Talking Teaching

April 25, 2014

plagiarism & managing it

Filed under: education, university — Tags: , , , , , — alison @ 10:14 pm

I’m marking first-year essays at the moment. Because these students have had little or no practice at writing scientific essays before they arrive in my class, we give them a lot of learning support. There’s a marking rubric, which students get along with the questions at the very beginning of the semester. (Alas! This doesn’t seem to stop the last-minute rush-combined-with-sheer-panic!) We spend time on tuts discussing how to structure an essay, how to cite and to reference & to paraphrase, and so on. Both the senior tutor & I are more than happy to comment on drafts – some of my colleagues think we’re nuts, but giving formative feedback early in the piece significantly improves the final essay & means less time is spent at that end. And this year I followed the example of my friend Margaret Henley and ran a drop-in session in the student centre: I was there, along with the Science librarian and staff from Student Learning, and the 50 or so students who attended moved around between us depending on what they needed. (Far more time-efficient then having the same number of students turn up to see us in drips and drabs.

And of course we also discuss at some length the issues and concepts relating to plagiarism, and students’ essays are put through the Turnitin system on submission. (This year I set it up so that they could see their score after submission, which they seem to quite like.) So I was interested to see this story on plagiarism and cheating in NZ universities,  in the NZ Herald a few days ago. It was notable that there was a bit of variation between institutions in the number of instances of cheating that were detected, which I suspect has more to do with processes than with actual differences in (dis)honesty in the student bodies. We all seem to handle it differently, too; my own institution has a student discipline committee, to which all instances of suspected plagiarism are supposed to be referred. I like this system – it is a lot more transparent in that the paper convenor doesn’t end up being the judge, jury, and executioner (with all the potential conflicts that this entails), and more consistent because the same set of standards, and outomes, is applied across the board. Which is probably why I felt more than a little uncomfortable to see that, in one instance reported in the Herald story, an individual lecturer seemed to be making the judgement call. Maybe that was just the way the story came across in the paper. I hope so.

There’s an interesting discussion here on why students plagiarise, which suggests that maybe we, the teachers, have something to do with it in that we maybe don’t do enough to help our students develop their own ‘voice’ and the confidence to use it:

Students… often stumble into plagiarism (or rush head-long into it) because they either cannot find or do not trust the authority of their own voice.

The author, Nick Carbone, concludes that

[h]elping students find their own voice, their own words, so that they can distinguish better their voices and words from the voices and words of the sources they research, hear, read, and that really, when you think about it, always already surround them, seems to me more and more, the best way to help students understand, really, what plagiarism is all about.

I’m not sure how feasible it actually is, in a paper that’s not first & foremost a writing paper, to help all students find their ‘voice’. (Nor am I sure that all academics would view it as part of their role to do so.) And I definitely agree with Jonathan Bailey that the ultimate responsibility for plagiarism does rest with the student. But – as he says – teachers can do a lot both to educate students about academic integrity and to minimise the temptation and the pressure to plagiarise. For example, the pressures involved around large high-stakes assignments may make a spot of cheating look more attractive. Bailey lists the following steps to reduce plagiarism’s allure (but also reminds us that the problem’s never going to go away completely):

  1. Educate on Plagiarism: Teach students clearly what it is and how to avoid it. Discuss plagiarism openly and without scare tactics.

  2. Craft Plagiarism-Resistant Assignments: Use prompts that can’t be Googled, require multiple drafts and include in-class portions when possible.

  3. Connect With Students: Offer to help and give students the support they need so they are confident they can complete the assignment.

  4. Forgive Mistakes: Understand that mistakes happen and treat them as chances to teach, not discipline.

  5. Discipline Fairly: Those who clearly are trying to cheat should be disciplined fairly and strongly as appropriate.

Which makes me feel that we’re doing something right, in my first-year papers. (It also reminds me how frustrated I get to see the same questions pop up in tests and exams, year after year. What do people expect?!)

