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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.

Notes on Starting Teaching – Week 3 March 1, 2010

Posted by Wilz in Teaching.
1 comment so far

This week I got my first dose of the immense, crushing kind of feeling you get when you realize that your class have little to no idea of what you’re talking about – I gave them a quiz. I bet my students had the same kind of feeling as well – none of them managed to answer the fairly easy questions, poor things.

After two weeks of dealing with a fairly passive class, and having little to no feedback of their understanding of my classes, I decided to embark on some continuous assessment. I’m also trying finding out if students more willing to participate if there are marks at stake. I designed three activities, one individual, one small group and one whole class discussion. I ran out of time to do the small group activity, but we did the other two.

Individual Activity

Anyways here’s the sequence of events:

  1. Announced in class and in our online learning system that there’s going to be a quiz during the next class on sampling distribution.
  2. Generated 200 random 9-digit numbers (random.org) and counted the number of numbers with a digit recurring beside itself (976511234 has ‘1’ recurring beside itself) – there are 112 out of 200 of these. (56%) Got the basic idea for the recurring digit test from a book.
  3. In class, discussed briefly if computers and humans are capable of generating truly random numbers by themselves. (These are IT students at foundation level.)
  4. Asked each student to, as randomly as possible, write down a 9 digit number. Out of 74 students, 9 wrote numbers with a recurring digit. (12.2%)
  5. Explained how random.org uses atmospheric parameters to generate random data to affect its random number generation in order to be truly random, and showed them the numbers generated earlier.
  6. Asked them three questions as a quiz:

  • Propose which statistic we have discussed can most accurately be assumed to describe the proportion of all truly random numbers that have a digit appearing beside itself. Why?
  • Using your proposal above, what is the probability that in a sample of random numbers, you will find the class’ proportion of random numbers generated that have a digit appearing beside itself or less?
  • Based on the discussion and the result of your calculation above, can humans accurately ‘behave’ randomly? Why?

To help them:

  • I circled in bright red the only two statistics we discussed.
  • They were free to open their textbook (or anything else, for that matter).
  • I told them the page of the chapter (sampling distribution) that have samples of this question.
  • They were free to discuss it among themselves.

Two out of 74 students decided that 56% most closely describes the percentage of random numbers with a recurring digit. TWO. No one figured out that they could’ve just filled in p=56%, p(hat)=12.2% and n=74 into the equation in the suggested chapter to get the probability. Half of the students answered 12.2% as the answer to question 2, showing that although they get what proportions are for, they cannot yet extrapolate it to the concept of sampling distributions. And a lot of them reasoned at length for the third question without basing it on the results of their calculation.

I’m guessing the problem here is a combination of these:

  • I covered sampling distribution before a 1 1/2 weeks pause for CNY – they’ve forgotten it.
  • They’re waiting until the mid-trimester examinations to study the topic.
  • I’m not making enough sense in class.

I’m going to try switching it around a bit – doing a quiz-like activity immediately at the end of a topic to see if they improve any.

Class Activity

I got the whole class to discuss about gathering height and salary information from lecturers to do a local survey similar to the one found here. Purposely chose this topic since that they have to deal with how to obtain sensitive information, and naturally leads to discussions about anonymity, privacy and so on.

The idea is to give them an immensely easy way to score – the whole class gets the same score, if they cover the 8 things important to running surveys and gathering data in their discussion. I prompt them from the side of course. They picked up 5 out of the 8 matters. About 10 students participated actively, they rest stared into space. Yep – even when there’s marks at stake. Suffice to say, not going to do this again. Heh.


At the end of the day, I find that my wish to innovate my teaching methodology for the course is severely limited by the assessment method, which is out of my control – 70% mid-trimester and final examinations. The usual sit down, closed book affair. Even the 20% assignments are more exam-oriented questions that they are to do and submit. It seems to be common practice in math courses, from my own experience. The only purpose of giving an assignment of this kind, it seems to me, is to ensure that a few dedicated students actually do the questions, and that the rest copy it. Does copying solutions constitute learning? (Maybe it helps one memorize the format of specific math solutions?)

The overt pressure I feel as the lecturer for this subject seems to be to teach them how to solve these examination questions. In a way, their final examinations is both a test for them, as well as myself. Individually if they score well they get a good grade. Collectively if they score well, it is taken as an indication that I have taught them well. And at that point, what would I have taught them exactly?

The individual activity I did above is an example of an ‘unnecessary’ activity for the purpose of teaching them how to answer examination questions. That activity involved a little bit of analysis and even synthesis, whereas they only need knowledge, comprehension and application to answer examination questions. To teach the latter three, all I would’ve done is to present the question, “Given that 56% of all random numbers have a recurring digit, calculate the probability that a random sample of 74 numbers have only 9 numbers with recurring digits,” and given them the solution. It takes only 20 seconds to come up with, and the chances of them answering it correctly in a quiz with an open book is significantly higher.

