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The educator too, must accept blame for plagiarism! May 20, 2011

Posted by Wilz in Personal, Student Development, Teaching.

The status quo in thinking about plagiarism usually goes like this: “Integrity is a compulsory value for each individual student, and they must uphold it in all matters, including homework and assignments.” Most universities require students to sign a pledge never to commit cheating or plagiarism. Coming from an education climate rife with plagiarism issues, I too, held strongly to this. (Disclosure: I copied math homework in uni – at most twice. But the distaste and pointlessness it left in my mouth made me swear never to do it again. I however never claimed the work as my own – the lecturer basically knew (and expected) everyone to copy.)

As such, most academicians have a tendency to place all the blame on the students – students who plagiarise are scum, with no values, etc etc. I wish they’d stop etc etc. I don’t think that is fair.

I am not trying to excuse a student’s individual responsibility to hold to academic values. However, looking at the big picture – human beings are incentive driven creatures. It is not always clear what those incentives are – it often differs from person to person. But increasingly in academic institutions (especially those catering to mass higher education), those incentives are ‘paper oriented’ – they want a degree, to get a good job and start a good life. End of story. Very few come here these days to actually ‘learn’. (Most don’t even know what that means anymore.)

A student who arrives here with values, will lose them very quickly. Submitting their own work, and at the same time watching those around them plagiarise and receive better grades is hugely demotivating, especially when ‘own work’ and ‘own learning’ often seems to matter little towards the ultimate goal – the degree. An educator has the responsibility to crack down tirelessly on plagiarism. Every instance of plagiarism encountered must be punished with the maximum possible sentence with zero negotiation/tolerance or the educator has failed his responsibility to every student who is trying to hold on to whatever shreds left of their academic integrity.

It is the educator’s responsibility to recognise students who hold on to academic integrity, not just with words, but with the assessment itself. They must be able to measure themselves against their plagiarising peers and know that they are better for it. And no – not tomorrow, not ten years from now when they are better members of society etc – but NOW. An educator who is incapable of allowing such students to recognize their own worth is scum as well.

Having said that, it is not always easy to detect plagiarism – in mathematics for example where often the solution steps are close to being the same. After detection, it is similarly hard to prove plagiarism. It is too time consuming, and there is a lot of other work to do – improving classroom methodology, research, etc. As such, another responsibility falls on the educator – to ensure that assignments are as impossible to plagiarise as possible. After a year of trying, I find it really isn’t as hard as some people pretend it is.

(Giving the same math problems to a hundred students and interviewing them one by one is often not a valid method of plagiarism elimination. It becomes an “interview assessment” instead of a “math” assessment. We’d probably have to do a “solve this problem in front of me” session for a significant random sample of students, and immediately fail those who are unable to solve said problem in order to provide a deterrent to plagiarism. And is that fair to those who ‘escape’? What about those who cannot think under pressure? Plus, if we’re going to assess them in our presence anyways, why not just do a small open book test?)

This trimester, I went with the standard practice for a subject I am teaching for another department – I gave out two ‘back of the textbook’ math homework assignments usually slated for 15% of the total assessment. Being free to give additional assignments, I cut the textbook assignments to 5%, and gave another case study/research assignment which is impossible to copy, and assigned it 10% of the grade. I told myself that this is sufficiently balanced. The 5% assignment will still force those who copy to at least write solutions, and maybe that will prompt them to learn eventually.

I am always honest and direct with my students, and I admitted to them that it will be quite impossible for me to hunt down plagiarism in the 5% assignment. But I told those who attempted the work themselves to write, “Own Work” on the front cover – as a point of pride for them, and to make it known to me. Of course, it is impossible to substantiate this claim from the student, and as such assessment cannot be adjusted to accommodate this.

However as I went through the assignments yesterday and today, every time I gave a high score to an obviously or suspiciously plagiarised assignment, and a low score to an “own work” assignment, I felt more and more empty inside. Yeah it’s only 5%. But it’s also hours of work from my precious “Own Work” students being effectively trivialized.

I enabled plagiarism this trimester, and I accept this blame.

