Teaching for Academic Integrity, James Lang’s Plenary Summary, Slides, and Notes, Oct. 14, 2011 (David Mazella)

Well, this video, which Jim Lang brought to our attention last Friday, explains why we need to pay close attention to his topic, “Teaching for Academic Integrity”:

If you’re a teacher or a parent, you probably find this video to be pretty sinister.  I think most teachers, like most parents, want the educational process to succeed. But that is not how everyone views the educational process.

As a former high school student, however, what I remember from those days, and what this video demonstrates, is just how much energy I used to expend to avoid doing my assignments.  Much more energy, in fact, than what I would have expended simply doing my work. This is an important point, because it tells us that cheating is not simply, or always, “the path of least resistance,” but in some cases represents a spillover of what we might call “misdirected energies.”  In other words, some portion of the energy and intelligence of the students is not being addressed by the teacher or curriculumt, and these are getting directed instead toward counterproductive forms like cheating.  And in other instances, rampant, out-of-control cheating within a system can be seen as a symptom of much broader and more problematic attitudes towards education held by students, teachers, administrators, and the public.

Speaking from my own experience as a teacher, however, cheating can be a result of a number of things going on with students:

  • laziness (the student is unwilling to do the necessary work, and coolly finds others’ finished-looking work to hand in instead), or
  • confusion (the student does not know how to do her own work, and frantically gathers up scraps of others’ work to hand in instead), or
  • outright resistance (the student will not acknowledge the value of the assignment, and deliberately deceives the teacher by superficially “satisfying” the requirement instead).

But no matter what the motivations underlying student attitudes and behavior towards cheating, teachers, administrators, and parents need to look at how these responses occur within educational systems that may be doing their best either to promote or discourage cheating.

In keeping with the CTE’s focus on helping faculty negotiate these problems, Lang’s talk focused on the pedagogical side of this question, to show how different kinds of teaching could either promote or inhibit cheating.

[As promised on Friday, here is the link to Lang’s powerpoint presentation, including his references]

Lang began by reminding us that academic dishonesty is as old as the practice of grading examinations, and that it remains an irreducible aspect of the learning environment.  Rather than trying to make it impossible to cheat, or to devise ever-more sophisticated technologies to detect cheating (which tend to spawn still more sophisticated systems designed to evade detection), Lang proposed that we abandon the arms race (which often assume a naive and moralizing mode of error detection) and reframe the question around the question of learning.

Instead of asking, “How do we stop students from cheating,” we should ask instead, “How do we ensure that students are learning?” (to use Tricia Bertram Gallant’s formulation) Reformulating the question in this way realigns the imperatives of being a good teacher with that of being a good student.

Lang then used developments in recent cognitive theory regarding short- and long-term memory to talk about the need for teachers to build up students’ ability to practice retrieving what they have studied in a variety of contexts and in a variety of ways.  To retrieve material stored in long-term memory, students need to accumulate increasingly rich, multiple, interlocking contexts that allow the material to be retrieved. These contexts can take the form of information about how the material studied relates to their own lives (e.g., “Shakespeare knows about teenage angst, and you might, too”), or information about how this or that skill or information might serve them later (e.g., “you will need this skill to pass this course/complete your major/get a job”).

As it turns out, switching the emphasis towards learning results in a classroom practice that looks pretty much like what we already know about active learning and teaching for engagement.  Lang sums up his program in the following way:

