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What do University lecturers think of the PF homework forums?

  1. Mar 28, 2014 #1

    strangerep

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    What do University lecturers think of the PF "homework" forums?

    I've recently begun to realize how easily the homework forums are corrupted by students doing take-home assignments that contribute to their grade (and are supposed to be non-collaborative). Clearly, I'm rather naive in this, and have a deficient "radar" for such things.

    The only "solution" I can think of is for teachers (world-wide!) to stop giving take-home assignments that contribute to the eventual grade. After all, it was always a bit stupid to think that cheaters wouldn't cheat on take-home tests.

    It would be awful if PF became "the goto place for cheaters to get unfair help".
     
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  3. Mar 28, 2014 #2

    Choppy

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    I don't think that anyone is really so naïve to believe that students aren't going to collaborate or search the internet for answers. There is enough material up on the web these days that variations of most of the more common questions asked, particularly in the first year and core courses, are up anyway.

    In most classes the marks given for assignments are usually weighted so that they're enough to make a difference if the student ignores them, but no so much that someone who blindly copies can end up with a decent mark. The idea being that such students don't perform well in independent examinations.

    In classes that are project- or assignment-based, you can tailor the assignments such that it's very difficult and even inefficient to simply look up the answers.

    One thing I suspect Physics Forums and similar sites may do is in fact make academia less social. I'm not so old that the internet wasn't around when I was an undergrad, but it certainly didn't have the amount of (undergraduate physics-related) information on it then that it does today. I remember a lot of working groups with class mates that essentially came together out of necessity and can't help but wonder if the same dynamic is true for students these days who can a lot more easily post a question online.
     
  4. Mar 28, 2014 #3

    berkeman

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    We've had similar discussions about this in the Mentor forums. We definitely try to disallow take-home exams from the HH forums, but students don't always admit to it when we ask them.

    We do have the occasional classmate or professor who finds the PF post and protests, and we verify their information and remove the thread if the objection is valid.

    And we agree that the concepts of take-home exams and no outside assistance make even less sense in the Internet age. Hopefully not too many professors/educators are using them any more.
     
  5. Mar 28, 2014 #4

    strangerep

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    But the PF homework forums are not simply answer-lookup. They're step-by-step help (often from experts, not merely other peer students) on the specific problem posted.

    I'm thinking I'll adopt a slow drip-feed strategy: no more than 1 hint every 24 hrs. :devil:

    Sadly, I wonder whether that's indeed the case.
     
  6. Mar 28, 2014 #5

    Simon Bridge

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    When I was lecturing I just assumed that students would collaborate on assignments and set the work accordingly. I'd encourage this approach in others - it's harder work though.

    Collaboration is an important part of the academic process after all. Students were warned only to avoid submitting identical copy.

    Coursework should contribute to the final grade but we should be realistic about what the final grade actually measures - it means a certain balance of genuine understanding and cribbing is being rewarded. This is not avoidable and usually comes out in the wash - at the end of the undergrad process. It's usually pretty obvious which of the graduates are actually any good and people who abuse the help they can get seldom pass.

    But then, I rigged things so this would tend to happen. Not everyone does.
    Some courses strongly reward rote learning for example, at the expense of understanding, or still use take-home exams (?!) or set the same assignments each year. I'd consider those courses to be poorly managed ... to what extent should we make allowances for the poor management of others?

    In secondary teaching I always google the lessons to see how "the internet" handles teaching the subject ... then use a different method. I encourage students to go online for help... the ones that need the standard approaches will then get them, and I get to focus on those students who are normally left behind.

    I don't think PF is in danger of becoming the goto place for cheaters: just looking at the way cheaters complain about us in other forums. (Google for discussions about PF and see.) OTOH: it is a danger, and we should not relax. All we can really do is default to guiding the questioner through a problem or idea by default... even if it is not in HW-help.
     
  7. Mar 29, 2014 #6

    George Jones

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    I am not sure what you mean by "take-home assignment". I think the typical North American system might be substantially different than systems in other parts of world. Typically in North America, a distinction is made between take-home assignments on the one hand, and take-home tests and exams on the other.

    On assignments: students are encouraged to work together; instructors often give substantial help (in a back-and-forth manner) during office hours; students must write up their own formal solutions.

    On take-home tests and exams: students must work alone; no help is given by instructors; students must write up their own formal solutions.

    I have taught at seven universities in Canada and the US (large, medium, and small), and the above is quite typical. I am currently teaching first-year physics course at a small university; from the course outline that I distributed at the first lecture:

    My students write their midterm and final exams together in a closed environment.
     
    Last edited: Mar 29, 2014
  8. Mar 29, 2014 #7

    esuna

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    Every take-home test I've been given I was told every resource (including the teacher) was at my disposal.
     
  9. Mar 29, 2014 #8

    WannabeNewton

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    It's definitely still true. I can't think of a single class I've had where working in groups (at least 2+ people) on HWs wasn't present. Classes are curved so well that the incentive to cheat is basically non-existent in the courses I've taken. There's a much higher incentive to actually put in 100% of the effort for the sole purpose of actually learning the material out of pure interest in the subject. The classes are usually curved up to an A- or B+ so it removes much of the need to cheat profusely on HWs and take-home exams. People in my classes seem to be mature enough to realize the only person losing out in the end is them if they do take that route.

