Archive for the 'Education' Category

Teacher knows best

July 2nd, 2006

Recently a lecturer in the Open University here was caught taking an exam for a student (Sorry, article in Hebrew only).

He used a false ID, under the student’s name. And everything probably would have passed quietly except for a surprise inspection, done by someone who knew the lecturer.

He even came with borrowed clothes from the student. Though I’m not sure what that was supposed to accomplish, since anyone knowing the student should have spotted immediately he’s not him, and anyone not knowing the student wouldn’t recognize the clothes anyway.

The student paid him 5,000[1] ILS to take the test for him.

It may look like good business (financially, I mean) considering there’s a good reason to suspect he took the test for other students as well. But actually it’s not at all a good business, since the amount of exams in a course per semester is very limited, and he obviously can only pretend to be one student at a time.

So I don’t get why he did that. It’s a huge breach of professional ethics, and immoral. It could have, probably will now, cost him his career. And the expected gains are not that high.

The course in question was a math course which is considered to be extremely difficult. According to people I know who took this Open University course, it’s considered one of the, if not the single, toughest courses in degrees like Computer Science or Math.

Which brings me to the point of this post. Something I heard from a student who took this course, who told it to me to help illustrate how hard the exams for this course are.

His lecturer for this course, the one who was responsible for helping the entire class study and understand the material, tried to take the exam once. Just to see how it will go.

And according to my friend this was a good lecturer, one who knew his stuff, and was an intelligent person.

He passed, with a decent grade. But far from a full score. Around 80% of the grade. Meaning that the one checking his test obviously decided he got about 20% of his answers wrong.

The way I see it, if people who are supposed to be the authority on the material, and the ones responsible for teaching it to others, can’t get full grades, then something is very rotten at the core.

Teachers and lecturers are not some amazing prodigies, sure. There is a lot they don’t know, and don’t understand. I had some who weren’t able to provide even the most basic information on anything that went even slightly beyond the course material. But they should know the course material. And if the lecturer is a good one, rather than an obviously lousy one, then it’s a given that they do know the course material.

Exams, by definition, are supposed to be a way to measure how well someone knows the material. Never mind that it’s impossible to really do, so all they can attempt is a rough proxy. And never mind that most students then study for the test, instead of studying the material, which in practice does turn out to be two different things. The test should still represent at some level the knowledge of the person taking it.

So if someone who is the university’s model of a person knowing the material can’t pass the test with full grades, and make substantial mistakes, what does that tell the students?

If you know everything perfectly you should get a perfect score. But that’s obviously not the case here.

Yes, paying someone to take a test for you is bad. Personally I think all cheating in tests is bad, and have avoided doing even the more mundane/common stuff that many students do. But this is because tests should be passed, or not, based on knowledge and merit.

When a university has a test which doesn’t grade based on what the proper criteria should be, though, they not only invite serious cheating, they partially justify it.

The most basic thing you claim against a person cheating is that they should have studied, and passed the test based on their knowledge. And people aren’t required to know everything, just well enough, this is why a passing grade isn’t a full score.

But when students know that knowing everything very well, even so well that they’d be at a level suitable to teach the material to other people, still won’t get them full grades, they also know that the passing grade isn’t. The well enough becomes near perfect, when perfect is just slightly higher than passing.

Students are placed in a position where they can either know perfectly, and still get low grades[2], or they can fail the course. No middle ground, of partially knowing the material and so getting a low grade, is possible. If you know enough for a low grade on a fair exam, you’d fail on this one.

If the test is not fair, there is a certain level of hypocrisy in expecting the students to act fair. Proper academical ethics should be exercised by both sides. Not just by the students and faculty, but also by the university’s administration and processes.

  1. about $1100 USD[back]
  2. Meaning they know that an additional very small mistake, one that otherwise would have allowed them to keep a high grade, may in this case be enough to flunk them[back]

Hard test

February 27th, 2006

I just had a short conversation with a friend who recently finished a university test. And two of the sentences I found just too amusing to let slip quietly into oblivion.