Never again. Not even for 5%. I will never again allow myself to follow “standard practice” in giving take home assessments for which I am not ready to reasonably detect and punish plagiarism. And if I find that I am forced, I will fight it tooth and nail.

Thank you to all my “Own Work” students, for this valuable lesson in this educator’s career, and my sincerest apologies.


The Logic Behind Barring August 26, 2010

Posted by Wilz in Education, Student Development, Teaching.

The question I spent two and a half hours struggling with last evening (which I did the previous trimester as well) was this – should I bar seven students who attended between 35-45% of my classes with between 0-5 out of 20 coursework marks?

Barring is a mechanic my university has to prevent students with poor attendance or performance from sitting from final examinations, thus failing them before they even sit for it. They are not assigned the “F” grade, but a grade which gives the equivalent 0 in grade point calculation. The guideline cut off point for barring is usually 50% attendance and 30% coursework marks.

Why do we practice barring?

To be frank, it is perhaps best to explain a possibly unknown benefit of barring on the lecturer’s part. Students who are barred are not counted towards the failure rate of the subject, thus improving the distribution of your marks (and thus your class performance). Lecturers are of course reminded never to bar based on this reason, but it is still an obvious and immediate benefit of barring to the lecturer. Lecturers in my university do not have to adhere to a normal distribution when grading, but they are expected to explain poor student performance, and describe remedial plans.

In reality, most lecturers wave the barring stick as a means to get poor attendance or performance students to withdraw from the course before final examinations. “You should withdraw from the subject before I bar you,” being the operative warning. If withdrawn, the student will not get a fail-equivalent grade. The subject will simply not count in their grade point calculation.

Barring Benefits Whom?

On the student side, there does not seem to be any benefit of barring itself. One is basically stripped of the right to even try. Even if the lecturer is VERY certain that the student will not be able to pass the subject, I can think of no reason (other than the benefit to the lecturer) not to just let him fail the subject.

On the other hand, when barring is used by the lecturer to force students to withdraw the subject, there is a benefit for the student. Not failing with either an ‘F’ or the bar grade will ensure that the students do not suffer a grade point drop due to the subject. This will prevent them from entering a probation state, which limits the number of subjects they can take, and of course, eventually lead them to termination. It also makes them look bad to sponsors, the immigration department and so on. To make sure this works of course, the lecturer has to actually bar students who do not withdraw, otherwise it would be an empty threat.

So… in my humble opinion, barring itself only benefits the lecturer. Barring to force withdrawals allows the lecturer to force the student to take the safe road.

Not Barring…

Not barring however, teaches the greatest lesson of all – it allows the student to make his/her own decisions, and suffer his/her own consequences. And isn’t that one of the most important lessons a university must teach its students? Isn’t the ivory tower all about growing up and learning from your own experiences and mistakes?

There is a third perspective on this, which is the university perspective. A university which saves lazy students from getting themselves terminated stands to benefit from continued candidature and fees in the long run. However, neither the university nor my department has ever encouraged barring. In fact our Vice President Academic argues vehement in Senate to lower the guidelines for barring, and to discourage lecturers from barring.

So why bar, at all?

Looks like this is a question I’ll keep struggling with from trimester to trimester.


There is one way I WILL use barring however. It is an excellent way to summon constantly missing students with poor performance to meet me. “Meet me by this week or you will be barred due to your attendance and poor performance.” It is a good way to discuss the the withdrawal option to save themselves a fail. “Based on your current performance, I seriously doubt I can pass you unless the moon turns pink for three nights in a row. (Or you work very, VERY, VERY hard.)” The final decision however, I feel should always be in the student’s hands.

Of course, for the threat of barred-unless-you-meet-me to work, I would have to actually bar those who do not meet me. Haven’t had the need to do that though.

Ken Robinson – Tread Softly on Our Children’s Dreams May 26, 2010

Posted by Wilz in Education, Society, Student Development.
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Ken Robinson’s second talk at TED is as powerful as his first. He likens the urgency of solving the crisis of human resources (education) to solving the climate crisis. Some highlights:

“Reform is no use anymore, because that’s simply improving a broken model. […] What we need is not an evolution, but a revolution in education. This has to be transformed into something else.”

