Thursday, July 12, 2012

Dilemmas at the heart of academia - II

Making it easy on purpose

Over the years in introductory humanities courses, I have created a series of content quizzes to insure students actually have read the text prior to coming to class. With the advent of online sections, the quizzes are more to insure students actually procure a textbook.

Initially the quizzes were somewhat challenging, probably pegging an occasional level 3 on Bloom’s Taxonomy of challenge in test questions. But after years of enduring incessant whining about the “excessive” difficulty of the quizzes and the presumption of a right to challenge the answers (“But this is what I meant…”) I finally gave up this year and created an intentionally basic set of content quizzes at Bloom’s level 1:

The following artifact is a) the Pyramids, b) the Washington Monument, c) St. Peter’s Basilica, d) all of the above.

I give students 10 minutes for each 10 question quiz and require them to take two quizzes for each chapter, awarding them the higher of the two scores for the chapter. Not surprisingly, the weeping and gnashing of teeth largely subsided overnight and the quiz scores – and as a result, the final grades – soared. No doubt the customers are happy with these quizzes. It’s the format they’ve encountered since elementary school for which this level of challenge was actually designed. Grade inflation leveraged by empowered consumers triumphs again.

But I did not want to give away the entire farm with these revisions bearing in mind that the instructors are the only parties now being required to be responsible for student cheating. And so I wrote into the quiz instructions this explicit statement:

This is a closed book quiz. You will have only one attempt to answer the 10 multiple choice questions from the assigned material. You must answer each question before advancing to the next and you will not be able to return to previous questions.

In theory, preventing return to previous questions deters students from answering those they know, skipping those they don’t and returning to the skipped questions after looking them up. Of course, nothing prevents them from simply going through question by question with the text in hand other than time limitations. Ten minutes might be enough for some students to simply look up answers and avoid reading the text at all but in most cases it becomes prohibitive if they haven’t even glanced at the chapter.

But here’s the way I salvaged a shred of my own dignity in this process. The final question of the second quiz for each chapter asked the following:

(T/F)  On my honor as a UCF student and in accordance with the UCF Golden Rule, I hereby affirm that I have observed the conditions required for both A and B Quizzes (closed book and notes) and have neither given nor received aid from anyone or any source in taking these quizzes. I acknowledge that violation of this agreement constitutes grounds for failure, required attendance at the Academic Integrity Classes and/or expulsion from UCF.

My goal was to try to inject a bit of conscience into the process. Even as I assumed the students would probably cheat, I didn’t want them to walk away smugly self-satisfied. Indeed, in some cases, I figured it might even prompt some reflection if not a change in behaviors though I’m not holding my breath.

Not surprisingly, no student has checked false thus far.

An attempt at accountability

At the end of each semester, I have students complete a self-evaluation of their participation in the class. The point of the exercise is to try to get students to hold themselves accountable for their level of engagement or lack thereof in the class. Of course, given the decreasing levels of engagement that studies of undergraduate attitudes and behaviors are reporting among college students generally (and particularly at UCF whose only national ranking on the Princeton Review three years ago was #2 on “Students Never Study”) it’s probably not surprising that many report having “worked harder in this online course than any other.” What makes this frightening are the calculations I provide students each semester showing that the undistracted class activities, reading, discussions and prep work required in this class account for about half the time commitment of what a Carnegie Unit college course should be able to reasonably expect from college students.

If this class is excessive, what in the hell are they doing in their other classes?

The last question of the semester end self-evaluation includes the following question: I consistently read the quiz question about cheating and answered it honestly.  And here is where the dilemma arose.

While I have little doubt that the vast majority of students have, in fact, cheated on these quizzes at least once and then lied about that when asked on the quiz itself as well as on the semester-end self-evaluation, one of them appeared to have had a guilty conscience at the end (assuming the student was not acting out of a smug sense of impunity). The student answered as follows:

There were times when I was not honest about the quizzes.

Oops. Warning! System malfunction!

As I said to the student, this is an admission of cheating. And were that the only consideration, there would be no doubt that the student should be referred to the academic integrity course as a condition of graduation and perhaps failed in the class. The law is the law, right?

