This morning was painful.
I had the uncomfortable task of watching 30 of the students in my morning Calc I section puzzle their way through a difficult (but fair, I feel) exam, their last "mid-term" exam of the semester and a traditionally hard one (on applications of the derivative). This awful duty was the last straw.
The penultimate one came yesterday: I was called upon to help adjudicate a case of "academic dishonesty" (to use the lovely euphemism) in a colleague's class. This colleague wanted to know if the students in question had indeed "cheated" (to stop beating around the bush). After cursory (and then more in-depth) inspection, I agreed that yes, indeed they had.
However, to me the incident said more about the culture of the academy than it did about the "dishonesty" in which the students were involved. More specifically, the students were clearly guilty of "cheating," but to me the more crucial issue concerned why it is they felt the need to "cheat" in the first place.
To "cheat" requires that there be a "game," and that it matter that people follow the rules of that game, and further that it matter that in order to succeed at the game one must "do better" than anyone else playing the game. This was definitely the case in this particular course: the students had been given a (very) high-stakes exam, which to them was more than an assessment instrument; it was moreover one of a very small few means of receiving feedback on the degree to which they were mastering the concepts of the course the exam was given in. To them, "cheating" on the exam was a natural response, given the way in which they've been acculturated to consider the exam a must-win game in which success is measured by high marks.
The point I'm getting at is the following: the more we as educators eliminate, or to the greatest extent possible downplay, the competitive aspect of education (high-stakes testing, rigid and number-driven grading schemata, individualistic learning paradigms, etc.), the less likely we are to find our students "gaming" the system by engaging in "cheating." In some regards, "cheating" will cease to exist, as it simply will have been defined away.
As I hinted above, most "cheating" (I truly believe) is undertaken as an act of desperation, a means of coping with failure as measured by receipt of lower-than-average academic grades. "Cheating" is a means of striving to succeed within a system which provides extrinsic rewards for optimal performance rather than intrinsic rewards for authentic mastery and authorship. I cannot but believe that the vast majority of students would welcome an academic system in which the goal is not to earn high marks but rather to learn, and that students accustomed to this system would see no need to game the system by "cheating." I'm not so naive as to suppose that every student will respond well: there will always be those so acculturated by thirteen-plus years of a largely competitive educational system that it's in their blood to fight tooth and nail for every last percentage point that might tip them from a B+ to an A-...but I believe that even those who are very comfortable with this traditional system will abandon it if given the chance to do so.
All of this gets me back to this morning, and the thoughts I had as I watched my Calc I students (even the strongest of them) wiggle and squirm in completing their in-class exam, stressing out not over whether or not they'd really learned the concepts we've been working on together for the past few weeks, but rather over the grades that will unmercifully adorn their papers when they get them back tomorrow morning.
My thoughts can be boiled down into two short words: no more.
No more in-class exams. Ever. I'm through with them. The one I gave this morning (and will give again in a couple of hours) will be my last.
For quite some time now I've not given in-class exams in my upper-level courses, feeling that little meaningful could be asked on such exams, aside from requiring students to parrot already-proven theorems or give short answers to requests for definitions. In these courses, in-class exams offer none of the opportunity offered by take-home exams to ask authentically engaging and probative questions, and therefore I've found them pointless time-sinks.
For quite some time now I've resisted the banishment of in-class exams from my first-year courses, thinking, I suppose, as I've heard some of my colleagues to think: "there are certain computational techniques the students will have to learn to perform, and to perform quickly." True, but even the most straightforward computational skills will be as well developed (and much more readily understood) if performed in the service of completing the more meaningful, authentically engaging exercises included on take-home exams. This is as true in Precalc or Calc I as it is in Abstract Algebra I or Topology. Even in lower-level courses take-home exams offer a much more meaningful sort of assessment, and even if those exams are still meant as individual exercises and not collaborative ones (of the sort with which I've been experimenting in Linear Algebra this semester) they go much further than do in-class exams in encouraging a culture of collaborative engagement, simply by downplaying high-stakes individualistic assessment.
Keep in mind that I'm not boo-hissing exams entirely: exams offer students a means of reflecting on the ideas they've learned for the past ___ weeks, and if properly responded to they're fantastic tools for giving students feedback. Well-designed and well-delivered exams give students a healthy way of furthering their learning and assimilating their knowledge as they think critically about it. Exams are here to stay.
In-class exams, however, for me will soon be a thing of the past.
I've already responded to a couple of concerns I anticipate colleagues (and even some students...very bright ones, in fact) might have about this decision of mine, but let me respond to a couple more hypotheticals.
Colleague/student: "If you de-emphasize high-stakes individualistic exercises like in-class exams, some students will game the system and prop themselves up on others' work without really learning anything themselves."
Me: "No matter how you set the system up, students are always going to find a way to game it. Gaming the system I propose means cheating themselves out of learning. Gaming the system as it currently stands involves engaging in a behavior that's viewed as sociopathic but is really little more than a symptom of deeper systemic problems. I find the former course far less pernicious. Sure, there'll always be students who frankly don't give a shit, but we're not going to serve them well in any system, and with a system more conducive to authentic learning, they might just pick up a thing or two along the way."
Colleague/student: "You can tilt at as many windmills as you'd like to in your own little class, but you've got to assign grades at the semester's end, anyway. Won't the system you propose result in massive grade inflation?"
Me: "My response to this concern is twofold. First, in courses in which I've begun doing away almost entirely with individualistic activities (begun in Foundations, Topology, and Abstract Algebra I and II in previous semesters, and taken to the extreme in my Linear course this semester), I've seen little noticeable change in the final grades for the courses. This was true even in Topology, in which students had unlimited opportunity to revise and resubmit all work, with no constraint on collaboration. I simply don't see evidence for grade inflation. Second, even if there were grade inflation, so what? It would be incredibly difficult to determine whether students' grades were made higher because they were bracing themselves on each other ("gaming" the system in the sense expected by my first colleague above), or simply because they'd actually managed to more richly and more fully understand the ideas addressed by the course. That is, maybe the grades are higher for a reason: the students are actually, for the first time in their lives, getting it."
I truly feel this way.
Moreover, I truly feel that I've become proficient enough as an educator that my courses offer the sort of rich collaborative learning environment wherein in-class exams no longer serve a meaningful purpose. They're simply anathema to my teaching philosophy, and they're counterproductive to my goal of establishing a safe, stressless, and supportive setting in which we can all learn from one another in robust and authentic ways. From here on out, they're gone.
Before I leave, let me pass my apologies on to the students currently enrolled in my Calc I course: I'm sorry that you had to suffer through the last iteration of this practice. I know how hard the topics you're being tested on are, and I'll keep that in mind as I respond to the exams tonight. I'll respond to them not with an eye toward giving you a grade, but with an eye toward letting you know how well you're learning. I hope you'll receive them back from me with the same thoughts in mind.
One last note: I should point the interested reader in the direction of Alfie Kohn's No contest: the case against competition, about which I've blogged before, and which over the years has probably proven to be the single book which has exerted the greatest influence on me as a teacher. It should be required reading for all educators, at every level.
Tuesday, November 30, 2010
This morning was painful.