December 9, 2013

shaking up the academy? or how the academy could shake up teaching

Last week I spent a couple of days down in Wellington, attending the annual symposium for the Ako Aotearoa Academy. The Academy’s made up of the winners of the national Tertiary Teaching Excellence Awards, so there are around 150 or so of us now. While only 35 members were able to make it to this year’s event (& the executive committee will survey everyone to see if there’s a better time – having said that, everyone seems so busy that there’s probably no date that would suit everyone!), we had a great line-up of speakers & everyone left feeling inspired & energised. I’ll blog about several of those presentations, but thought I would start with one by Peter Coolbear, who’s the director of our parent body, Ako Aotearoa.

Peter began by pointing out that the Academy is potentially very influential – after all, it’s made up of tertiary teachers recognised at the national level for the quality of their teaching, & who foster excellence in learning & teaching at their own institutions.  But he argued – & I agree with him – that there is room for us to become involved in the wider scene. Peter had a number of suggestions for us to consider.

First up, there’s a lot going on in the area of policy – are there areas where the Academy might be expected to have & express an opinion? For example

  • There’s the latest draft of the Tertiary Education Strategy (TES), which “sets out the Government’s long-term strategic direction for tertiary education; and its current and medium-term priorities for tertiary education.” There’s a link to the Minister’s speech announcing the launch of the draft strategy here.
  • In addition, the State Services Commission’s document Better Public Services: results for New Zealanders sets out 10 targets across 5 areas. Targets 5 & 6 are relevant here as they are a reference point for government officials looking at evidence for success in the education sector. (Such scrutiny is likely to become more intense in light of the 2012 PISA results, which have just been made public.) Target 5 expects that we’ll “[increase] the proportion of 18-year-olds with NCEA level 2 or equivalent qualification”; #6 is looking for an increase in ” the proportion of 25 to 34-year-olds with advanced trade qualifications, diplomas and degrees (at level 4 or above)”. This will increase the pressure on institutions to increase retention & completion rates – might this have an effect on standards?
  • There’s also the requirement to achieve parity of success for ‘priority’ learners, especially Maori & Pasifika – this is priority #3 in the TES. (Kelly Pender, from Bay of Plenty Polytech, gave an inspirational presentation on how he weaves kaupapa Maori into pretty much everything he does in his classroom, in an earlier session.) And it’s an important one for us to consider. Peter cited data from the Ministry of Education’s website, ‘Education Counts’, which showed significantly lower completion rates for Maori & Pasifika students in their first degrees compared to European students, and commented that this will likely become a major issue for the universities in the near future.
  • If we’re to meet those achievement requirements, then how institutions scaffold learners into higher-level study, through foundation & transition programs, will become increasingly important. What are the best ways to achieve this?
  • Peter predicted increased accountability for the university sector (including governance reform). Cycle 5 of NZ’s Academic Audits has begun, and “is to be framed around academic activities related to teaching and learning and student support.” This is definitely one I’d expect Academy members to have an opinion on!
  • He also expects strengthened quality assurance processes throughout the education sector: this suggests a stronger (& more consistent) role for the  NZ Qualifications Authority, with the development of partnership dialogues across the sector (ie including universities).

Then, at the level of the providers (ie the educational institutions themselves – & that’s not just the polytechs & universities), we have:

  • a targeted review of qualifications offered at pre-degree level – there’s background information here;
  • a government-led drive to get more learners into the ‘STEM’ subjects (science, technology, engineering, & maths) – this poses some interesting challenges as, at university level, we’re seeing quite a few students who’ve not taken the right mix of subjects, at the right NCEA level, to go directly into some of the STEM papers they need for, say, an engineering degree;
  • the rise in Massive Open On-line Courses, or MOOCs. (I find these quite strange creatures as they are free to the student and typically attract very large enrolments, but also apparently have very low completion rates. What’s in them for the institution? A good way of offering ‘taster’ courses that hook students in?)
  • the likelihood that we will see the development of a system for professional accreditation of tertiary teachers (I’ve written about this previously and will write another post fairly soon, as accreditation was the subject of a thought-provoking session at the symposium);
  • how we achieve protection of academic standards – it’s possible that government policies (eg those linking funding to completion & retention rates) may result in a tendency to exclude of underprepared kids &/or lowering standards – neither is desirable but both are possible results of those policies.