I wish I had the luxury to give up on education in its current state as well. Still struggling to see the light at the end of the tunnel over here. He also quoted something from Abraham Lincoln:

The dogmas of the quiet past is inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.

I agree with Robinson – my favourite word in that whole quote is “disenthrall.” Every time I try to highlight to my peers or juniors that every “system” in the world is man made, far from perfect, and should be subject to scrutiny and improvement, they give me a blank stare. Being so enthralled robs them from the opportunity to see themselves as anything more than what the system tells them to be. It frightens me that so many of the next generation are content to choose courses based on what dad thinks will earn them the most money, with their own interest locked up deep in the closet.

It is also somewhat liberating to know that Lincoln had the wisdom to take tradition down a peg or two. The world it seems is stuck in the great vicious cycle of tradition. The young is deemed “too young” to be taken seriously, yet when they are deemed “old enough”, they often bring only the wisdom of “yesterday,” are out of touch with “today” and especially “tomorrow.” And those who decide who is “old enough” are often “the oldest possible,” who choose those most likely to honor “tradition.”

He ends the talk with a brilliant poem, and to a standing ovation. The brilliant talk below.

Ken Robinson’s earlier TED Talk is embedded in this post.

Another video I’ve found inspiring called “Exponential Times” below. It touches briefly on education and highlights quite well why things need to move forward – urgently. (Bear in mind that this is based on statistics from 2008 – two years ago.)

Learn Touch Typing! December 29, 2009

Posted by Wilz in Education, Personal, Student Development.

It just occurred to me that for some reason, touch typing is not part of computer skills education. Not even a chapter on it. And yet, typing is such a ubiquitous part of computer usage. I type reasonably fast (I think), a benefit which is enjoyed by far too few people in an age where computers are so heavily integrated in the workplace. I’m going to talk about some of the personal things I’ve enjoyed from fast typing, especially at work.

Start like this!

I can finish the minutes of a meeting by the time the meeting ends – i.e. type as fast as the decisions are being made. (Being very fast at Microsoft Word and using styles helps as well probably.) I send out the meeting minutes ten minutes after the meetings end, and the ten minutes is for fact/attendance checking.

I also write a lot, and a lot of people comment that it seems easy for me to produce a piece of writing quickly. I on the other hand find that writing is hard. I throw away a lot of the text I write as I edit and refine the speech / article / body of text. (Like for this post, I probably deleted as much text as you see posted, and that’s for a blog post.) So being able to type fast helps me put down a lot of ‘trial text’, and the less effort I had to make to put them down, the less reluctant I am to part with (delete) them.

Another important aspect of writing is taking down ideas as they come. The specific content, how they flow, story angles and little useful phrases pop into your brain unpredictably, sometimes when you’re writing something else. Being able to take that down quickly, and paste it somewhere in the rough order of your writing is also important. In short, writing well and quickly on the computer, probably is helped a lot by the ability to type fast.

Of course, other office related work – writing emails, proposals, composing letters, and updating calendars and to-do lists is sped up considerably. It’s also very impressive to be able to sit in a brainstorming session with senior colleagues while drawing, typing out and revising what they’re saying onto slides right in front of their eyes. Heh.

Social activities on the computer is sped up as well. I regularly have to slow myself down when chatting to avoid drowning out the other party chatting with me. Chatting with people in games, posting in forums, updating twitter or Facebook – all of these things are faster the more quickly you type.

Also, if you can type without having to look at the keyboard (called touch typing), you free up part of your mind to just focus on what you are typing. You don’t need to cue your fingers with your eyes, and look back up to double check what you’re typing. You keep your eyes on the screen, think of something you want to have appear, your fingers fly, and tadah, you have text. (It also looks really cool if you look at and talk to someone while you’re finishing off a sentence or two. Ahem.)