Just to make sure that these won’t give the totally wrong impression, the friend is quite an intelligent person, usually. I suspect this is more because the subject matter of that test was totally outside my friend’s interest. From the sample questions I heard, the test was absurdly easy, but that’s entirely not the way my friend, and the other classmates, apparently saw it.

And please notice that these were both said in an highly indigent tone.

Quote number one was in an attempt to explain to me why the test was hard, despite me thinking that the material should have made it very easy:

They didn’t ask us exactly about the things they said in class. To answer these questions we had to think about them.

Ah, a shame about this foul academic practice in which students are required to understand the material, instead of just parroting back what the lecturer said in class, isn’t it?

The second quote is from an attempt to demonstrate that not only was the test unduly difficult, but that the university made the students take it under uncommonly hard conditions:

And they didn’t even let us copy. I mean, at all!

I wonder if they have a case to appeal to the dean. That’s very cruel, and hardly fair…

Evaluating students’ understanding of the web

July 4th, 2005

A group of several US universities and colleges are designing tests intended to measure the students’ skill at using and searching the web. While many people connect to the Internet these days, many do not understand well enough what it is that they’re doing, are not aware of many of the available resources, and do not know how to measure the reliability of information:

Sample questions include giving students a simulated page of Web search results on a particular subject and asking students to pick the legitimate sources. So, a question on bee sting remedies presents a choice of sites ranging from ads to a forum for herb treatments to (the correct answer) a listing from the National Institutes of Health, identifiable by having “nih” in the URL (site address) along with the “.gov” suffix that connotes an official government listing.

On the face of it, it sounds like they stick to pretty basic stuff. It generally gives the sense that the test will indeed give low grades to people who are not experienced on Internet search and use. On the other hand, if they stick to being simple and basic, they may easily also give low grades to people who are very good at using the web. Anyone who is more sophisticated, and with better knowledge and more experience, than those composing the test is likely to know even better answers, which will not be the ‘correct’ ones.

Still, like in any subject, there are more people who haven’t a clue than people who are very skilled. And it’s likely that someone who knows their stuff will be able surmise what are the answers that they are supposed to give, even if they’re not really the best ones.

It’s a good idea, because the problem is real.

Roth notes that the bulk of the assessment focuses on critical thinking skills, being able to analyse the legitimacy of Web sites, and knowing the difference between properly cited research and plagiarism, things that “haven’t changed very much since I enrolled in college in 1969.”

Being able to decide how legitimate source are is important. I have an, otherwise very intelligent, friend who was doing a project on a somewhat obscure topic. Since the topic was far from the mainstream of the field, there were few accessible academic sources to rely on, and finding more sources and data was a difficult task. Going through many web searches the friend found some interesting sources, but also plenty of junk. But the bit that illustrates the point here best was one specific source, which seemed at a first glance to contain riches of information on the subject. My friend was certainly happy for managing to find this gem, and was going to base part of the paper on it. Since it was interesting, I took a peek myself, only to discover that this piece of research and discussion was actually a very elaborate part of a background story for a… computer game. The company did a wonderful job of putting on the web plenty of things to substantiate the game world, its history, and its mechanics and way of operation. But it was the game world, not ours. That could have been a very embarrassing thing to submit inside an academic paper.

Although, given the obscurity of the topic, and the lack of familiarity with computers of most lecturers in the faculty, I may have done my friend a disservice. It’s quite likely that the professor would have gladly accepted the paper, and the source. Not only the students need their web skills brushed and improved.

Of course, some of those text-messaging students are still being taught by professors whose idea of a personal data assistant is a fresh pad of Post-Its.

Doing those test will provide another academic advantage, though.

Jones folds lessons on Internet use into his classes. And he doesn’t mince words about students who try the “click, copy and paste” approach to homework.

“I tell the students, ‘Some of you are going to put off this paper until the night before. You’re going to go to Google, type in search words and just look at the top five hits and use those. I’m going to grade you on this. I’m going to look at these sources and so let’s talk about how to evaluate sources.”‘

It is sadly all too common for students to find existing articles, and pretty much copy them verbatim. The more sophisticated ones may do a major job of reordering sentences, and replacing words, so it will not be obvious. Sometime putting so much effort into it that writing a proper paper from scratch would have been easier. Maybe there is a psychological block involved, causing writing a paper to seem much harder than it really is. Not to mention that copying and editing of become much easier when the source material is a computer file, and not a printed book or journal article.