That’s a big list and the Academy can’t do everything! So, what should it focus on? (This is not a rhetorical question – it would be great to get some discussion going.) The Academy, in the person of its members, is effectively a resource; a body of expertise – can it become a ‘go-to’ body for advice? Speaking personally I think we need to make that shift; otherwise we remain invisible outside our individual institutions & the teaching-focused activities we’re involved in, & in a politicised world that’s not a comfortable thing to be. Can we, for example, better promote the significance of teaching excellence outside the education sector? Become involved in the discussions around & development of any accreditation scheme? Develop position papers around maintaining teaching excellence in the context of the new TES?

What do you think? And what shall we, collectively, do about it?

October 26, 2013

doing citizen science

This is something I wrote for my ‘other’ blog, but I thought I’d post it here as well as the whole ‘citizen science’ thing has considerable value for school-level education, and I thought some of you would probably have some valuable insights into/comments on the subject.

The other day I was asked for some advice on setting up a ‘citizen science’ program. The people asking were looking at developing outreach: giving talks, helping with local science-y initiatives, setting up websites, & so on. I responded that it all sounded good, and it was great that they were looking at ways of communicating about the science they were doing, but that it didn’t really sound like my understanding of the term ‘citizen science’. (I hasten to add that I’m not an expert: I do a lot of science communication, but this is not the same thing at all.)

The idea of citizen science has been around for quite some time – there are papers on the subject dating to the 90s – but in New Zealand I would hope it’s developing a higher profile in the scientific community with the advent of the NZ Science Challenges & their requirement to get ‘the public’ more engaged with the science that we’re doing in this country.

And under the citizen science model this requires some serious thinking about the logistics, because one thing it’s not, is scientists telling laypeople what they’ve been doing. Instead, it sees school children, their whanau, members of various community groups, all getting involved in an organised and coordinated way with the actual research: making observations, collecting data, discussing the results, looking at how to apply them in their area. This is a lot more complex in terms of organisation than arranging to give a talk or write a pop-science article (or a blog!).

Jonathan SIlvertown defines a citizen scientist as “a volunteer who collects and/or processes data as part of a scientific enquiry” (2008: 467), and notes that such projects are becoming particularly common in ecology and environmental science. (And it’s not a new initative: Bonney et al (2009) point out that US lighthouse keepers got involved in collecting data on bird strikes back in the 1880s. Perhaps we could regard Charles Darwin as a citizen scientist, particularly at the beginning of his career – he certainly wasn’t doing it as part of a paying job!) He goes on to say that “[t]oday, most citizen scientists work with professional counterparts on projects that have been specifically designed or adapted to give amateurs a role, either for the educational benefit of the volunteers or for the benefit of the project. The best examples benefit both” (2008: 467). This makes it clear that planning to involve citizen scientists in a given project has to part of the initial project development; it can’t really be an add-on at the end. While many of the projects Silvertown lists are essentially surveys and censuses, Bonney et al (2009) provide a model for doing citizen science to answer particular scientific questions in a way that also enhances science literacy and engagement with the subject.

Bonney & his colleagues work at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, which over the years has seen the results of many ‘citizen-science’ projects published in a range of journals. At the same time they’ve noted increases in scientific literacy and engagement with science among many of their lay participants. These are very positive outcomes, and they’ve put together a model for setting up such initiatives and assessing their success. Commenting that “e have found that proj- ects whose developers follow this model can simultaneously fulfil their goals of recruitment, research, conservation, and education “, Bonney & his team list the following steps/stages in setting up & running a successful citizen-science project:

1. Choose a scientific question – it will probably be one that stretches across a relatively long period of time, or a large geographic area.

