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.

James M. Lang, Author of On Course, to be the CTE’s Plenary Speaker this Coming Friday

I wanted to alert this blog’s readers that James M. Lang, author of On Course (Harvard UP, 2008), will be our CTE Conference Plenary Speaker this Friday morning from 9:30-11am in the Houston Room of the UC.  (For those interested in more information about Lang’s book, you will find an Inside Higher Ed article about Lang here, and a review of the book here.)

Lang’s address, which is entitled, “Speaking about Cheating: Teaching for Academic Integrity,” is drawn from his current research on cheating in higher education.

In the afternoon, Lang will serve as a respondent to our TA panel on “Mid-Course Corrections,” and UH TAs will use Chapter 11 of On Course, “Re-Energizing the Classroom,” as the basis of their discussion.  One of the reasons why I like this book so much is its recognition that teaching over a semester is in part a matter of physical and emotional stamina, and that good teachers know how to pace themselves, anticipate the moments when they and their students seem to run out of energy, and reserve a few strategies for exactly those moments when teachers need to switch up.

Among the ideas discussed in this chapter, my personal favorite  is what Lang calls “inkshedding”  (pp. 239-40), and it consists of asking each student in class to write freely for 5 minutes on the topic of the day, without interrupting themselves to judge, edit, or correct what they have done (this is what composition and rhetoric teachers call “free-writing.”  At the end of the five minutes, the students hand over their completed page to the next student, and write in response to the page they have just received, for another five minutes.  This goes on through several iterations, for about 20-25 minutes, so that all students have been engaged in a written debate with several class members in succession.  At that point, all the students, even the shyest ones, are ready to discuss the topic with one another in person.  This variation on low-stakes writing and group-work is a nice way to break up the dominance of the most verbally adept students in class discussions, and make sure that everyone’s contributions are heard and registered in a class.

So please come this Friday to hear James M. Lang speak about how we might teach in ways that reinforce academic integrity among our students.