web resource this past year. They have a great roundup of posts about getting ready for the new semester.
    • One of the articles mentioned raises a possible conundrum for those of us who are thinking about how to be successful teachers and get tenure. Daniel deVise, writing for the Washington Post, tells us that “highly rated professors are … overrated”. He cites a UC Davis-NBER-US Air Force Academy study (available as a PDF here) that found that professors rated highly by their students tended to give higher grades AND imparted less knowledge. Given that tenure at most liberal arts colleges is partly based on teaching evaluations, is this something we should worry about? I would definitely like to see more studies like this (this one may be limited by the fact that it focused only on teaching at the Air Force Academy).
  3. Also at the Chronicle of Higher Education, I was intrigued this summer by Adam Evans’ piece on non-western teaching strategies. Unfortunately, it was so brief that it mostly appeared to provide superficial stereotypes. But it did prompt me to think a bit about how I approach the classroom experience and whether my approach is truly “Western”.

QAC Summer Research

To stay on the theme of the great work our students are doing here at Wesleyan, I wanted to highlight the summer research projects that students completed with our Quantitative Analysis Center.

Each summer, a group of students is given the opportunity to do original research under the guidance of a professor here at Wesleyan. In a certain sense, this replicates for the social sciences what already happens in the sciences here (notably the Hughes program). The summer program culminated this year with a joint poster session that included work conducted by students in the sciences and the social sciences. It was a great fun to walk through Exley Science Center and talk with the students about these great projects, many of which are likely to be published.

Summer: Work, Vacation, and Balance

A popular question I get during the summer is, “how is your break?” I wish that I could say that my “break” was wonderful, but that wouldn’t really answer the question.

The fact is that we don’t really get a break as professors. Summers are when we try to squeeze in all of our major research projects, our side projects in service and teaching, and — just like most people — fit in a little vacation time (about two weeks for me this year) with the family. So my level of activity did not really change much when classes stopped. I still have gone into the office everyday. However, it is very nice to have the change.

So what did my summer consist of? Revising a book manuscript, creating a new web resource for students on writing and research (will be tested this fall and hopefully made public next spring), writing letters of recommendation, redesigning our African Studies website and gearing up for my new administrative responsibilities there. Oh, and trying to stay on top of about six other research papers that I really need to just finish and send out.

And of course, doing this while experiencing all of the joy (and sleeplessness) the parent of a one-year old can experience.

The good news, is that I enjoy all of this!

Getting Ready for Fall Teaching…

While we still have some summer left (my vacation takes place in a couple weeks), it is often near the end of summer that many of us begin to figure out what exactly we will be doing for our Fall classes.  The Chronicle of Higher Education’s “ProfHacker” blog, has a couple useful posts on just this topic:

Course Websites: the Schedule

Since I began teaching at Wesleyan, I’ve experimented with different ways of presenting my course syllabus and materials. I began with the standard syllabus PDF and an implementation of Blackboard. But I quickly moved onto using WordPress to make a course website. Examples from last term: International Law and Africa in World Politics.  Note the “Schedule” page on those which includes a calendar I painstakingly made.  Kevin, our IT guy, kept telling me there is an easier way to do this with Google Calendar. And seeing the post below, I believe this could definitely be the case. I just might have to try it next term.

clipped from

Create Your Syllabus With a Spreadsheet and a Calendar App

In my post today, I’m going to show you how to use GoogleDocs and Google Calendar to create a dynamic calendar for a course. This calendar can be displayed as a web page or embedded in a course web site. Why would you want to do this? Well, if you’re happy with using a printed syllabus only—which is perfectly fine, of course—then there’s no reason for you to try this. However, the method I explain below is useful if you’d like a little added flexibility and efficiency when updating a course syllabus from semester to semester. Plus it’s kind of nice to have an online syllabus that will always show the immediately upcoming events and assignments for your course.

blog it