Saturday, April 18, 2015

"Cheating" in the Google Generation

Do you remember the girl in your class who tried to squeeze all the dates for the History test onto the palm of her hand so she could surreptitiously sneak a peak at them during the exam? Or the one who drilled his buddy from the other Biology section with questions about the same test that he was about to take? These were the typical cheating behaviors I witnessed as a student in the late 80's/early 90's. While these behaviors haven't gone away, they have been supplemented by what many consider an entirely new form of "cheating." Googling. In the last week, I have had two separate conversations with fellow staff members about cheating incidents at our school, and they both involved online information. The instructors were rightly frustrated that the students were trying to take short cuts in their learning, however in the back of my mind, I was struggling to be entirely sympathetic. You see, I don't feel that accessing online information in order to complete an assignment or assessment is necessarily the issue that needs to be addressed. I think the root of the problem has more to do with the type of work we are asking our students to do and the level of the questions we are asking our students to ponder.

Everyone "knows" that any fact-based question you could ever want the answer to can pretty much be found by searching the internet. However, teachers are still shocked when students find answer keys for their math worksheets online or do a quick Google search during a test to find the name of the capitol of Togo. (It's Lome, by the way. I just Googled it.) We are at a crossroads in education. Teachers and libraries used to be the sole dispensaries of knowledge, but now much of the information teachers once dispensed is free to anyone with a device and an internet connection. So where does that leave teachers? What is our role in this new, fact-flooded ecosystem?

It has become increasingly clear to me in recent years that what I learned about Biology as a high school student and how I showed my teacher I learned it is no longer a relevant system for my students. Last year, I stopped requiring my students to complete multiple choice summative assessments. Instead, multiple choice formative quizzes are given to assess how students are progressing through the introductory levels of learning a topic. These are not graded - they are simply information for the students and myself. Last year, I also started utilizing more verbal, project-based, and hands-on type assessments, trying to get into what the students truly understood.

This year, the way I assess students has continued to evolve. My current summative assessments are designed to allow the students to show me what they understand, not what they have memorized. Therefore, I allow Biology students to use any resources that are in their notebooks while they work on the assessment. The notebook is their "internet," their repository of facts. I don't care if they have access to the structure of DNA during the assessment; I want to know if they understand the structure well enough to explain to me what happens to the DNA molecule when its environment changes in some unpredictable way. On a recent Anatomy assessment, students used all their class resources and the internet to choose a skeletal system disorder of their choice and explain to me how the topics they learned about in class (bone histology, gross bone anatomy, articulations, surface features, and bone repair) related to that disorder. And I told the students a week ahead of time that this is what the assessment would be. No surprises. I am constantly reminding my students: This class is not about what you can memorize. It's about what you understand. It's not that the factual content isn't important - it's just not what I'm going to directly assess my students on.

Therefore, one role for the teacher in the information-rich 21st Century is to scaffold learning so students move beyond factual details and into deeper connections with content. A second role for teachers is to guide students in swimming through and evaluating that deep pool of content. Teachers need to ask the questions that don't have right or wrong answers (and therefore can't be "cheated" on) and encourage students to ask their own questions. After establishing or generating a question with many possible responses, teachers must instruct students how to construct a solid opinion or argument based on reliable evidence. This is where the skill of sifting through and evaluating information becomes important.

I think a concrete example of this skill in action will be the best way to illustrate my thinking here. I have a colleague who recently told me about an HHMI activity on the Rock Pocket Mouse mutation that she worked through with her students. Knowing that DNA mutations were going to be a topic coming up in my own Biology classes soon, I looked into the resources. After transcribing and translating various sections of the mutated gene, students are asked a series of relatively low-level, one answer questions about the process. What I was looking for from this assessment was not could my students could pick out mutations, but could they understand that mutations can be good, bad, and neutral for survival. So I shifted the assessment to a Claim, Evidence, Reasoning format. The students still started by transcribing and translating the genes from the original HHMI activity. Then they were asked to answer the following in a claim: Are all mutations bad? As evidence, they reflected on what they observed in the Rock Pocket Mouse activity, but also what they found in researching other mutations of their choice. I provided links to information and videos about particular mutations, such as lactase persistence, to get them started. For the reasoning section, students needed to use what they knew about particular changes to the DNA (and thereby, amino acids) in these mutations that supported their claim.

"Cheating" on the types of assessments I've described above is nearly impossible. No two students will explain their understanding in exactly the same way. There are multiple right answers. I'm not assessing their ability to memorize. I'm assessing their ability to articulate their understanding, apply their understanding under new conditions or in different situations, and evaluate information as it relates to their understanding and opinions. In opposition to viewing access to information as "cheating," I'm trying to encourage my students to use all the information at their disposal to tackle tough questions. As I recently tried to propose to a teacher who was frustrated with students cheating in his class, maybe instead of trying to stop cheating by blocking websites and locking devices, we need to ask our students to show their understanding in more varied, complex ways.

Image "A Cheating Oldie But Goodie" by Mr_Stein from Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons.