Monthly Archives: September 2016

Blog Period 1 plagiarism: the numbers

Students are prone to plagiarism when blogging. This year I made extraordinary efforts to head that off.

The grading is now all done for Blog Period 1. Five possible plagiarism cases were identified. One of these was a false positive, three were teetering on the edge of disaster but hadn’t quite gone there, and one was egregious and I am now pursuing that as an Academic Integrity Violation.

This time last year, three possible cases were identified and all three had to be pursued through the violation process. So that is two fewer AI cases this year. Maybe, just maybe, worth the pain?

Extra credit calculations: when FAIL is not a fail.

This is a generic answer to the emails we are getting about the extra credit on Angel.

OK, you asked: Extra credit is up to a total of 10% (syllabus p.4). We have to enter it into the Extra Credit category in Angel.  Angel calculates scores in each category out of 100. The categories are added together to get the overall grade using the weighting algorithm (syllabus p.4).  Thus, when we award 1% extra credit, it has to be entered as 10% within Extra Credit category ([10/100]*0.1=1%). That means that when you earn, for example, 1% extra credit, we add 10% to the Extra Credit category. That shows with a great big (and very disheartening) FAIL sign next to it if you have less than 6% extra credit. That is because Angel knows that on this course, anything below 60% is a fail (and it is…but with the exception of extra credit, which is a bonus and so by definition can’t be failed — Angel is dumb-ass like that). Angel will stop showing Extra Credit as a FAIL if you accumulate more than 6% extra credit (=60% of the Extra Credit category). But whatever: even if you never accumulate 60%, and so Angel is still showing you as a Fail in the Extra Credit category when the course is all over and the dust settles, the extra credit you earned will still be added to the final grade.

Like I say, you asked.

Going phone-less: the first experiment

There is growing and pretty persuasive evidence that cell phones are toxic to learning, consistent with common sense and experience. So how to get phones out of the classroom (or at least into airplane mode?). Laptop bans are easy. Phone bans not so.

At the end of last year, I discussed with the class what it would take for them to part with their phones. They said 1% extra credit. I discussed it with this years class Tuesday and there were no objections so today we tried it. The mechanics of that: students put their name on a form we provided and then they put that and their silenced phones into a plastic bag we provided, and then they gave the whole package to the TAs.

This is what it looks like when 300 students try to do that.

this is one of the three lines that developed

This is one of the three lines that developed

The view from the back

The view from the back

And this is what 300+ bagged phones looks like.


During class, one phone fell to the floor (drawing a stunned reaction from the students – more striking than any reaction to what I say)…but we lost no phones, broke none, and so far as I know, swapped none.

So it can be done. But it took 7 minutes into class time before it was all in hand, and I cut class short at the end to make sure the returns worked ok. Sadly, that meant I skipped a pop quiz which would have given me hard data on what proportion of the class surrendered their phones. It looked to me like everyone did. And pedagogically? My sense was that the class was paying more attention to what I was saying today. But maybe they were suffering separation anxiety.

The return process…well that was so chaotic, and I was so scared a phone would be crushed or dropped that I completely forgot to take photo of it all…. And was that fear I saw in the eyes of the TAs supervising the process?

Conclusion: not obviously the way to go. I have yet to think of a better way. But this way sure made the classroom social for a while. And I learned that 300 students milling around is a much bigger scene than 300 students sitting down.

Andrew Read

September 22, 2016

The plagiarism test. 14 questions. The students got to do it has many times as they wanted but they had to get 100%, and once they did, the test was dead to them.

I just noticed on the computer log: the 360 students managed to submit the test a total of 2,685 times.

Blog Period 1 results: a tale of procrastination

Inaction dominates the results.

Of 353 students, fully 86 did nothing at all. A further 84 did so little, they failed. On top of that, there were 85 D’s. Oh my.

More positively, lets focus on the students who engaged. We awarded 2 A-s, 2 B+, 12 B-, 25 C+, 45 C‘s. And among the students who did enough to pass, the average grade was 71% (C). On the face of it, not too terrific either, but I feel ok about it at this stage. If students could take on a new learning exercise and do well from the get-go, what would be the point of the exercise? We want to teach critical thinking and expression of that critical thinking, and that takes some practicing.