2. Form a scientist/educator/technologist/evaluator team – this must include individuals from multiple disciplines – the scientist to develop the question, methodology & analysis tools; the educator to field-test methods with the participants, develop support materials, etc; and so on.

3. Develop, test, and refine protocols, data forms, and educational support materials: it’s essential that participants receive clear protocols for collecting their data (using clear simple forms) & that they receive help in understanding those protocols and passing their data on to the researchers.

4. Recruit participants. How this is done is going to depend on whether the project is open to all or is intended for a particular cohort eg school students.

5. Train participants, so that they gain confidence in their ability to collect and submit data, & know they’ll be supported as and when necessary.

6. Accept, edit, and display data. “Whether a project employs paper or electronic data forms, all of the information must be accepted, edited, and made available for analysis, not only by professional scientists but also by the public. Indeed, allowing and encouraging participants to manipulate and study project data is one of the most educational features of citizen science.” [my emphasisi]

7. Analyse and interpret data. This can be tricky due to the often‘coarse’ nature of the data-sets collected by participants,  & made more so if there are (for example) errors due to species mis-identification or misunderstanding of protocols.

8. Disseminate results. While this will involve scientific publications, it’s also important – & essential – that the results and their interpretation & application are also communicated with the citizen scientists who helped to generate them.

9. Measure outcomes. These will be both scientific and educational. The former are fairly straightforward to quantify: number of papers published, conference presentations given, or students successfully completing theses, for example. The educational outcomes may be harder to define, but Bonney et al suggest assessing things like the length of time people were involved with the project; how often they accessed web sites associated with the project; whether their understanding of the science content improved over the duration of the research; whether their understanding of the nature of science was enhanced; positive changes in attitudes towards science; better science-related skills; the number of participants stating increased interest in a career in science.

Doing all this will of necessity require education or social science research techniques, so there’s someone else to add to the team. Yes, there are costs, in dollar terms but also in terms of the time taken to set up a rigorous project with benefits for all involved. But there is potential for those benefits to be significant.

R.Bonney, C.B.Cooper, J.Dickinson, S.Kelling, T.Phillips, K.V.Rosenberg & J.Shirk (2009) Citizen science: a developing tool for expanding science knowledge and scientific literacy. Bioscience 59(11):977-984

J.Silvertown (2008) A new dawn for citizen science. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 24(9): 467-471

January 10, 2012

one reason many don’t ‘get’ science

Filed under: education, science teaching — Tags: , , — alison @ 9:38 pm

This is something a bit different – those of you who might have visited my ‘other’ blog will know that from time to time I write about pseudoscience, & along with this express concern about why acceptance of ‘woo’ is relatively widespread. This post takes up on that, but I’m mirroring it here as it is relevant to science education (& I hope may generate some fruitful discussion here :-)

Over at this post by Seth Mnookin** in the new HuffPo science section (like Orac I will be rather interested to see how this section pans out), a commenter with the ‘nym Seeking Clarity remarked:

What our mainstream science education curricula apparently fails to adequately teach is why the process of science tends to produce information of relatively high reliability and why this process is such useful compensation for human limitations.

We are instead taught to recite the requisite repertoire of science fact and vocabulary that may be useful to science majors but which (divorced from its epistemological context) is experienced by average students as irrelevant to their own lives.

As a result, the findings of science are seen as one of any number of engines of opinion. The public often misses the role of carefully and collaboratively vetted empirical corroboration as a basis of confidence.

Therefore the relative tentativeness, incompleteness, and internal controversies that characterise the products and the community of science can be mistaken for weakness in contrast to those persons who unhesitatingly and appealingly claim to have access to conclusive truths.