Taking tests that include parts about searching for sources on the Internet will decrease the phenomenon. This may seem a bit counter intuitive, since apparently the test will just help ensure that students learn how to find and copy sources better. But most manage that anyway. What they will learn is that the university also knows how it’s done. Even though most lecturers don’t, the students will have more doubts about it, and will realize that the teacher actually can do the same searches they do, and find the same sources.

So those who aren’t really sophisticated will do the work properly, for fear of getting caught. And those who are actually much better at it, they are usually the ones who don’t feel like they have to copy anyway, I think.

I wish them good luck with their tests, and just hope that they’ll do them properly, and make them relevant. Done wrong, written by people who don’t know their stuff, or kept out of date, it would be very easy to instead make the tests a joke that will only provide extra material for students to laugh about during breaks.

I doubt that was by design

June 14th, 2005

Christianity Today, the Evangelical Christian periodical, also publishes various specific studies and publications, which they sell for a modest fee to pastors. Not being an evangelical Christian, I never noticed them until I stumbled upon the page for this study, titled Sex as God Designed It. Catchy name, and since I find it hard to take such a thing as designed, I decided to take a look.

I did not actually pay for the article, but there’s plenty on the product page to explore. Now, I know that Christianity is a big supporter of marriage. And I know that it probably isn’t too enthusiastic about free sex. But from there, to what this study seems to claim, well, there’s quite a bit of a distance.

The church has a vital part to play in spreading the good news about sex.

Good news? News? As in something new which people didn’t know until now, and was just recently discovered? And here I thought the church was somewhat conservative and old fashioned, not running cutting-edge research on topics like sex.


Western civilization is overstimulated and oversexed, says Philip Yancey. We are thoroughly saturated with sexual images and constantly surveyed about sexual attitudes and practices.

I don’t know about Mr. Yancey, but personally I am not (unfortunately) overstimulated and oversexed. Not only that, but I am not constantly surveyed about sexual attitudes. Come to think of it, I think I was never once surveyed about my sexual attitudes. So who the heck keeps coming back to Mr. Yancey to survey him?

But something essential and precious has been lost. Sadly, a persuasive Christian approach to sexuality is missing that could act as a balance to secular cynicism and obsession and help believers rediscover the elements of sacredness in a healthy sexual life.

I know sex should be great, but people who refer to it as sacred, or holy, are usually taken away by the nice people in white jackets, and hospitalized. Besides, if the purpose of a sexual relation was to be sacred and worship god, it would have been, like other things in that category, even more exciting and fulfilling, right? Sex might have been as fun as taking communion, maybe even as exciting and uplifting as praying, or going to confession. But since sex really pales in comparison (Right? Be honest, which would you rather do? So there you have it), then it should be obvious it can’t be nearly as sacred.

In this study, we’ll endeavour to understand God’s design for sex and discuss how the church can help spread the word.

About the only seriously good thing I have to say about this study, is that at least the author think that it’s possible, and desired, to understand God’s working and decisions. There are plenty of religious attitudes that claim trying to understand and analyse God is wrong, and thankfully this isn’t one of them.

Still, there’s really no need for the church to spread the word about sex. People know. It’s one of the worst kept secrets of all times.

So far for the overview, let’s take a look at the main points of the study article, see what it’s really about:

—Teaching point one: God created and designed sex and sexual expression to be experienced in a marital relationship.

So what Mr. Yancey is saying here, is that God is a terribly bad designer, and had no idea what she was doing during the design phase, no? Because, let’s face it, the fact that sex and sexual expression were designed specifically to be experienced in marital relationship explains a lot. It explains, for example, why nobody is ever sexually attracted to a person they’re not married to. It also explains why people always remain sexually attracted to people that they are married to. And, last but not least, it explains why nobody who is married is ever sexually attracted to anyone beside their spouses, for even the briefest of instants. Yes, wonderful design job. If you’d have bought something home with that design spec, and that actual performance, you’ll be running back to the store for a refund, and sue the company for false advertisement and sloppy design.