Significant improvement will happen. Each student gets personalized feedback, and I will go over some generic things in class next Tuesday. But for now, one of the graders listed the most common faults as:

  • Bad sources lacking scientific research
  • Summarizing a single article by a journalist
  • Unfocused posts that read like a stream of consciousness and don’t have a main idea or organization
  • Statements like “I read about x and you can too, (link)” without any discussion.

Students who think hard about the feedback, take a good hard look at the rubric, study examples of good practice (rather than examples of average or less than average work which by definition dominates the blog), think about the advice of the TAs (Brian, Abby from 2015), chose topics with some teeth and put some effort in…well, the improvements can be spectacular.

A couple of students did do very well from the off, and I look forward to seeing what they do when they really pull it out of the bag. I especially liked An Apple a DayPets to the Rescue and Is Your 8am Harmful? were also pretty good. I might teach a session on Will Joining Greek Life Increase My Drinking? — that seems like a question to catch this audiences’ eye, and an analysis ripe with confounding variables. And I continue to be pleased by the thought some people put into evaluating the safety of what they do to themselves in the name of fashion.

Of course, for procrastinators (roughly half the class), doing even enough to pass would be a hugely significant improvement…

Get busier…?

marathon-manOne of my grad students, in response to my last post, suggests that the secret to getting organized is to get busier. Take up a sport, she said. And I think there is something in that. Athletes are hugely time efficient (so are working moms). I’ve noticed the pinnacle of my own time management occurs when I have an international flight to catch. In the days before, I prioritize, cut the procrastination, plan my time, look for worthy shortcuts, drop the bullshit and dithering, cross unimportant things off the to-do list and nail the mission-critical tasks. Why can’t I maintain that 24/7?

Extra credit for getting organized

This year I decided that part of my responsibility as an instructor was to try to develop good work habits in the students, not least time management. So I offered 1% extra credit to students who fulfilled the blogging requirement in Blog Period 1 and a further 2% if they got it done early.

(There are three Blog Periods, and I take the best score from three, so they don’t have to blog in the first period — but they would be nuts not to, since the required amount of work is least for the first Blog Period and the personalized feedback we give sets them up for a good score in Blog Period 2…. and, and, maybe most importantly, who [really, who?] would want to be working in Blog Period 3, the end of the semester when every other course has work that needs handing in, finals are looming and flu season sets in??????).

Incredibly, just 12% of the class managed to get the work done early. More amazing, 40% of the class did not do the required work.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is why students need to be taught time management. procrastinate-now-and-panic-later-20

Getting better

This is the actual hat I use....

This is the actual hat I use in class…….

I like students answering questions I pose in class, but it tends to be the same minority who stick up their hands. I have tried cold-calling people, but that terrifies some and is unfair to those with speech disabilities. So this year I decided to offer up to 2% extra credit for students who opted-in to have their names in a hat for me to pick at random.

A little under a third of the class opted in. I was pretty pleased with that — it gives me 100 or so people, more than enough to make a classroom work. But it was amazing to me that >60% of the class doesn’t want 2% extra credit just for answering a question or two (and I made clear that ‘I don’t know’ would be a perfectly reasonable answer). I don’t know of too many professions where public speaking of some sort is not essential. And public speaking is something to practice. Answering questions in class is a safe, easy way to practice. I tell my grad students to try to ask a question in each research seminar they go to — even the exercise of trying to come up with a question sharpens the mind.

download-34So many of the skills that employers want can be easily honed by students themselves. The shy and under confident have it in their hands to become good public speakers. I have known several students who began their PhDs so terrified of public speaking, they would vomit before giving research talks. One of them solved the problem this way: she took up stand-up comedy. No kidding. In open-mic comedy clubs, with drunk people in the audience. Even more, she took up stand-up comedy about scienceBallsy or what?

She will surely go far.

What I've done this year to try to head off plagiarism

Dear Academic Integrity Committee

After last year’s fiasco regarding plagiarism on the class blog, I thought a great deal about what to do this year. Particularly helpful were discussions with the STEM Gen Ed discussion group (their horror stories also added to my motivation). Several articles I was directed to had an impact (1, 2, 3, 4), as did the advice of the ever energetic Julia Kregenow who has actually done courses on promoting academic integrity in our student body (sad that such courses have to exist, but good that she does them and passes on accumulated wisdom). So these are the changes I instituted.

