Designing assessments that curb academic dishonesty (and increase learning too!) – Jane Holbrook

bloghandI recently  listened to a segment on the Current on CBC,  about academic integrity and the effect of technology on cheating. The main guest was Dr Julia Christensen Hughes, Dean of the College of Management and Economics at the University of Guelph, who talked about the findings of some of the research that she has conducted on Canadian university students.  A whopping 80% of Canadian university students admit to having cheated. They admit to at least one of over 30 behaviours that are considered cheating at university ranging from outright cheating on exams, to plagiarism, to working in groups when specifically asked to work individually on an assignment. Interestingly this isn’t a new problem. American studies in the ‘60s found that 75% of students admitted to cheating in college.  And it’s not a new behavior for students when they get to the post-secondary environment. In one recent Canadian study 60% of high school students admitted to cheating on tests, and 75% to cheating on written work that is handed in.  Although technology provides more ways for students to cheat (buying “internet” papers, using online paper mills and just good old cut and paste from internet sites) it hasn’t impacted the overall rate of cheating. Technology has however  increased instructors’ ability to detect plagiarism thanks to online services such as Turnitin that use huge data bases of accumulated student work, web pages and online journals to compare submitted work to common sources.

What interested me most from the conversation with Dr Christensen Hughes was her finding that students were less likely to cheat if they respected the instructor, if they felt that the quality of the education that they were receiving was high and if the instructor was using assessments that were truly assessing the skills and knowledge that students were learning in the course.  This last point dovetails nicely with a book that I have just been reading, “Cheating Lessons – Learning from Academic Dishonesty” by James M. Lang.  Lang discusses how the ways that we teach and assess can impact student’s academic integrity and how instructors can design assessments that reduce academic dishonesty and also create better learning.

Lang proposes that students are more likely to cheat if:

  • there is low  intrinsic motivation to actually learn what they are being assessed on;
  • there is an emphasis on one-time performance rather than continuous improvement towards mastery;
  • the stakes are high on a single assessment;
  • they have a low expectation of success.

So what can an instructor do to decrease cheating and increase learning?

When students are intrinsically motivated, find the subject matter meaningful and can connect it to their own lives, they will learn more and retain their learning. Students driven by extrinsic rewards, such as grades, use strategic or shallow approaches to learning and will have more motivation to cheat. Posing authentic, open-ended questions to students or challenging them with problems or areas of investigation of their own choice can give students the opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge and reflect on what they have learned.  Learning portfolios that include journal entries, short essays, and reflections can assess the student learning experience and understanding of concepts (and are darn hard to cheat on).

Learning for mastery (a deep approach to learning) rather than one time performance can be encouraged and assessed. Giving students multiple attempts on assessments or offering students choices on how they will be assessed can promote a mastery approach. These tests can also provide students with feedback so that they can learn from the assessment and then apply their learning again to show mastery. Scaffolded assignments or essays, where drafts and reworked versions are submitted for feedback, can provide evidence of learning and are not likely to be purchased in the internet.

There is evidence that repeated low stakes assessments have the largest impact on learning and retention of learning, particularly if the testing is in the format of short answer questions. Known as the “testing effect” it can be achieved through the use of short online quizzes or one-minute papers. Creating opportunities for students to retrieve knowledge and rehearse answering questions not only measures learning, but also produces learning (Miller, 2011).  Lang discusses how taking the emphasis off a one big, high stakes assessment and introducing multiple low stakes assessments helps students rehearse for more substantial assessments and actually reduces cheating.

When students feel that they have no chance of success they are more likely to give up rather than attempting to master concepts, and they may look for alternative, dishonest ways to pass tests. Lang argues that helping students be aware of their level of understanding throughout a course will help them gauge how much work they need to do to be successful on major assessments. Activities like think-pair-share, clicker questions and other in-class activities or formative assessments help instil self-efficacy, and help students identify what they need to do to become capable rather than relying on cheating.

All sounds like more work for the instructor, yes, but with two great results – better learning and less cheating and presumably less time spent following up on academic integrity cases as well.

Lang, J.M. 2013. Cheating Lessons: Learning from Academic Dishonesty. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass, USA.

Miller, M. 2011. What College Teachers Should Know About Memory: A Perspective from Cognitive Psychology. College Teaching, 59:117-122.