Frequent low-stakes testing and active, test-like classroom practices are far more effective than passive learning and infrequent, high-stakes testing in helping students develop multiple cues and improve retrieval skills.
This kind of teaching, moreover, brings with it the additional benefit of removing some of the usual motivations, incentives, and opportunities to cheat.  In Lang’s words:
  • Frequent, low-stakes testing reduces the pressure on individual assignments, reducing the temptation to cheat.
  • Frequent, test-like classroom exercises reduce last-minute cramming or cheating
Lang closed his discussion with an example from his own teaching, which took an initial, conventional (and therefore easy-to-plagiarize) essay assignment about Romantic poetry [cf. slides 12-14] and revised it so that students might organize, select, and organize the content for themselves, and finally justify their organization.  The assignment begins:
Identify and explain three major principles or practices of Romantic poetry, using evidence from the Romantic authors we have studied,
and then argue whether or not those principles or practices (should) remain important to us today.
In the course of justifying their arrangement of the materials, however, students must also commit themselves in one way or another to the values represented by their selection and organization. This forces them to develop an argument choosing from multiple, plausible alternatives; critique and select from these alternatives; and, finally, adopt and articulate a synthetic argument explicitly related to others’ arguments.  This is a much more demanding task than simply recalling something heard in a lecture or read in a textbook.

So why aren’t teaching and instruction organized around this kind of interaction between teacher and student more often?
As for myself, Friday’s talk was thought-provoking and reflective, but I was immediately mindful of some the questions that have recurred at UH since we started the CTE 16 months ago.
My biggest question was about how this model of low-stakes, high-frequency, authentic assignments might be brought to the STEM fields, for example, or more research-oriented classes in the humanities.  And frankly, the question of how appropriate feedback can occur in large, lecture-style classes is one that we in the CTE have been tackling in workshops ever since we were created last year.
So I would ask all the readers of this blog if they have devised successful ways to incorporate this kind of high-practice, low-stakes writing, and argumentation into their classroom practices, regardless of class size or discipline, and whether you have tracked the effect of such practices on academic dishonesty in your classes?  Any and all suggestions, comments, or further discussion are welcome.
Many thanks to James Lang for sharing his research and his thoughts with us last Friday.  I learned a great deal from our discussion.

2 Comments on “Teaching for Academic Integrity, James Lang’s Plenary Summary, Slides, and Notes, Oct. 14, 2011 (David Mazella)”

  1. Jim Lang says:

    Thanks for a great summary of the presentation, and the important issues, Dave. I want to point readers to a useful article in the Chronicle of Higher Education about high-tech cheating that addresses the issue you have mentioned in your final paragraph:


    The faculty member profiled in this article is an MIT professor of physics who detected high rates of cheating in his traditionally-structured STEM classroom. As a result, he changed his teaching style to the kind of active-learning, low-stakes environment which I advocated for in the presentation. As the article describes it:

    “Mr. Pritchard, the MIT professor, did find a way to greatly reduce cheating on homework in his classes. He switched to a “studio” model of teaching, in which students sit in small groups working through tutorials on computers while professors and teaching assistants roam the room answering questions, rather than a traditional lecture. With lectures, he detected cheating on about 11 percent of homework problems, but now he detects copying on only about 3 percent.”

    This model seems to me one which lands precisely on the nexus I am searching for in my research–the place where good teaching meets academic integrity.

    Thanks to all at the University of Houston for your hospitality, and I look forward to continued conversation!

    Jim Lang

  2. Dave Mazella says:

    Jim, thanks for the great link. Pritchard certainly seems to have taken the right lesson from his students’ behavior: if the current system rewards disengagement and superficial learning, switch to a different system. We have similar kinds of practices now in some of our math classes, and that faculty told me that she would rather have the students learn by doing than waste their time by talking. I think the key is giving students regular opportunities for practice and feedback, but note that these do not always, or necessarily, need to be graded by an instructor: there are a variety of ways to build that into groupwork and peer review, even in large classes.

    My feeling is that most of this pedagogy is not particularly difficult to understand or practice, but that instructors need to feel knowledgeable enough to try new ways of doing things, and comfortable enough to feel supported in the experiment by their higher-ups. (this came up in the failure panel, as well) In other words, investments in the people teaching such courses are much more important than investments in technology, though that can help, too.

    Nice to see you around here. Keep us posted on the progress of the book.



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