Ah, and let us not forget, this of course means that ever since the day of creation, everyone married. Historically speaking, there was never a time, and never a civilization, that had sex, but did not have marital relationship. The two come hand in hand. Right? Otherwise it would mean that through major parts of human history all people were just blatantly ignoring God.

—Teaching point two: When society loses faith in God, the purposes and practices of sexual expression become perverted.

Because, of course, nobody who isn’t Christian ever had a proper marriage between a man and a women, just like Mr. Yancey God likes. And we should be grateful for being notified that if society will lose faith in God then, among all the other horrors, something terrible will happen… People may come to think that sex is… fun. Dreadful, isn’t it?

—Teaching point three: The church must reclaim its teaching and pastoral role to provide a godly perspective and a well-grounded witness for sexuality.

The way I read that point, he says that priests and pastors should provide sex-ed classes in church, and should sometime sneak into people houses to make sure the sex they are having is only with their spouses. But that can’t possibly be what he means, can it?

Apply Your Findings

No, I’m not kidding. In the study about sex, and the dangers and perversion of out-of-marriage sex, one of the topics is getting the priests to apply their findings. I have nothing to say about that, except to wonder if that refers to the married evangelical priests, or the unmarried evangelical priests. Probably both. Well, have fun applying your findings then, guys. Darn, I like that euphemism, and predict it’s only a matter of time before it will hit the mainstream. I wonder how “Hi there, gorgeous. Would you like to come with me and help me apply my findings?” will go as a pick-up line…

Smaller books for smaller brains

June 2nd, 2005

Another fine piece of educational legislature. A bill that recently passed in California makes schools use only books which are 200 pages long or less. Longer study books are now forbidden.

Also, the bill:

Encourages the use of technology and multimedia materials to create higher interest and more up-to-date information from varied sources.

It does that by requiring that the new and shortened books will include references to Internet resources on the subject. So the pupils could go look for more information on their own. Providing fixed links to specific references on all specific subjects must seem much better to the bill drafters than just adding general lessons on how to use the Internet and search for reliable information.

This is all absurd, of course. Yes, some study books are much longer than they need to be. But not all. Dealing with the issue should be done individually, by whatever authority is in charge of study books quality and selection. But just telling everyone to cut stuff until they get to 200 pages is so arbitrary that it’s bound to be ineffective. If all that matters is length, students will get a shorter version, but not necessarily a more coherent and orderly one. Cutting is easy, properly summarizing is hard.

And while the Internet contains many good sources, having a printed book link to Internet pages is silly. The Internet also contains bad info. And Internet pages are constantly changing, and changeable. When a book is printed you know exactly what’s in it. But a page you link to can change, or just go away. So this will make official study books become obsolete and inaccurate in the same rate web pages are. Worse, the publishers of a book have no control over the content of external Internet sites, so asking them to print a permanent reference is too much.

Unless book publishers are expected to put up their own sites, for each book, putting on each site the material that was cut from the book. This practically ensures that cutting the books down won’t do any good, since they will all just crop material, and have the book point to the site. The books won’t become better, they will remain the same except that parts of them will become less accessible.

One more point, to show how well thought-of this bill is:

FISCAL EFFECT : None, according to Legislative Counsel.

Sure. Making many study-book publishers edit and cut their books, publish new versions of everything, and have people scrutinizing web sites, will cost nothing. Because it won’t cost the publishers any money, so they will obviously not need to raise the prices of books. They will also not be tempted to just take one book and make it a series of several smaller books, and so nobody will need to pay for the purchase of more books. And the wide changes will also not force pupils to buy all these new books since the often used versions they’re using will not become obsolete and they could go on using them.

Yes, there are many problems with textbooks. Yes, many are unclear. Yes, many are old fashioned. Yes, many are uninteresting. But merely forcing everyone to make the books shorter will not solve any of that, and will just create new problems.

Of course, it’s always possible the people proposing the bill are ones who always had a hard time reading any long and complex texts. And since they turned out so well and fine without it (look, they’re even capable of coming up with such amazing education bills), it made perfect sense to them to let others benefit from the same joys of not having a working and educated brain.

Via Techdirt.