What do you need to know about the Flipped Classroom? – Jane Holbrook

flipped class
Flipped Class? (courtesy of uWaterloo)

The concept of flipping a classroom has been causing a stir in the world of educators over the last year or so. Seems you can’t open an educational blog or newsletter without finding an article or someone’s thoughts on what a flipped classroom is (and isn’t). The simplest explanation of the term is that active learning is achieved face-to-face in the classroom through discussion, problem solving, and group work or other activities, and what we think of as the lecturing, or “content transfer”, part of a class is done elsewhere (not during classtime) independently.

Discussions of flipped classrooms often include the comment that this isn’t a new concept and that courses in the humanities have been using this learning sequence for eons; in these disciplines instructors are the “guide on the side” rather than the “sage on the stage” and are in the role of facilitators, guiding discussion of concepts or texts that students have ingested on their own through traditional textbooks or online sources.  Also much of what is written about flipped classrooms implies that online media consumption of some sort is part of the independent work. However putting lectures online or giving students access to videos through a course website doesn’t make for a flipped class, the key is that students are active in the classroom; the out of class activity could be reading the text book. As learning management systems and a plethora of online screen casting and lecture capture tools make online components to courses easier to provide and create, many instructors are using online lectures, websites, online videos, or online documents  to prepare students to come in and be active learners during class time. An excellent summary of thoughts around flipping or inverting the classrooms can be found in Derek Bruff’s blog called “Agile Learning”

[As an aside Derek Bruff’s posting was written as a response to another blog posting by Steve Wheeler about a Wired article and I picked up the whole thread through Twitter.  You just have to love social media for the layers and connections – check out @CTELiaisons ***).

My colleague, Mark Morton, and I offered a workshop during the fall 2012 CTE Focus on Teaching week and put together this list of reasons why someone might consider flipping at least some classes:

  • Allows you to spend class time having your students engage in active learning activities such as debates, discussions, Q and A, demonstrations, peer tutoring and feedback, role playing, and so on. This is the “constructivist” aspect of the learning theory known as Social Constructivism.
  • Allows you to spend class time having your students learn with and through each other. This is the “social” aspect of the learning theory known as Social Constructivism.
  • During class time, you don’t “lose” your students: in a lecture, the attention of most students starts to flag after ten or fifteen minutes.
  • Students have time to process and reflect on content before coming to class to apply and work with that content.
  • Students can control the time, place and pace of learning of the “lecture”.
  • Allows you to re-use your video content in multiple courses or across multiple years.
  • Lets you  vary the pace and structure of the classes throughout the term which can  impact student engagement.

Also we compiled this list of “things to consider”:

  • You need to devise strategies to ensure that students actually ingest the content outside of class. For example, start each class with a brief quiz that assesses their knowledge of the content. The quiz could be done via clickers or via LEARN (our LMS), both of which can automatically grade the responses and add them to the grade book in the LMS.
  • Convey to the students that the videos, or other components, are not supplemental to the course but rather are essential. Remind them that if they don’t watch the videos, they won’t be able to participate in the classroom activities.
  • Spend some time at the beginning of the course explaining to your students the pedagogy behind the flipped classroom model.
  • Don’t re-lecture. If students come to class without having ingested the content, move forward with the learning activities anyway. If you resort to lecturing in class to bring them up to speed, you’ll only reinforce their decision to not ingest the content prior to class.
  • Make sure the video includes  some questions or reflective activities that you want the students to think about in preparation for the next class. These can appear at the end of the video or can be inserted at appropriate times throughout the video.
  • Determine what format will work best for your students (and for you). For example, you might videotape yourself talking in front of a flip chart. Or you might create a screencast that focuses only (or primarily) on the the content that appears on your computer screen. Or, depending on your discipline, you might be able to create an audio podcast rather than a video.
  • Accept the fact that you might need to decrease the amount of content that you cover in your course as a whole. However, students will experience deeper engagement with the content that they do cover.

Please feel free to add to this list through the comments!

Also see some examples of flipped classes in higher ed,

***Follow the @CTELiaisons on Twitter – we’re following some interesting folks and retweeting from many sources.

Using “Transit Questions” in place-based pedagogy – Trevor Holmes

I love being in the classroom, whether it’s large or small, whether I’m officially the teacher or the learner. But I also love getting out of the classroom. Some of the most powerful experiences in my own learning and my own teaching have been observing, interacting, and reflecting in spaces other than lecture halls and seminar rooms. Some time ago, I wrote about place-based pedagogy (with some suggested reading) and gave the example of a workshop for the Educational Developers Caucus (EDC) conference at Thompson Rivers University. Since then, I have continued to use what previously I hadn’t a name for in my own cultural studies course — the field observations and intellectual response papers, the spontaneous “field trips” out into parts of campus to apply concepts, the incorporation of people’s experiences into the framework of the course.