I’ve reproduced the comment here as it’s very relevant to discussions I’ve had with colleagues & fellow science bloggers about the voluminous quantities of pseudoscience circulating on the internet & also available through the media (some of the latter masquerades as ‘entertainment’ but some – Ancient Aliens for example – is presented with a seemingly straight face). There seems to be a huge demand for this sort of stuff, as witnessed by the number of websites offering up kitty-litter as a cure-all (not that they come out & call zeolite ‘kitty-litter’), or the‘miracle mineral supplement’ (knock back bleach & it will cure your ills), or detox foot-pads, or… the supply seems endless, & that’s not even counting the more ‘mainstream’ things like homeopathy.

People do tend to seek certainty in their lives, & as the comment above notes, scientists simply can’t give absolute certainty. But that’s often not understood, & it may well make the ‘alternatives’ seem that much more attractive. Hopefully the implementation of the 2007 science curriculum will help to redress that, at least with current & future students. But at the same time we do need to address the sheer volume of information (aka facts) that students must learn; in my opinion that discussion is long overdue!

 

** which is an excellent commentary  on the importance of & need for vaccination – & for responsible science journalism.

May 2, 2011

on academic honesty

I’m marking at the moment (essays & dissertations) and also (when I need a break) reading James Lang’s book On Course: a week-by-week guide to your first semester of college teaching. (Yes, I know I’ve been teaching for yonks, but I know there’s always something new for me to learn & also it’s nice to look at possible resources that I can recommend to others.) Today I read his chapter for week 9, Academic Honesty.

Now, marking first-year essays for a class of 200 takes rather a long time, not least because the tutor & I tend to write reasonably extensive commentaries on each one. We’ve already given feedback to the whole class on what you could regard as ‘general’ issues: following formatting rules, remembering to cite & reference properly, reminding them that the marking rubric is provided for a reason (sigh!)… This is easy to do because the same things tend to crop up each year, even though we take care to work through them in tutorials well ahead of submission date. But the students still need to know what’s good, & what’s not, about the content of their work; hence the individual comments.

However, it used to take us longer to mark, because as well as the outright marking we’d also be checking for evidence of plagiarism – that is, when someone presents the words and ideas of others as their own. It’s often not that hard to pick up (clues like changes in word pattern, accuracy of grammar or punctuation, or even changes in font, for goodness’ sake!), but we were then having to tediously google each suspect phrase in an attempt to confirm or deny our suspicions before raising them with the students concerned. And believe me, that takes time! Up to 30 minutes, for a particularly questionable piece of work.

What’s changed? Many things. First up, we use TurnItIn & electronic submission of essays. More as a teaching tool than a punitive one: the system generates a ‘similarity’ report that highlights phrases, sentences, or (regrettably) whole paragraphs that are not original but can be traced to a journal article, book chapter, or work previously submitted by another student. So we can sit down with a student & go through the report with them, & talk about what’s happened before making a call on whether it needs to be Taken Further. But I’ve also got some TII reports with all identifying details removed, that we can use in tuts at the start of the semester as the basis of discussions about what academic honesty is, & why it’s important. (It does seem to work, too – before we made the decision to use TII, between 10 & 20% of those first-year essays would show evidence of plagiarism, & in about 5% it would be on a seriously grand scale. These days – well, this year it would be about 5% all up – but the confounding factor there is of course that we’ve made a conscious effort to formalise a lot of other processes as well.)

And I do believe it’s really, really important to have that discussion with students. It’s all very well to stand up the front of a lecture class & say, ‘academic honesty, blah blah blah,’ before moving on to that day’s ‘real’ business, but it’s highly unlikely that many students will take much out of that. Too often, I think, teaching staff can assume that the students will pick all this up by osmosis, and  it just doesn’t happen that way.They need to talk about it, to fit the concept in to their existing framework of ideas about the purpose & function of their studies.

