Friday, February 29, 2008

Preventing Plagiarism

A perennial problem, no doubt, is plagiarism. My approach to this has been to point out my university's academic integrity policy, and, as we are required to do, include it on the syllabus. I also mention it the first day. I've wanted to avoid making a big deal of this issue, especially on the first day, but I'm now rethinking this.

I have had students simply turn in entire papers that they downloaded off of the internet. These cases are fairly easy to deal with. I have more trouble, however, when a student has a sentence or two lifted from a website that I find via a quick Google search, but the rest appears to be their own work. I also wonder how much our students understand about what constitutes plagiarism, as I watch my own children use the internet to look up words, historical figures, and so on for their assignments. I've decided to start using SafeAssignments, a service our university uses to detect plagiarism. However, a more important question in my mind is how do prevent this in the first place? I know some professors spend a day or two crafting a policy in cooperation with the class. Has anyone tried this, or something else that has been effective?

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Leow and Liptoning

Rachel Leow's a historian, not a a philosopher, but she has a short post on teaching that I imagine will resonate with ISW readers anyway. Indeed, there are some challenges in the classroom that seem universal, regardless of the subject matter:

Things I should think about, though, for future teaching experiences: how to ask the right sorts of questions that make it easy for a student to elaborate a thought they’re in the process of having; how to encourage students to speak to one another; how to gently guide a wayward conversation back on track; how to tie threads of discussion into each other. How to speak in a way that helps students take notes; how to lace my opening comments with well-delineated points that can act as handles for the rest of the discussion that our thoughts can keep coming back to. How to give good ‘take-home’ messages: to think specifically about what I want the student to take away from the class. How not to talk too much.

Leow has also coined the verb 'to lipton,' in memory of the late philosopher of science Peter Lipton. It's good to have a name for this, since it's a skill that I wish I had in greater abundance and admire to no end:

To Lipton, I have told people, is to listen to the most garbled, incoherent, muddle-headed drivel that periodically emits from a student or otherwise member of an audience, and to restate it back at them in the most crystal clear terms, so that whatever point hidden in its murky depths is rescued & borne out of the swamps of obfuscation to receive enlightenment from high … seriously. Liptoning also involves clarifying complexity with enviable panache, but always without an iota of hubris — always that incredible modesty and respect for what one does not know — in short, to be an ideal teacher and thinker. What a gift!

A gift indeed.

List o' links

After too much procrastination, I finally put up a list of links to resources on teaching philosophy (scroll down, look right). I invite our readers to contact any ISW contributor if you know of a resource we might link to. Thanks!

Monday, February 18, 2008

The flip side of grade inflation?

Over at Cliopatria, Hugo Schwyzer has a surprising post about instructor evaluation inflation. Schwyzer (a historian, for the record) recently got a batch of his teaching evaluations back. The results:

A summary, prepared by the division dean, was attached to the front. Five of my seven classes were evaluated; a total of 211 students participated by turning in evaluations. Students were allowed to rate their profs as "Outstanding", "Good", "Average", "Poor", or "Failing." My ratings (and you'll just have to take my word for it) were

Outstanding: 84%
Good: 15%
Average: 1%
Poor: 0%
Failing: 0%

Now, lest you think I write only to brag, note what else was in my summary: the details of the college and departmental averages for all full-time faculty. The college reports the following ratings for some four hundred professors evaluated campus-wide last fall:

Outstanding: 65%
Good: 28%
Average: 6%
Poor: 1%
Failing: <1%

Clearly, grade inflation works both ways! 93% of the faculty ranks above average. 65% of us are outstanding, which raises an obvious question about what it is that so many of us can be standing out from! What on earth does "average" mean when only 6% of full-time faculty fall into that category?

Is Schwyzer right? Are we the beneficiaries of evaluation inflation as pernicious as the grade inflation so many of us deride? To the extent that student evaluations of teaching are valid (and to show my hand here, my view is "more valid than people think, but limited and not perfectly reliable"), does this phenomenon, if real, render them useless?
I gather that the compression of results toward the high end makes distinguishing among the good and competent instructors challenging, but maybe the upshot is that the utility of these evaluations derives from the bottom end: If 'outstanding' is the norm, then how terrible an instructor do you have to be to get dubbed 'poor' or 'failing'?

I have to say that Schwyzer's post motivates me to go back and look at my own evaluation data and look at the disciplinary norms at my institution. How are matters where you teach — has the Lake Wobegon effect, as Schwyzer dubs it — kicked in?

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Learning and Motivation, part III: "The illusion of comprehension"

(This is the third post on Marilia Svinicki's Learning and Motivation in the Postsecondary Classroom. Here are part I, on how learners come to question or abandon their existing beliefs., and part II, on how to get students to feel comfortable with intellectual risk taking.)

Svinicki's sixth chapter addresses what I suspect is a fairly common phenomenon in philosophy classrooms: "the illusion of comprehension," i.e., when students believe they have mastered some skill, body of knowledge, etc., only to witness themselves failing to demonstrate their mastery in subsequent learning tasks. It's the "I understood when you explained it in class" phenomenon. Svinicki traces this illusion to various factors:

  • Students confuse superficial familiarity with deep knowledge. I suppose an example of this might be the student who can recite the definition of argumentative validity but cannot recognize it in arguments.
  • Students study in ways that reinforce this illusion. Introductory students who study by memorizing material from flashcards are likely to be surprised come test time when they are asked to analyze evidence, extend their knowledge to new problems, defend claims, and the like.
  • Students listen to expert depictions of knowledge and assume that their comprehension is like that of the experts.
Svinicki's chapter describes ways in which we instructors can unwittingly encourage or consciously counteract this illusion via the sort of feedback we provide. In other words, she pursues this question: How can we provide feedback that encourages students to accurately self-monitor their learning (instead of ending up with the illusion of understanding)? This seems like a crucial question inasmuch as students who succumb to this illusion are likely to experience academic life as a series of frustrations or failures: They may study ardently, etc. — probably using methods inappropriate to the material they're trying to master — and end up falling short of their expectations. And my experience has been that students often do repeat the same mistakes again and again, somehow expecting that their existing learning strategies will work better than they have in the past.

