Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Neither Cheaters nor their Teachers Prosper

Flickr CC photo by Mr_Stein
Recently I attended a meeting with a dedicated group of teachers that left all of us pretty frustrated.

During my strolls through the building, I had more than once upon students who openly seemed to be copying each others' work sheets.  This led to the meeting with their teachers, because when I tried to determine whether or not it was ok, both the students and teachers seemed ambivalent about it, yet in two cases the teachers felt that there might be a distinction between "asking help on one answer" or copying whole sale.

Of course there are all kinds of circumstances where sharing answers might be desirable.  But in these cases, my impression was that someone had not done her homework and was eager to have something to turn in, regardless.  And even if this was not the case, I wondered what the point was of a student "turning in" even one answer that she didn't know (whether she had tried or not).

That scenario is pretty depressing, because that means learning has dropped out of the equation.  Someone is busy pretending learning nothing, and the teacher may be checking or even grading work the student hasn't done.  It becomes a weird ritual.

This post is not bashing homework assignments or even work sheets.  I see it as legitimate to ask questions about an assignment to read or practice skills through a work sheet.  I, like some of the teachers I met with, have also tried to find ways to give students credit for effort and work ethic, particularly if they did not perform well on tests.

But I'm not sure that we should "grade" practice.  I also decided some time ago that if I assigned questions to go with a reading, I would assess understanding of basic points with a short quiz rather than simply accept answers that might have been copied from a book or friend.

We earnestly discussed these issues, but I felt as though we were kind of boxed in by the nature of these particular assignments.  Most of the group seemed resigned that a certain amount of copying would likely take place, but that it would ultimately catch up with the student at test time.  True, I suppose, but it still troubled me to think that that the very nature of this methodology tempted students not to learn, or even worse, pressured students into disguising the fact that they did not understand.

Since the meeting, I had two thoughts:

1) Online courses are probably more effective with this kind of methodology.  A student progresses through the course individually and must work through all of the information in order to progress.  Short cuts are more difficult and there is no one's work to substitute.

2) This reminded me why I found Challenge Based Learning so attractive with its focus on solutions and the possibility of showing learning through failure as well as success.  Granted, not every team member may carry her weight, but the varied means of assessment make it pretty easy to distinguish those who do and those who don't.  It is also easier to measure of depth of understanding.

No methodology is perfect.  But at least CBL changes all the rules of the game.

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