Our use of computers just seems so sub-optimal without proper typing instruction. Futuristic input options may make a lot of this somewhat obsolete, but for now, there is no reason not to master typing. I did a search for a typing speed test, and went with the first two results:

On http://www.typeonline.co.uk/typingspeed.php, taking the average from 5 tests, my speed is about 121 words per minute (wpm). The text difficulty can vary wildly, but my typing speed is somewhat constant.

On http://speedtest.10-fast-fingers.com/, I got the following results:
506 points, so you achieved position 378 of 506,056 on the ranking list.
You type 648 characters per minute.
You have 120 correct words and you have 2 wrong words.

Try the tests and post your results in the comments below. :) I also video-ed my fingers typing, “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.” It’s an English sentence that contains all the letters in the alphabet.

I have my parents to thank for my learning typing. I loved ‘messing’ with the typewriter at my mom’s office, and she would always give me a piece of paper to tap tap away on. But when my sister and I begged for a computer at home, they told us that we had to learn to touch type first, or they’re not buying us one. They got us this typing workbook and I would go downstairs to my father’s office, sit in the corner with an old typewriter, and tap away. FFFF JJJJ FFJJ JJFF FJFJ JFJF DDDD KKKK … In hindsight, they probably would’ve bought the computer anyways, but it’s powerful motivation indeed.

I wonder if there’s a ‘too late’ barrier to typing. I learnt it quite early in my life. I also wonder if learning typing on a typewriter will always be superior to learning it on a computer. I remember that typing on the typewriter was hard, especially when trying to hit the keys ‘a’ and ‘Shift’ with your left little finger. Switching from that to a computer is like sprinting after taking off the weights you’ve tied against your ankles for a week.

I’ve enjoyed so many benefits from knowing proper typing techniques. I don’t get why more people have not picked it up. I think I’m going to try to get this into the syllabus for Computer Applications in my university. Mid semester lab test – typing accuracy and speed test in the computer (typewriter?) lab!

Respect. Please! September 8, 2007

Posted by Wilz in Personal, Student Development.
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I never thought the day would arrive when I would feel a genuine wave of contempt for the student organisation which I personally led for six years, brief though it may be. For the second time now in the two years since I left the organisation, I have met reporters or photographers from that organisation walking around grinning as they look for information about the most shocking, saddening and gruesome sort of incident.

You call yourself a reporter? If you fail to understand the gravity of the situation, you have already failed in your reporting. Indeed, objectivity is key, but perspective is equally important. Not only do you often demonstrate zero objectivity in your work, you demonstrate zero perspective on the field. You were given information to improve the accuracy of what you wrote regarding what happened last year. You could have put up the information and made your article more accurate, but you didn’t. Why? To keep the article sensational? Worse of all, because you were lazy? This year, you want to put a photo of THAT on your front page? Seriously? Which respectable newspaper have you ever seen show pictures of something like that? Tell me!?

Personally if I was still leading this organisation, these people would get a good tongue-lashing from me. It would be unfortunate that kicking them from the organisation is out of the question thanks to your lack of manpower.

Real reporters can be quite an ass when looking for information. It’s true. However they need to sell newspapers or lose their jobs. You have no competitors. You have no revenue target to meet. You don’t sell your paper, and you’re not earning a living. What’s your excuse?

There’s a new bunch of you this year. The article’s not out yet. Learn a lesson would ya? Get your facts right this time. All of it.

My Staff Gap? June 14, 2007

Posted by Wilz in Personal, Student Development.

Shortly after I got my job last June, I ran into a new student during his first (or second?) week of classes. She stopped me by saying, “Excuse me, sir. Where is […]” That’s when it struck me. I’m no longer a student in this university. I’m working here now. Or to put it in the HR director’s words, “Willie, you’re an officer now.”

Enter my conversation with my trusty friend E:

Me: Dude

E: ?

Me: Is it weird for a staff to ask a student to go hang out and watch a movie?

E: Well, if they didn’t know each other well enough, it’d be a tad weird

Me: uh huh

and how exactly do they get to know each other well enough?

E: I dunno

Therein lies my dilemma.