The activity I conducted in class on the other hand took a few hours to prepare – finding the idea, generating the numbers, counting them, coming up with a good way to phrase the questions etc. Yet the easy one – examination questions – is what both I and they will be assessed on at the end of the semester. Why then, should I bother teaching them the former? Not that I didn’t realize all this before, but this is the first time I’m experiencing it for myself.

It is frustrating because statistics is such an interesting subject. Imagine if we harnessed the power of our statistics undergraduate students in mini studies and projects for the past ten years, we would have correlated thousands of pairs of statistics in the university by now!

In a limited-circulation piece I wrote some time ago, I said:

What our undergraduates are actually picking up in the vast majority of subjects is a form of lexical analysis and pattern recognition – they are studying the forms examination questions usually take, and they practice the solution to these questions in order to later answer their examination papers. Every chapter becomes the source of a few possible examination question types, instead of a slice of knowledge.

Even now as a lecturer, recognizing this, I feel that I am helpless to change it.

For now.

Notes on Starting Teaching – Week 2 February 11, 2010

Posted by Wilz in Teaching.

This week, I gathered data on my students on ‘romantic’ success, and constructed a histogram based on that information. Purpose? To teach them sampling distributions. The question in essence is:

Count how many persons you’re interested in that you asked out in the last six months (don’t have to be a date and the other party does not have to know that you’re interested). Successful invites adds 1 to romantic success score, rejections subtracts 1, if you did not try, you’re at 0.

The lecturer claims to have more than 6 romantic successes within the same time. Calculate the probability that he’s lying based on your class statistics as the population assuming that the romantic success distribution is approximately a normal distribution.

It caught their attention alright, but I hope in the right way :P. The data we gathered:

Romantic Success of Class

Romantic Success of Class (Click to Enlarge)

From the chart, you can see that some joker claims to have 17 romantic successes within 6 months. Most claim that they didn’t try or had the same rate of success vs rejections. One poor guy was rejected at least 8 times. Based on their romantic success data, and assuming that my romantic success follows the same trends as theirs, we deduced from the data that there’s a 89.5% chance that I’m lying if I say that my romantic success score is 6. Bahahaha.

Also, spent all night last night trying to find the proof for the Central Limit Theorem. Found this superb tool: http://onlinestatbook.com/simulations/CLT/clt.html. Needless to say, it made the Central Limit Theorem significantly more intuitive and interesting.

So far so good. Estimation (next chapter) is a bit of a bore, but hypothesis testing (chapter after that) should be pretty fun. Hmmm… (crazy gleam in eyes).

Notes (to Myself) On Starting Teaching February 4, 2010

Posted by Wilz in Education, Personal, Teaching.

I taught my first 3 hours of class as a lecturer this week. Writing this entry as much to myself as to my readers.

I am teaching “Introduction to Computing Statistics”, Foundation (fresh school leaver) level. It is quite a simple subject, and it’s very easy to quickly cover the whole syllabus.

The first thing I found when teaching is that it’s easy to talk, but it’s hard to have students sustain interest/attention. It’s easy to grab their interest momentarily, but it’s hard to figure out if they are understanding what you are saying.

The prevailing question in my mind as I speak in front of the class is – do they get what I am saying? Do they understand why I ask them the questions I ask them? It is in fact frustrating as it is constantly in my mind, and sticking all kinds of doubts in there. I believe it is healthy however, for if I ever lose interest in this question, I would’ve stopped being effective as an educator.

In my very first class, one of the first things I found myself doing (not planned) was to put the textbook on the visualizer (camera – projector thing), turn to the first chapter where the definition of statistics is, read it out loud, and say, “That’s all rubbish to you isn’t it?” In retrospect, I always wanted to do that! Ahahaha!!!

I hope I successfully discussed statistics as it relates to the real world in my first 3 hours. Trying hard to find links for the remaining VERY dry chapters.

I am a boring old behavioral lecturer this week (and possibly this trimester) – no interesting methodologies I believe in employed so far, mainly because I don’t really dare to buck what is considered the norm without first getting my ears wet. A bit disappointed at myself, and reminder to self – don’t forget to start!

Two (I hope) interesting things:

I challenged my students to find me the mathematical proof that will allow me to estimate a student’s attendance accurately (within certain errors) if I were to only sample each student’s attendance a few times rather than take their attendance every lecture. It should be possible with the math I am going to teach them. In retrospect, it seems a bit too easy haha.

I discussed degrees of freedom, unbiased estimators, and advanced statistical proofs with them on an intuitive, non-mathematical level when asking them why they think sample variance calculations divide by (n-1) rather than (n) as in the population variance calculations. Told them my own conclusions and the limitations of my own knowledge on the matter, but encouraged those interested to find out more.

My conclusions? Teaching isn’t all fun, but I enjoy it!