July 23, 2011

Standards in Higher Education In Question

Did you hear about the recent experience of an NYU professor who caught 20% of his class cheating? [Read this account here, and here, "Why I will never pursue cheating again"; Here's the NYU prof's points for debate as he sees them.]

Well, that's not news, but what most people may not know is how higher-ed institutions deal with cheating. It's a problem but it's hush-hush. Obviously, like many other trespasses in life, not all (cheating) is the same. Looking over the shoulder of a classmate to sneak in a look at a multiple choice answer isn't the same as submitting a plagiarized major research paper, or using a smart phone to write paragraph after paragraph in verbatim during a final exam.

You'd think cheaters are punished, and their transcript would indicate the serious violation, or that there's a record somewhere, etc. Not so. Actually, there's little risk in cheating, because of several factors. One is that many instructors aren't interested in catching cheaters, while others willfully believe their students would never cheat.

Catching cheaters creates a headache, paperwork, and may reduce the number of majors/minors in the department!  It hurts student-teacher evaluations too. Just as it hurts if the instructor is "too demanding." Usually, such instructors are labeled "hard" and "unreasonable," best to be avoided. Confidentiality about a student's record means that if a teacher catches a cheater, and if he decides to assess a penalty, the student can avoid taking any courses with that teacher again. That's all. And, this student isn't prevented from saying anything he wants about the teacher on the evaluation form at the end of the semester.

The situation has gotten so bad that there's a prevailing audacity among some students; they get indignant when caught cheating. "At least I didn't copy from others like several students did during your final exam," was the response I got from a student who had used his smart phone to copy paragraphs from Wikipedia when I confronted him!

"Did the instructor make you interested in the subject matter?" asks one of evaluation questions. This means that if a student takes a course for which they have no interest (and usually aren't likely to put some effort into it), the instructor can be at fault for not managing to raise the excitement level. I've seen this in my Rate My Professor comments: "The course was boring, it was all over the place, about politics and stuff, not my major anyways." Well, I'm sorry I didn't play a movie and provide popcorn but lectured instead.

The institution also shies away from supporting the instructor fearing lawsuits from the students who are accused of cheating. So, unless you catch someone cheating during the exam (and even so, you'll probably need another student willing to ..testify), there isn't any circumstantial evidence that would suffice!  Let's throw out all the forensic science, because, unless you see someone pulling the trigger, such person is innocent regardless of the overwhelming evidence. It matters less and less whether the instructor can safely ascertain whether the student has learned anything from taking a course...

I've had a student who wrote paragraph after paragraph in verbatim from the textbook during a proctored exam. When I confronted this student, I was told that it was their way of learning (by memorizing word for word, paragraph after paragraph). OK, fair enough. Perhaps the student could then recite something for me to demonstrate acquired knowledge.

Guess what? That student couldn't recite anything just one day after the exam, because he had "dumped" his memory after the final! Yes, this is how he.. reasoned with me. I'm probably not shocking anyone if I also mention that this student couldn't use his own words to show me he had understood at least enough to pass the course.

Further, my esteemed colleagues lectured me that unless I had ..absolute proof, I couldn't accuse that student of cheating! They reminded me that if the student decided to sue the university, I would be on my own, not supported by the school and would have to get my own lawyer!  Needless to say that this whole matter was draining--in time and energy--and it's not something teachers want to experience. Thus, most teachers just look the other way and reason that if they students don't want to learn it's their problem. I guess it's true that attitudes and habits stay with a person; eventually they'll shape a person's success in life. Meanwhile we certify and pass young people along down a road of higher life expectations with lower standards and skills.

That NYU professor mentioned earlier was a tenured one, so he thought he could be a bit stricter. What, then, should the other non-tenured and adjunct instructors do? Silence is probably golden here. The lower(ing) standards are a matter of concern for many teachers, however, for the non-tenured ones, at least, if they want to advance, they should avoid making too much noise catching serious cheaters, and avoid creating headaches for their institution. A few pats on the back by understanding colleagues are nice but can't offset the real danger of stirring trouble in an institution.

Teaching is intertwined with the economic realities of life--realities for the school and the faculty--they both need income to survive. Higher-ed schools are lowering their standards. It's a numbers game. I see that the marketing to attract students has changed too. College is now more about "a fun experience" with emphasis on non-curriculum activities and less on academics, or the value of knowledge and fostering a critical mind. It's increasingly more vocational training and less of a well-rounded education. This is attitude-forming too. Courses outside a major are considered a nuisance by students.

Again, as for dealing with the problem of cheating, proper class decorum, and maintaining high academic standards, things are getting worse. It seems that if an institution (or a person) doesn't want to hear unpleasantries, then it's no use pointing them out; it's not advisable to throw salt into a wound. Once a dynamic is created, it's hard to change, and looking the other way is standard practice. Kill the messenger is a safer practice in many places. Maybe the tenured senior faculty at the edge of retirement can do something about this problem by speaking out. You'd hope.

Yet, even these senior faculty don't want "to get dirty"as they feel such concerns are for the younger faculty to consider. These seniors exhibit a mindset like, I'm soon retiring so I'd rather not get too upset now; let the ..others worry about it. Except "the others" are either non-tenured or they've understood that advancement does not depend on pointing out endemic problems. Heck it's not even teaching that counts anymore. Being a recluse doing research and being published is where the institutional rewards come from.

Meanwhile, I'm witnessing the rapid increase in pages of my course syllabi. I'm adding stuff I didn't think as necessary before in order to guard myself against possible problems. For example, I now clarify that if a student doesn't use his/her own words to write an essay to answer an exam question, it won't be acceptable.  This is so, because if I don't catch a student cheating during an exam, at least the plagiarized material won't be demanded as an acceptable answer.

Some of my colleagues include warnings in the syllabus, like, no chewing gum, eating, sleeping, surfing, texting/talking on the phone in class. It seems that there's no common sense anymore. Maybe soon I'll have to include, no pissing in class, can't start a fire, etc....

PS> Let me clear: Except for the NYU case, which is now viral on the internet(s), the rest of the material here is fictional, as I'm practicing writing a sitcom script for life in the academia. It's for entertainment purposes only.

1 comment:

ghassan karam said...

You are absolutely right in suggesting that it is all about economics.:-) When institutions of higher learning have to compete with each other for students then it is only natural that less attention will be paid to "education" and more to the "bells and whistles".
Thomas Sowell wrote a column last week in which he argued that Too much of a good thing is bad. One of his major examples is higher education. The only way that you can expect everyone to be a college graduate is to lower the standards. It is as simple as that.