A text without a context….

But no events occur in a vacuum. And here are the horns of this particular dilemma. On the one hand, this student would never have been caught cheating had s/he not answered the question on the self-evaluation about cheating honestly. I’m a believer that honesty with oneself and others is always better late than never. But, even confessions in criminal proceedings, while often procured through a plea bargain to reduce charges or subsequent penalties, still result in punishment. Indeed, even confessions to a priest usually involve some form of penance.

On the other hand, it would seem patently unjust to punish one student for engaging in an act of candor and honesty about prior cheating while that student’s classmates indulged in unjust enrichment through dishonesty on the same question. That would seem to buy into the meta-lesson taught by the university that students are somehow entitled to cheat unless told otherwise as a means of advancing self-interest. It would also appear to teach a related meta-lesson that consistent dishonesty is always preferable to listening to one’s conscience and getting honest with oneself and others.

What to do?

Lawrence Kohlberg’s model of moral reasoning offers some guidance here. The conventional, stage 4 law and order response would simply be that an admission of guilt to cheating merits the full punishment prescribed by the law regardless of what anyone else did: “What if everyone did this?”

However, the post-conventional, stage 5 social contract approach, while affirming the importance of the law, always recognizes the role that context plays in any violation of that law. It is true the student violated the rules and admitted to the same. Thus, some form of punishment is merited. But, it is also true that the student admitted the violation and evidenced a modicum of remorse. Moreover, this student violated the same rule as many, if not most, of the student’s classmates violated with impunity but faced no punishment because they were willing to lie about their misconduct.

Making an example of a human being is almost always a flawed approach to law enforcement. It violates Kant’s categorical imperative of treating a human being as an end unto him/herself and not a means to another end. It also says that a socially constructed rule or law is more important than the human being in question. That’s a dangerous road to start down as examples from the Gulag Archipelago to the bowels of Abu Ghraib prison readily inform us.

Avoiding the easy out of scapegoating?

So, here are the options. 1. Failing the student  2. Reducing the grade to reflect the cheating  3. Reporting  the incident to Student Disciplinary Services  4. Requiring attendance at the academic integrity course making graduation (which in this case was to occur this semester) contingent upon completion of the course  5. Sending the student a nasty letter saying “You shouldn’t have…” 6. Ignoring the whole thing.  

What would you do?

There are some who will no doubt see anything other than one or more of options 1-4 as too lenient with the result of reinforcing the very behaviors the rules seek to prevent. But I would suggest that this moral indignation might be better placed. Why not focus it on a system that encourages cheating, a university which presumes dishonesty among its students while placing the burden for academic integrity entirely on its instructors? Why not question the entire enterprise of offering college courses which readily serve as online cheating factories?

Clearly it is easier to scapegoat an instructor with a sense of justice or a single student who had a better-late-than-never change of heart about academic honesty than to deal with the system which gave birth to the dilemma.  Scapegoating permits the projection of shadow onto the designated figure to be punished for our sins while avoiding any kind of reflection on the shadow content within the morally indignant. Scapegoating always protects the dysfunctional context in which infractions occur from any kind of critical reassessment and the necessary changes thus indicated even as it continues to produce the same pathological results.

The truth is, I have given up any hopes for substantive changes in the values or the resulting behavior of either the university or the students it now draws. The former long ago sold its soul to corporate imperatives, assuaging its conscience with the hollow hype of public relations. The latter has largely devolved into craven consumerism and an amoral superficiality reflected in grade points. I’ve also long since given up any dreams that the university might actually be a place where values are seriously considered, where personal and social development is seen as one of the goals of higher education. Credentials factories simply don’t lend themselves to much moral development. Besides, corporations don’t want morally reflective human beings anyway, they want minimally trained, obedient workers.

Given that reality, true justice must be meted out in the most equitable manner possible under the circumstances, even if it might mean that a lot of cheaters will in fact prosper and an honest malefactor will face less punishment than s/he deserved. For whatever else you can say about this dilemma, it is the instructor who must live with his own conscience at the end of the day.

Socrates wept.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

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