Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Making waves

I'm still unclear as to how it happened (something having to do with Reddit), but I'll soon be appearing in an article in The Pipedream, the student-run school newspaper at SUNY-Binghamton. One of their reporters, Zelda, got a hold of my recent post on in-class exams and found it interesting enough to start a conversation around it. She and I had a very pleasant discussion this morning about the pros and cons of various assessment techniques, including in-class and take-home exams.

She raised good questions, and I hope I gave good answers. Many of my responses were much in line with the ideas I've put forth in the above-linked-to post and in the comments to that post, but there was one point I'd like to elaborate a little more thoroughly.

At one time Zelda raised a concern an unnamed faculty member at her own university had discussed with her when asked about elimination of take-home exams. In essence, the concern is as follows: "getting rid of in-class exams might work well in upper-level courses where students are familiar with the great responsibility placed on them by being granted a take-home exam, but first-year students simply don't have the maturity or the sense of responsibility to realize the gravity of an act of academic dishonesty. How can these students be trusted to take on this responsibility?"

My response was largely in line with elements of the above post and of my teaching philosophy: if we show our students that we trust them and respect them as adults and as co-learners, they will have a harder time betraying that trust. "Won't there always be temptation to cheat, on the part of the students given a take-home exam?" Zelda asked in follow-up. "Indeed," I agreed, "but if they've been made to feel respected, understood, and appreciated, they'll be less likely to follow through on temptation."

To be sure, this establishment of mutual trust, respect, and understanding is not foolproof: there will always be those who cannot resist the temptation to cheat and who therefore abuse the trust being placed in them, but I'm not convinced that the relatively few cases of cheating one might encounter make it worth abandoning take-home exams.

Moreover (and here's the point I didn't make clear in my interview), how are students ever to learn about mutual trust, respect, and understanding if not given an opportunity to demonstrate that trust, respect, and understanding? Put another way, how else will students develop the maturity we ascribe to upper-level students but by demonstrating that they can acquit themselves in a mature fashion when given tasks like take-home exams in courses like Calc I? It seems to me something of a Catch-22 to say that students aren't mature enough to handle take-home exams, while at the same time they can't develop the sort of maturity we're looking for without being given such opportunities.

That said, and as I told Zelda this morning, I don't believe that take-home exams are appropriate in just any class: it takes pedagogical skill, time, and a considerable amount of practice and patience to design and develop the sorts of learning environments in which young students feel trusted, respected, and understood. It takes just as much skill, time, practice, and patience to develop the robust assignments and assessments that abrogate the need for in-class exams. The course I'm plotting is not for everyone, as I indicated to Zelda when she asked if I'd support a campus-wide "no in-class exams" policy. "No," I said. "Not only do faculty as a rule not like to be told what to do (a fact which would make implementation of the policy horrifically difficult), but the policy isn't appropriate for every instructor."

Anyhow, that's the scoop. I'll post a link to the article in The Pipedream when it appears. I'll also soon be posting some delightful documents three of my students produced as part of their Newton v. Leibniz project (I've just gotten permission from all three to post). Stay tuned!


Anonymous said...

In my entire time as a student (which is considerable) I have NEVER cheated on a take home exam. By cheating I mean operating outside of the parameters set by the instructor AND not helping other students who wish to operate outside of those parameters.

This includes your take home final in the Calc 1, second section this semester. I know that I will not have a perfect score on that exam but I would rather be less than perfect than for people to think more of me than I am

DocTurtle said...

Anonymous: I'm glad to hear it!