They also need to practice the relevant skills (something that comes through again & again in the AAAS’s Vision & change report). So we give practice (in tuts & lab classes) on paraphrasing, citing, and referencing sources of information. Sometimes this generates some really interesting & valuable discussions on quite different issues. And of course, they need to recognise just why the concept of academic honesty is so important – more interesting discussions can arise from this. Some of that discussion focuses on why internet plagiarism is just as serious as any other form – and lecturers have to give clear instructions that this is so; otherwise it’s a problem that will only get worse, given how easy it is to cut-n-paste a bit from here & a bit from there & weave it together into a whole. Lang notes that in 1999, 10% of US students surveyed admitted to this form of plagiarism, but by 2005 this was up to almost 40% – and “a majority of students (77%) believe[d] that such cheating is not a very serious issue” (Lang, 2008).

But there are other steps that lecturers can put in place to reduce the likelihood of students deliberately cheating with coursework – I’m focusing on plagiarism here, but of course taking notes into exams, or storing information in electronic devices also come under this heading – and I was reminded of some of these when reading Lang’s book.  (Incidentally, he gives some quite alarming statistics about the incidence of self-reported cheating by US students: some studies found up to 50% of students saying that they’d done this at least once in the previous year. And that includes Masters & PhD students.)

An obvious step is to use different assessment items each year. Sounds like a no-brainer, but I suspect that for many (all too many) papers the questions used in tests and exams don’t change much between years. But – especially if test papers are returned (& why shouldn’t they be? Don’t we want students to be able to see where they went wrong?) – word probably gets around fairly quickly. Lang tells the somewhat alarming tale of a college fraternity with a filing cabinet full of previous tests & assignments, for its members’ use… Which is why I write new questions for that essay assignment, every year, & try hard to vary test & exam questions as much as possible. It can be a bit fiddly but hey – at least I’m not reading the same answers to the same questions, over & over & over!

Lang also comments that having multiple assessment items can also work against the tendency to cheat. This is because it reduces the proportion of the grade hanging on any one assessment item, and hence the pressure to do really really well in that item by any means possible. Having different forms of assessment items also helps, as it gives students more than one means of demonstrating their skills & knowledge. (Hence these days we’re using theory tests, lab mastery tests, the essay, on-line self-paced tutorials, plus an exam.)

I found this comment interesting because I often hear that we ‘over-assess’ our students, & indeed, that may be so if we are simply assessing for assessment’s sake. But if – as it should be – the focus of assessment is guiding student learning, and students understand what we’re doing & why, then perhaps the ‘over-assessment’ argument loses some of its force.

James M. Lang (2008) On Course: a week-by-week guide to your first semester of college teaching. Harvard University Press. ISBN 978-0-674-02806-7

June 8, 2010

About Paulo Freire

Filed under: education, university — Tags: , , , — kubke @ 5:51 pm

As part of the Postgraduate Certificate where I am a student, I was to give a 10 minute lecture on one theory of teaching. A list of ‘candidate’ theories were provided, and to my surprise Paulo Freire‘s ‘Pedagogy of the Opressed‘ was in the list.

Well, that was quite a surprise.

I had first come across Paulo Freire’s orginal book about over twenty years ago, when I read it in the context of literacy programmes in Latin America. I would not have, then and now, predicted that his ideas would ever make it to a rather mainstream reading list. So, of course, I thought it would be fun to read him once again.

I don’t think I was aware how much I had internalised Freire, and how much of the way that I think about teaching is inspired by that original reading. It was indeed an interesting excercise. Especially because this time around I read his book while thinking how (or if) his ideas could be put in place in tertiary education given the real life limitations of the current tertiary system (like the large size of the classes).

In any case, this lecture also gave me the opportunity to give Prezi a go. First time user, but I love what can be done with it.

Freire’s philosophy is perhaps better defined for what it is not (it is not what he calls banking education). What it is, to me, is what is in this presentation. This presentation also has some thoughts about how I think his ideas could be applied to the current educational system.

It may make for a nice debate, so I thought why let all the work go to waste, right?

Well, here it is: http://prezi.com/3wsh5y4vtl4c/

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