Professor Bren Experiments On His Students

About two weeks ago, I caught a plagiarism case in two papers submitted to me by two students, in which it large portions of the text of their papers were identical to each other. (I caught it “old school”, by the way: without using Google or Turnitin or any of those things.) Later it occurred to me that some of what counts as plagiarism in the academy might count as collaboration when students go to work in the “real world”. It made me wonder if we’re sending our students mixed messages, or even the wrong message, about how to gather and use information.

Around the same time, a friend of mine forwarded to me a news article describing a UCLA biology professor who allowed his students to “cheat”. (Read it here.). He gave his students a difficult exam question but allowed them to copy their answer from any source they wanted, including from each other; the idea was to encourage them to collaborate to discover for the best answer instead of compete for the highest grade. It was a risky move: group-work assignments often make it possible for freeloaders to contribute little or nothing and yet receive the same grade as others in their group who worked hard. But the UCLA prof found that incidents of freeloading tended to be minimal, because students were not ‘fixed’ in their groups. They could join or leave any group they wanted; and they didn’t have to join a group and work collaboratively if they thought they could work better on their own.

I was also reminded of the physics professor who put a computer in a slum in Delhi, India, just to see what would happen. (Link here). Within hours, local children were using it to surf the internet and teach themselves to speak English. I was also curious if I could create a learning experience in which students were given a problem, and they had to solve it mostly on their own. We learn best by doing, after all. There are probably many topics which are best taught, and perhaps can only be taught, in the traditional “lecture and exam” style; but skills and talents can’t really be taught that way. Besides, I’m a big fan of the education theories of Brazilian philosopher Paulo Freire, who asserts that people learn best when they all teach things to each other, and that the usual teacher/student distinction may actually be a form of political oppression. Various college-level and provincial-level policies require me to give “formative” evaluations, but no one has ever explained to me what that means. In the past I’ve invented strategy games (like this one) to meet that requirement, but they require small groups to succeed. And I teach between 30 and 40 students in each class, on average. More, if there’s been a budget cut. So this week, I decided to try something new.

This week, I decided to do something similar for my Nursing students. These are students who, in their careers, will have to collaborate a lot to do their jobs. Leadership and teamwork are essential for medical professionals; without it, patients almost always stay sick longer, and don’t get the care they need. And as their ethics professor it seemed to me that an assignment that required them to use (not merely write about) the ethics theories discussed in class might be helpful for them.

My usual procedure for a test is to give students a study guide about a week in advance of any test, so students know what lectures and textbook readings are relevant for a given test. This time, instead of posting a study guide, I posted a “clue”, and the students had to figure out what it was. (In this way my experiment was different from that which was conducted by the UCLA prof.) And then the students had to research whatever ethical and moral issues are associated with the “theme” or the “concept” represented by the clue. It was up to them to figure out what the clue was, and up to them to decide what research sources, and what research topics, were relevant. They got very little guidance from me at this point. But they were allowed to collaborate with each other, to figure it out.

In this sense, the test began the moment the clue was revealed. The students had to figure out what the thing was, and then they had to figure out for themselves how to find out about any and all ethical issues related to it. And the test involved a little bit of game theory (in the sense of the word as used by mathematicians). Would the students who figured out the clue quickly share their knowledge with those who didn’t? Or would they hoard their discoveries? Strictly self-interested players of such a game have an incentive to hoard their knowledge instead of share it, because that way they’re more likely to get a higher grade. But in fact most students did share their knowledge of what the clue was, and I later learned that a few small groups of students – not the whole class, but many of them – discussed among themselves what they thought the clue might mean, in terms of what the test question was likely to be.

Education is not the kind of game in which someone must lose for someone else to win. In fact it’s not a game at all, however much the final grades make it look like one. And although we do praise those who are good at this thing (by giving them honour roll credits, and diplomas, etc.) and shame those who are bad at this thing (by assigning failing grades), in actuality education is the sort of endeavour in which everybody wins or nobody wins. That is to say, education succeeds when society as a whole maximizes the intellectual, cognitive, emotional, and spiritual level at which the majority of its members operate. It benefits everyone to belong to a society in which as many people as possible are highly knowledgeable and highly skilled. And besides that: wherever you go in life, and whatever you do, you have to deal with people. So it seems to me that a pedagogical style which teaches, encourages, and rewards people-skills is probably better than one which doesn’t. How to do that? Well, “group work” is one way, but it has its problems as already discussed.

The test itself came a week later. I told students that they would be given two hours to write an answer to one question, though it would be the most difficult question I had ever laid before them. But I also told them that they could collaborate to answer it. Just this once, two or more students submitting a word-for-word identical essay would not be hauled before the department head, accused of plagiarism. I also told the students they could bring to the test any research resources they wanted: not just our textbook, but any notes they made and anything they discovered in the library or on the internet that they guessed might be relevant. I also told them I would provide a few research resources during the test itself, although it would be up to them to decide how relevant they were, and what to do with them.

I also clownishly played-up the idea that the test question they would have to answer would be the most mind-bogglingly, heart-breakingly, difficult question ever. A few were genuinely worried, but it was the 14th week of the semester and by now most students had realized that I can be a bit of a comedian in my class once in a while. (As one former student told me, I’ve a reputation as “the fun prof who doesn’t put up with anybody’s shit.”)

The test day was this afternoon. Unlike the UCLA professor, I did not allow my students to use the internet during the test itself. My presumption was that they already had a week to do research on the internet, and they had to come to the test prepared in advance. And they did! Admirably so! In fact most students had already formed the groups they wanted to work with, and they came to class with arms full of notes and photocopied pages.

I’d say this experiment worked very, very well. I’ve very rarely seen a group of teenagers so single-mindedly committed to solving an academic problem to the best of their ability. And although I did spot a few of them distracting themselves with Facebook on their phones, for the most part they worked a solid hour-and-a-half on this assignment without demanding a break. Not only that: they actually enjoyed it. The room was full of brainstorming, experimentation, back-and-forth debate, and even laughter – something almost never seen in a test situation! Some of them actually thanked me – and nobody thanks a prof for a test! I stood nearby to clarify things once in a while, and to drop hints, and every group asked for my assistance at least once, but they got back to work quickly. They knew what they wanted to do. And there did not appear to be any freeloaders: it seems that by letting students choose their own group, they organically went to work with those who they already trusted. And as I sort through the papers they gave me here at home, I’m finding myself really impressed by the quality and insightfulness of what they gave me.

So: as far as I’m concerned, this experiment was a success, and I’m going to do it again in all of my classes from now on.

PS: this is the clue I gave them (PDF link). Without looking at the filename, do you know what it is? Want to guess what my test question was?

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4 Responses to Professor Bren Experiments On His Students

  1. PatG says:

    An amazing experiment. I am glad it turned out well. You are right – that is a very tough question.

  2. tchris says:

    Well it’s something about triage. Since they are nursing students, I’d bet the question was something about how to “humanely” prioritize people who are very likely to die shortly…

  3. Derek says:

    Excellent work Dr.! Again I so wish I could be in your class! As for the question, I agree with tchris it must have been a question along the lines of the ethics of triage.

  4. May Smith says:

    What an amazing experiment! I have never thought about it this way before, but I definitely think that this is a great point of view to take. We need to teach students to learn how to collaborate, not “stick it out” on their own!

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