  • Whenever I was discussing plagiarism in class, I asked the students to turn off their phones. Phone-induced inattention was the only alternative explanation for one of last year’s cases (though I still maintain that case was just plain and simple dishonesty).
  • I instituted a fourteen question plagiarism test, which tested the students knowledge of what plagiarism is, what good and bad practice looks like, how the policy and penalties are implemented on SC200, and resources to turn to. I took much pleasure in using as examples of bad practice the writing you got to see last year, and more pleasure showcasing a blog post from a student who really could write complex things in her own words because she the took the time to understand what she was writing about.
  • I required students to get 100% on the plagiarism  test. They got as many goes to do it as they wanted, and the test was live on Angel for six days.
  • That test ended six days before the end of the first blog period, and I made clear in class that anyone who had realized that they might have stepped over the line could still edit out the plagiarism before the first blog period deadline.
  • I refused to grade any blog work for anyone until they achieved 100% on the plagiarism test. This meant 21 students were excluded from Blog Period 1.
  • In the syllabus, I greatly extend my discussion of academic integrity and in particular, the discussion on plagiarism. In class, I implored the students to read that discussion, although we know of course that most never read that part of syllabi. But I know you do when you are reviewing the cases I bring to you. I hope you like the wording this year. Personal highlights:
    • I tried to be as positive as I could (“My promises to you…”)
    • I tried to explain why cheating is bad, beyond the risk of getting caught.
    • I tried to make clear what is honest work, and what is cheating.
    • I made very clear my sources, and made clear that much of the wording was lightly edited from Julia’s syllabi, used with permission.
  • In the syllabus, I made explicit the penalty for plagiarism on the blog. I did this to make it clear to the students how serious this is and more importantly to limit wiggle room when we (me and you) are post-hoc trying to figure out what penalty to impose. I think it important that the penalty be very significant, totally transparent and applied equally to all offenders. The bottom line is that on SC200, plagiarists will get a maximum score for the entire course of a C+ on first offense. In practice, their score will likely be a lot lower and they may even struggle to pass.
  • Most onerously, I made it clear that if anyone wanted to use anyone else’s words in a blog post or comment, they had to email me before hand, explain why and get my express permission. This was Jackie Bortiatynski‘s suggestion. It generated a lot of email, but also made clear to me that many students really do have to be taught what is fair citation practice and what is plagiarism. If all the e-traffic heads off even one offender, that will have been more time efficient than bringing a student before you.
  • I reduced the workload in all Blog periods, but especially Blog Period 1. There is a strong indication that students are tempted to cheat if, close to a deadline, they find an overwhelming amount of work and not enough time to do it in. So I cut the number of required posts and comments from 5 and 13 to 3 and 10 for the first blog period, and made it 5 and 15 for the other two Blog Periods (from 6 and 16). I am not sure what I make of challenging students less in order to try to prevent a cheating few.
  • I discussed in class how much time blog posts might take, so students who left it close to the deadline would not be taken by surprise. I got the TAs to join this discussion, so current SC200 students could hear the experience of former SC200 students.
  • I added extra credit for students who blogged ahead of deadlines.
  • I added extra credit to encourage students to post in the first blog period so they would not be overwhelmed in later blog periods.
  • I said in class, and restated in an email to the class: If you ever feel even the slightest hint of temptation to commit plagiarism, don’t….. Instead, reach out to me. I am always available to discuss any circumstances that got you to the point of thinking about it. But not after it has happened. Once you have tried to pass someone else’s work off as your own, whatever the circumstances, I will begin academic violation procedures, as described in the syllabus.

These were on top of the things I did in previous years, namely I

  • discussed plagiarism in class, using examples from past class blogs of bad and good practice, and making clear the severity of the issue and the consequences of commiting plagiarism,
  • took class attendance on the day that discussion happened so we know who was there to listen to the class discussion, and
  • e-mailed the class discussing the seriousness of plagiarism, how to recognize it, avoid it, and reiterating the details in the syllabus.

Today is the deadline for the First Blog Period. So as the graders and the plagiarism software go to work, we will discover over the next week if all this has made any difference. We discovered three serious cases last year, two egregious beyond belief. I hope all my extra efforts this year lead to zero cases. And that if it does not, and I again find myself in front of you, that all this extra work means we can more efficiently and fairly penalize the offenders.