Today’s post is about a small piece of the place-based learning experience I had at the EDC conference, a piece that I’m considering using with my own learners when they do their field observations. To date, I’ve supplied them with reflection questions and notetaking guides for the site visits. I’ve used the online quiz tool in the learning management system to ask “prime the pump” journal questions. But I’ve never yet tried the “transit question” approach. Transit questions were thought-triggering questions handed out just before traveling to the field sites in Kamloops. There were, to my recollection, four different cue cards and each pair of people received one or two cue cards. The idea was that the question on the front (and maybe there was one on the back) would ready us for what we were about to see by asking us about related prior experience with X, or what we expect to find when we get to X, or how is X usually structured. The idea was to talk to our partners about the questions and answer them informally as we made our way to the sites (which took 10-20 minutes to get to).

Photograph of two people in Iceland
Photo of two people in Iceland. Source: Karlbark’s Fotothing stream (shared under CC license)

I can imagine transit questions for pairs that would be suitable for my course too. However, we don’t always have pairs (sometimes small groups, sometimes solitary learners going to a space in their hometown, and so on). I can easily adapt the idea for solo use, though clearly I wouldn’t want someone to be taking notes in response to the prompt while, say, driving!

If we do the field trip to Laurel Creek Conservation area again to test ideas found in Jody Baker’s article about Algonquin Park and the Canadian imaginary, I’ll be using transit questions for the bus ride for sure. With other observations I will have to think about how to adapt the idea. Choosing the right question or questions seems to be important, and offering space to jot notes for those who don’t want to start talking immediately. I’d strongly encourage this approach when you know people will be traveling somewhere for the course by bus, or by foot/assistive device. I can imagine that there are lots of opportunities to do this (and it’s likely already done) in disciplines as varied as geography, planning, fine art, architecture, biology, geosciences, accounting, anthropology, and many others. I’m thinking it would be great if they could pull questions from a question bank to their phones or other devices en route as well… the possibilities!

Transit questions on the way to field sites helped to ready me and my partner for what we’d be looking at, to reflect on the implications of our mini-field trip, and to connect our histories to the present task. I recommend them wholeheartedly.

Make Tutorials Matter – Mihaela Vlasea, Graduate Instructional Developer

It is often mentioned that with large engineering classes, it is difficult to truly engage students and provide them with the opportunity to get involved in classroom activities. I recently had the opportunity to teach a tutorial review session, for which I prepared extensively. I presented the material in a very organized fashion, while being careful to periodically ask a few questions while I was solving problems on the blackboard. Based on the answers I was receiving, as well as some feedback from the class, I felt that students understood the material very well. However, upon marking a final exam question, one very similar to the one I had solved in class, I was quite surprised to see that the majority were not capable to meet the basic framework of the solution. Upon reflecting on this fact, I realized that there is a major difference between students understanding my approach and them being able to solve questions on their own. This realization was quite important, because it has forced me to somewhat re-think my tutorial teaching strategies in the future.

Gear Wheels - photo by Ian Britton via flickr
Get the Gear Wheels Turning  (Gear Wheels photo by Ian Britton via flickr)

Provide more opportunity for students to think about the problem

Instead of dwelling on copying the problem requirements on the board, I could provide students with a copy of the question (wither on a Power Point slide or a handout) and ask them to take two minutes to read it carefully. Then, I would ask students a few clarifying questions to make sure they have understood the problem requirements.

Provide more opportunities for students to solve the problem

After going through the first step, I would allow students to work in pairs or about 2-3 minutes to discuss a few ideas on how to start solving the question. I feel that it is important, as it would make students feel that their suggestions are valuable to the development of the solution. This would increase their level of “ownership” over what is discussed in the class, rather than having a one-way teaching approach.

Facilitate and moderate discussions on alternate solutions

Often times, students only have the opportunity to be exposed to a single solution to a problem. Offering students the opportunity to think and suggest alternate solutions in a supportive environment would be a great opportunity to expose students to more approaches as well as to encourage creativity in engineering classes. This is a critical point that should be endorsed in tutorials. Students may be encouraged to propose an alternate solution in class or they may be to be allowed to post their own solutions on a forum or wiki page, where their peers can discuss or correct their input (this would be a bit harder to moderate, but it would certainly be interesting).

In general, I think that tutorials in engineering should be more student-focused and should promote discussion, rather than being an extension of lecture time. These are just some of my ideas which stemmed from recent experience in teaching tutorials in large engineering classes.