    I mean in the QFT 1 class here the grading is basically 75% HWs and 25% final take home exam; it's pass/fail for grad students and graded for undergrads. I highly doubt any undergrad would have a need to cheat on these HWs or exams-if you're at the point where you're taking QFT 1/2 then you're really in it to learn (which entails putting in full effort on the work) and not to get a good grade.
     
    Last edited: Mar 29, 2014
  10. Mar 29, 2014 #9

    AlephZero

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    That may be true (and is commendable, of course) at the level you are talking about. On the other hand, lower down the educational food chain, there will probably be students whose main objective for taking a course is to get a piece of paper that qualifies them to do something or other, not to "learn the subject".

    But then, I remember a training course I did after leaving university, which involved some competitive team-based role-playing activities. A complaint from one of the teams about alleged "unethical" behavior was dismissed with the response "There was nothing in the instructions you were given that said you are not allowed to cheat." :smile: Welcome to the real world.
     
  11. Mar 31, 2014 #10
    The assignments aren't usually worth much in my experience... usually maybe 15% at most. The important thing is that it's enough to motivate people to actually do them. People who are just taking the class because they have to might not bother to do the assignments (which help reinforce learning) if those assignments don't contribute to their final grade. On the other hand, 15% is small enough that people who cheat on the assignments will probably do poorly on the exams and get a low grade anyway.

    @WannabeNewton, I've had classes like that, filled with mature people who realize that genuinely learning the subject is in their best interest. That's the ideal situation. However, I've had a lot of classes (in first- and second-year engineering, particularly) that were filled with people who had little interest in actually learning anything. They only took the class because it was a degree requirement. Those people would do the absolute minimum amount of work required, and an unfortunately large portion of those people had no problem with cheating. It was the kind of thing you could never really prove, but it was obvious that a lot of people were cheating on take-home assignments. If my first/second year engineering profs had done everything as a "take home" assignment/exam, a lot of people would have had no problem cheating their way to an A/A+ without actually learning anything. By putting a lot of weight on supervised exams, the people who cheated on assignments just ended up doing poorly overall.

    So I guess my overall point is, classes are usually set up so that people who cheat on assignments (possibly using the internet) won't really win at the end of the day. Of course I agree we should avoid just giving people answers here (that won't really help people with legitimate questions, anyway), but I think we're doing more good than harm.
     
  12. Mar 31, 2014 #11

    HallsofIvy

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    When I was teaching mathematics, I never gave "take home tests"- although student were constantly after me to give them! Even the students that would probably not cheat seemed to think that a "take home test" would be just a regular except that they would have many hours, not to mention the text book, to do it instead of just the one hour.
     
  13. Mar 31, 2014 #12
    In my experience most of my fellow students, including myself, loathed take home tests. For one, you are at a disadvantage if you dont cheat and that conflict of interest sucks. Two, the professor thinks you have an infinite amount of time and makes the test far too hard. I would much rather just take the in-class and be done.
     
  14. Mar 31, 2014 #13

    strangerep

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    Me too -- I hated them just as you say. For one thing, rich kids could afford to buy more textbooks, but those titles would never be in the library when I wanted them. :grumpy:

    I got stung by a similar thing when doing a 3rd-yr physics essay which counted for a substantial amount of that semester's grade. I was under the impression that one should never merely copy slabs of the words out of research papers and articles. Rather one should try to express the ideas in one's own words, and I had heaps of trouble achieving that in a way that still sounded smooth and professional. I received an inferior grade compared to that of a colleague, so I asked if I could read his essay (which was on the same topic) to see what I'd missed. I was quite miffed when I recognized lots of paragraphs and sentences which were lifted straight from the original papers.
     
  15. Mar 31, 2014 #14

    Simon Bridge

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    The legal way to copy slabs of papers is to quote them in support of your attempt to express the same ideas.
    The nasty one is when essays are traded online... a big problem in arts where essay questions have often stayed much the same for decades.

    The operative question, surely, is whether PF could be contributing to the problem?
    I think anyone who can cut and paste passages from an explanation here into their own work is (a) welcome to it and (b) will betray any misunderstandings they have if they do it enough to impact their grades.

    I've personally seen a case where about a dozen students worked independently and turned in identical work - I mean identical - some of them were almost photocopies of each other. But I knew they worked independently because I sat and watched them do it: no contact, no outside sources. What they had in common was the same secondary school which taught a rigid rote approach right down to the layout on the page. They couldn't understand how anyone would do it differently.

    I can only hope that the people running the courses are aware of the possibilities and account for them somehow - knowing, of course, that there will be a great variety of quality in courses and between teachers.
    In real-pedagogy, you realize that we are making "cheating well" (for want of a better word) part of the curriculum when we punish cheating, just like we teach "effective lying" when we punish liers.

    But I don't think that PF is contributing to the problem enough to show against the general background of despiration and dishonesty among cheaters. I think what evidence can be gathered suggests the opposite.
     
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