Those who knew me before: I’d like to say that people treat me differently now that I’m a staff, but that’s too general, and isn’t true in some cases. Take Edo for example. He comes up to me, makes a funny face, says “screw you” and generally shock the other students around him who’s seeing him do it for the first time. (Actually I think he has fun doing it. Puts him in the spotlight.) Me becoming a staff didn’t change much of anything with him, because we’re already friends, before ‘staff’ ever got a chance to get in the way.

The stiff ones whom I just got to know: Then there’s Pu, Sa and LeHo – student leaders whom I got to know after I became an officer in the university. They’re decent people, I have the utmost respect for their opinions and good work in the university. Under any other circumstances, my relationship with them would be like two individuals who respect each other’s thinking and work. But there’s a ‘stiffness’ about our ‘friendship.’ A polite question here, a careful answer there, etc. It’s quite different from what I have with Ra, whom I met while I was still a student. We’re not really close friends, but we toss each other smart remarks every now and then. Pu, Sa and LeHo doesn’t do that though. (Doesn’t dare?)

(I know these short forms are getting tiring, but I’m trying to make them long enough for the individuals to realize it’s them I’m talking about, without being explicit.)

So this isn’t really a generation gap is it? I’m barely older than they are. I am however in a better position to affect change, often for their benefit, and I like to think of myself as quite experienced in this university’s voluntarism/activism landscape. It’s feels more like a staff gap? Are they worried that I’d ruin their society’s plans or rat them out to STAD or … I think I’ve quite clearly demonstrated that I’m not about that. But there’s that gap. I know that back when I was an active student, and there was a staff like me around, I’d hang out, even if it’s just to get some favors for my own organisation. Heh.

Is it because they’re trying to show respect? Well, every human being deserves respect to some extent, but I don’t see why some deserve more than others just because they’re staff or whatever else. At least, that’s true for me. And is being slightly distant and being extra careful in conversations a sign of respect? I definitely don’t think so. I personally think that without a bit of jibing and some friendly embarrassment, one can never really enter the social circle of another.

The non-stiff ones who I just got to know: Wait – there are one or two who can be quite relaxed around me. Si acts almost like Edo does, although he’s a bit less forward – but that’s okay. We don’t really know each other that well after all. He doesn’t act stiff around me though, and that’s refreshing.

The ones who think I no longer remember them: And earlier this morning, I ran into yet another type. I know Sunshine (heh it’s not technically a name so I get to use it right?) from a club we both were in a year or so ago. I saw him like four times during the whole orientation programme, but I wasn’t sure if he remembers me. I didn’t really have a chance to say hi – couldn’t really catch his eye the first three times. This morning he was standing right in front of me, and I waved him down and spoke to him. Turns out he remembers who I am, and relaxed considerably. Why does that happen? Even if I don’t remember who you are, when you think maybe I should, it should be my embarrassment and the apology for forgetting should come from me. Don’t have to go about avoiding me in case I don’t remember…

The ones who thought I’m not friendly: This one’s harder to classify. You meet a bunch of faces, don’t really have the chance to get to know them, but you remember those faces. And you keep smiling at them, and they smile back, and that’s it. It gets a bit annoying – I feel that it’s better to know someone, rather than superficially smile at/with them all the time. Even if I forget names, at least I know, that I know this person. If you get my drift. Yeah I know – I should do my part too by stepping up and chatting people up. I do! But imagine the number of nice people I don’t get to meet because others don’t dare to step up to me.

There’s always the possibility that it’s all me. Maybe I’m not happening/crazy/relaxed enough. Anyone wanna come and give me some pointers? I’d love some tips. I’m finding it hard to balance on that thin line between ‘appropriate’ and ‘friendly’. Or is it that now that I’m a ‘staff’ there must be limits on how close I can get with the students? Considering that it’s part of my job to connect with the students on as many levels as possible, I hope that’s not true. At least not for a bunch of years more.

Many questions and much ramblings. Herm… So, can I ask anyone to go hang out for a movie? Will anyone ask me?

EDIT: Ok re-reading this made me realize that it sounds like I’m feeling really lame trying to connect with the students. It’s not really that bad. Just that the formalities and how some students freeze up around me can be a bit annoying. Relax dudes!