I won't say much about Svinicki's particular suggestions for encouraging accurate self-monitoring. But I was struck by this passage:
Students must learn better way to monitor their own understanding while they're learning, and we must structure our class time so that these false senses of understanding will not survive. The first step in combating students' illusion of knowing is to confront them on a regular basis with evidence of their knowing or lack of it. (120)

This relates to our earlier discussion about students' "falling without getting hurt." How can we get students to confront the gaps in their knowledge in positive ways, ways that aren't discouraging or humiliating? For one, I've become a big fan of ungraded quizzes, allowing students to get a bead on the state of their own knowledge without it counting against the bottom line grade.

But does anyone out there have other ideas as to how to confront students with evidence of their not knowing in ways that help students and motivate them?

Monday, February 11, 2008

Teaching Necessary and Sufficient Conditions and Others with Examples

I came across this post at Show-Me the Argument, the blog of Mizzou philosophy grad students. I often find that it can take a while for some of these things to click in the minds of my students. Offering a variety of examples is one good way to get the desired result. Apart from the ones at the Mizzou blog, does anyone have some especially effective examples in this area that you'd like to share?

Thursday, February 7, 2008

The Reading Brain

Do our students have radically different cognitive structures than ourselves?

The December 24th issue of the New Yorker contained a 'Critic at Large,' piece by Caleb Crain, 'Twilight of the Books." I've been haunted by it. The principal point is not that the newer generations are reading less, which we already knew. It is that they are reading differently. The truly frightening suggestion is that such differences make a difference at the cognitive level for developmental reasons. From a young age, people are encouraged to hone the skills required for, say, reading a technical manual, while the skills required for reading a novel or a piece of philosophy (e.g., imaginative capacities) are left undeveloped. We know that some cognitive functions - language use in particular - has a "window" beyond which the capacity for engaging and strengthening that capacity is lost. It's presumably a function of the plasticity of mind.

In my introduction to philosophy course I do some basic formal and informal logic for the first few weeks. I have been surprised to find that the one skill they truly struggle with is finding counterexamples to claims. So, for example, I will give them a claim such as "All art is beautiful," or "If something is alive and capable of motion, then it is an animal." They really struggle to find counterexamples to these sorts of claims. I'm not surprised when introductory students find philosophy or even basic formal logic alien. I am surprised when they find it difficult to do something which I thought would be relatively second nature. Evidence for the possibilities raised in "Twilight of the Books,"?

Perhaps. There is also the well known psychological bias that when a human recognizes some previously unnoticed phenomenon, she begins to see it everywhere. I hope that this more optimistic reading is the case.

But it highlights a further thought, for me: we are often asked to conform our teaching to the "learning styles" of our students and to their "learning differences." I should hope that there are some limits to this. I would not like to conform my teaching to accommodate this particular learning style. In addition, to take the not-so-optimistic view, the empirical evidence may show that an eighteen-year-old whose imaginative and analytical capacities have, so to speak ossified, may never be able to recover them so matter how skillful her teachers are.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Recommending students do what they shouldn't do

Is it ever ethically defensible for an instructor to decline a student's request to write a letter of recommendation? I don't have in mind two common situations where it's probably defensible to decline because you'd write a 'bad' letter: either you don't know the student well enough to write a credible or well-informed letter, or you know the student too well and the only letter you could honestly write would be sufficiently negative that it would hurt the student's chances. I have in mind situations where you might decline for paternalistic reasons.

Let me describe two such situations I recently faced:
  1. A student asked me to write a letter of recommendation so that she could transfer to a local private college. She is an above average but not great student, so I'd put her chances of admission at 50-50. But I have very little respect for the college she's considering and would not recommend students attend there: Its reputation is as a playground for bored, well-to-do southern California kids; its faculty is rather undistinguished; and it costs five times as much as the public university where I teach. The student is under the impression that a degree from this college will prove more prestigious or lucrative.
  2. A talented student who had long been considering graduate study in philosophy or religious studies unexpectedly asked me to write a letter in support of applications to law school. This student has a very scholarly demeanor and would probably have a rewarding academic career. It emerged in conversation that his parents don't support his pursuing the academic path and are pushing him toward a legal career. I honestly believe that he'd be unhappy as a lawyer and that path would be time and money ill used.

In both cases, I ended up writing the letters but wonder if it's permissible for me to say no: My reasons are obviously paternalistic. I ought to promote my students' well-being and respect their autonomous choices (though in situation 2, those choices aren't so obviously autonomous) so long as those choices do not themselves involve or support unethical conduct. But in writing students these letters I'm more than not interfering with those choices; I'm actually promoting the ends they have chosen. And am I obligated to do so even when, in my considered professional judgment, those ends are not the best ends for them to pursue? I think of letter writing as part of an imperfect duty of beneficence, but isn't that duty best fulfilled by my assisting students in ways that will actually prove beneficial to them? Certain analogous situations come to mind: I've dissuaded students from becoming philosophy majors on paternalistic grounds and I've refused to admit students to my overenrolled courses because the course would simply be too difficult for them. I feel fairly confident that those are justified instances of paternalism. Does declining to write recommendation letters in these situations fall into a similar ethical category?