IF-AT First You Don’t Succeed….

students working in group

For the first fifteen minutes the class was quiet, heads studiously bent over their papers as individual quizzes were taken. The only sound in the room, our footsteps as we moved about placing one card in front of each group of 4 students. When Professor Kelly Grindrod announced “Okay, 15 more minutes to do the cards in your groups”, the class erupted into: noisy chatter; intense discussion; whoops of joy and high fives; an occasional groan of dismay. Moving about the classroom this time it was invigorating listening to the students discuss their chosen answers, argue their opinions, and reasoning together as they worked to reach consensus on which answer was correct and thus which box to scratch. The energy was palpable.

So what were they doing? What caused this classroom transformation? The students were completing the same quiz that they had just done individually but this time as a group, checking their answers by scratching boxes on cards called IF-AT. The IF-AT (Immediate Feedback Assessment Technique) produced by Epstein Educational Enterprises  is a multiple-choice assessment and learning tool in which students scratch the box corresponding to their chosen answer and know immediately if that answer was correct. At first glance it looks a little bit like a scratch-and-win lottery ticket admittedly; if used thoughtfully by students – not at all. If an incorrect choice is made immediate feedback (no star in the box) is received. The students then have the opportunity to re-think, and in the case of Kelly’s class re-discuss, re-convince, re-argue, and then attempt again. Full marks are achieved for the first correct answer and progressively lower partial marks for subsequent attempts. In the class that I observed students actively and interactively worked  to discuss and understand the question principle before attempting again.

While collecting the individual quizzes and IF-AT cards at the end of the second 15 minutes I had a chance to chat with a number of the students. Some found it stressful, others found it less so than a “regular” quiz, but all agreed that the IF-AT format of quizzing was a great deal of fun (it was a low stakes 2.5% quiz). Being from a Teaching Centre, I just had to ask how they felt these quizzes affected their learning. Every student I spoke to said that, yes, they thought it helped them learn; noting the discussion, taking the time to really think about the problems and the immediate feedback. Incidentally, that is exactly what Dr. David DiBattista (the multiple choice exam guru from Brock U) and colleagues have reported in their studies.

What most struck me though was that these students were having fun! Fun, engaged, learning – seems good to me!


DiBattista, D. (2005). The Immediate Feedback Assessment Technique: A learner-centered multiple-choice response form. Canadian Journal of Higher Education, 35, 111-131.

Learning is a Social Activity – Katherine Lithgow

After attending one of the Sixth Decade Mid-Cycle Review sessions, I began thinking about some of the comments that were raised during and after the session regarding academic excellence and what that entails. Continue reading Learning is a Social Activity – Katherine Lithgow

Opening Classrooms Across Disciplines – Trevor Holmes

One of my favourite jobs as a teaching developer is to visit other people’s classrooms. I get to learn new things while providing a helpful service (observation and report for feedback to individual instructors). There’s another benefit that accrues too, though. I get to bring ideas from a panoply of disciplinary approaches back to my own classroom, reinvigorating my own teaching and ratcheting up my students’ learning.

CC Licensed image "We're Open" sign by dlofink
Open Sign

Rarely is this more apparent than during our Open Classroom series. Open Classroom is Waterloo’s unique way of celebrating our Distinguished Teaching Award winners by asking them to do some work! Each term, if possible, we ask the DTA winner to open his or her doors to other professors, new or more seasoned, it doesn’t matter. The attendees (a few to half a dozen, depending on the room capacity) sit in on the live classroom as observers, and then have an opportunity to ask questions for an hour after the class. This gives a chance not only for the visitors to experience what it’s like to be a learner in the Award-winner’s class, but for the professor to explain his or her thinking behind instructional approaches taken that day.

What is really important here is that one need not be from the professor’s home discipline to benefit from this observation and discussion. I have certainly learned some things from Waterloo professors I’ve observed, and while some of it has gone way over my head, the techniques themselves have found their way directly or indirectly into my own cultural studies lectures (even math and physics approaches!). I would heartily encourage attendance at this term’s Open Classroom (Ted McGee’s English course, the Rebel) and future Open Classrooms, regardless of your own discipline. You will find some relevance in watching and asking about a different approach, I am sure.


The Centre for Teaching Excellence welcomes contributions to its blog. If you are a faculty member, staff member, or student at the University of Waterloo (or beyond!) and would like contribute a posting about some aspect of teaching or learning, please contact Mark Morton or Trevor Holmes.