08 July 2010


Education at both the high school and college levels has metamorphosed dramatically since I was a student in the 1960s (high school) and the 1980s (college). Our technology included pencils, our brains, and (in advanced math) slide rules. We were hot stuff. And we learned.

Now handheld calculators, notebook computers, cell phones with cameras, and internet access have transformed the landscape of learning. Most university and many high school classes would regard being deprived of technology with the same distaste as writing an essay on the Crimean War. Yet these new tools do more than enhance the educational experience. They also present new opportunities for those who are willing to trade their integrity to enhance their grades -- by cheating on exams, and by plagiarizing on take-home assignments. Trip Gabriel describes the technological arms race between cheaters and those who try to prevent (or at least catch) them.

I've never understood the urge to cheat. It defeats the purpose of an exam -- to demonstrate the breadth and depth of one's understanding of a subject. If you're going to fake the answers, how will that serve you when you need those answers later in life? What's the point? Once you're out on your own, you can't fake life. You either know Spanish or you don't. You're either proficient at math or you're not. If you didn't learn the difference between mitosis and meiosis in biology, you're sunk. And god help us all if you cheated to get your private pilot's license.

The rationalization for cheating is to pass by the skin of one's teeth, to graduate, to get a better job. Money and prestige. To which I say, horsefeathers. As a student, I would much rather have the satisfaction of knowing I've learned something on my own, and learned it well. If I fall short, that tells me where I need to focus more carefully. Simple. And in the end, a prospective employer is going to realize that you don't know all that you claim to know.

As a teacher of high school students in science and math in the early 1990s in suburban Philadelphia, I brought my old school standards to the classroom. We spent adequate time in learning and preparation and practice-practice-practice. I took an interdiciplinary approach to make things more interesting and more relevant. I was always available for tutoring after school. And when it came to quizzes and tests, I made it clear (in writing) from the first day of class that no cheating would be tolerated. No exceptions, no second chances. If I caught you cheating, you received an automatic grade of zero for that test.

My tests were carefully prepared -- a mix of multiple choice, true/false and short essay questions, with one or two bonus questions at the end to boost their morale and test their mettle (the bonus questions were a little harder, but there was no penalty for a wrong answer). I encouraged my kids to study together before a test, but during testing they were on their own. It helped that at the private school where I taught, class size was usually 12-15 students. My kids knew I meant business, because I was always firm, fair and consistent with them. Rarely did a student try to get away with cheating. Those who did were caught, and accepted the consequences without rancor.

At the start of each semester, I administered an ungraded evaluation test, just to see where the students' strengths and weaknesses lay, so that I could tailor my teaching accordingly. If a student in beginning algebra was weak in basic math skills, they had to do refresher study to get up to speed. The most common complaint in response to having to go back over old material was "I already TOOK fractions (or decimals, or whatever)." Yes, but you didn't LEARN them. Now it's time to learn, or you'll be hopelessly at sea in the more advanced work. They hated it, since previous teachers had let them slide. But they did it, and were generally grateful that I'd stood firm with them.

It's a shame that in one area, I wasn't able to impose the standards under which I'd grown up. If my Swiss cheese memory serves correctly, my generation had to reach a high percentage of correct answers in order to qualify for a given letter grade. By the time I'd become a teacher, those standards had been lowered. To wit:

A ~ 95-100%
B ~ 90-95
C ~ 80-89
D ~ 75-79
F ~ below 75

A ~ 90-100%
B ~ 80-89
C ~ 70-79
D - 60-69
F ~ below 60

As noted in a previous post, lowering the bar is a disservice to students, to teachers, and to society. Which is why so many among the current generation of graduates struggles with basic math, has little comprehension of science, uses language like a pre-teen, and knows no history. Shakespeare? Sigh.

Well, to raise the mood a bit, check out this charming video, Non-Newtonian Fluid on a Speaker Cone. Cornstarch moistened to the consistency of thin pudding has unexpected qualities, explained here.

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