Ultimate goal of homework is lost

    Consider three scenarios: First, a lower-division calculus class with routine weekly homework assignments. The problems are generally easy enough that the majority of papers turned in tend to have right answers; as a result, catching students who copy someone else’s work is near impossible because most of the answers are nearly correct, and those that are not are likely common errors among all the students.

    Scenario two: A class with few students has weekly assignments that constitute a large portion of the students’ final grade. The only restriction is that assignments turned in must not be identical. The assignments are meant to be extremely challenging, and without collaboration between students — including advice from students who have finished the assignment, as well as those who have not — almost nobody in the class would learn anything.

    Scenario three: An upper-division engineering class has routine homework that forms a very small portion of the grade. Students are allowed to collaborate, but only with other students who have not finished the assignment. The assignments are moderately difficult; as such, catching those who copy verbatim is possible.

    In these three scenarios, would it be fair, or even possible, to apply the same standards of cheating? For example, while two students may turn in nearly identical copies in the lower-division class with no problem (and indeed may not have even talked to each other), such behavior in the last two cases would be pounced upon. Some students, when accused of cheating, grumble that some combination of both unenforceable standards and changing policies from professor to professor has so impaired their ability to judge when collaboration is allowed that it is in fact unfair for professors to level accusations against them, in spite of the fact that the policies are often spelled out quite clearly at the beginning of each course.

    These are not restricted cases; this writer, in less than three years, has managed to go through no less than three classes in which the professors were so upset with rampant, widespread cheating on homework assignments that they took class time to readdress their policies and condemn the behavior of those accused.

    There is obviously some discrepancy in the way many students view decent behavior and the way their professors often expect them to act.

    Why is this? Perhaps we should go back to what the goal of homework assignments is in any field of study at the university. Homework assignments distinguish themselves from examined material insofar as their use is to provide incentives for students to educate themselves in out-of-classroom activity, as opposed to testing their knowledge of the material.

    While this may be tantamount to babying students along, no doubt students learn more if incentives are provided for them to do out-of-class assignments. Thus, the core objective in assigning homework is to encourage learning among students. Obviously, copying another student’s homework and passing it off as one’s own does little toward achieving this aim, even without any consideration of the moral consequences.

    Although it is entirely plausible that some people learn best from verbatim copying, they can do this with a timely solution set, if such an item were made readily available. Thus, it seems that restrictions on student behavior — such as spending some downtime between discussing an answer with another person and writing down a solution — seem rather ludicrous if they are inhibitors to student learning. One has to strike at the core reason why students cheat on homework: because there are incentives to do so.

    As opposed to homework assignments in a literature or political science course, which may consist of a one-page summary of the assigned reading, in an engineering or science course, it probably will consist of a problem set. While the former can be attempted in good faith and somewhat botched, but still be deserving of full credit, this writer has yet to see a science or engineering professor who will give full credit to a homework assignment that puts forth an honest, strong effort and yet yields the wrong numerical answers.

    Now, while that may be a valuable lesson insofar as industry goes, those lessons can be taught rather effectively with examinations. Homework, on the other hand, is meant to provide incentives for learning and practicing the material.

    The problem is that by turning in homework that is graded on its correctness rather than its good-faith effort, students have an incentive, especially in easier classes where copying is more difficult to spot, to pursue the correct answers rather than approach the process to correct the answers themselves. Furthermore, prohibitions on collaborations seem rather ludicrous if collaboration on homework helps students learn more. If verbatim copying is still verifiable and discovered under this situation, then perhaps the students should be punished for not making a good-faith effort, because if heavy collaboration is encouraged, insofar as that it helps students learn the material, then gentle prodding back into the proper amount of collaboration rather than the full consequences of academic dishonesty seems a more sane route. Homework would still be graded with an eye toward good effort rather than correct answers, and returned under such a system, of course, since the most helpful part of written homework for many students is to see exactly what mistakes they made in the first place.

    This is by no means to say that enforcing correct work is not a valuable thing. But that is exactly what midterms and finals are for, and if the TAs could be bothered to do it and the departments could afford it, perhaps the better route would be three low-stress midterms (or more appropriately, quizzes) in a quarter rather than one high-stress one. If departments were willing to invest the resources, the best way around the problem would be a two-step process: a first turn-in, where homework assignments are analyzed and given a provisional grade based on the original correctness, with hints on how to finish the problems correctly; and a second pass, where revised and presumably more correct answers are given.

    But given the resources for undergraduate teaching here, that would be a luxury beyond dreams. At the very least, department-wide policies, spanning from lower to upper division classes, with specifications for each type of out-of-class assignments — routine homework, projects, significant weekly assignments, etc. — would be appreciated, with consideration toward the maximum amount of collaboration allowed. Because at a university, if we are not to learn from other human beings, then what are we to learn from? The textbooks?

    n the last installment of this column, the URL for a site developed by UCSD students for rating professors was given incorrectly. The correct address is http://www.ucsdprofessor.com. The columnist realizes he is indeed a complete and total moron and could be bothered to check the URLs before he publishes them.

    In any case, as StudentLink is likely to make no move to implement an online professor rating system (as it is doubtful whether anyone actually bothers to read the column anyway), one hopes students might latch on to the aforementioned Web site (when it is not experiencing down time) and indeed create an online community where professors and students can glean the in-depth experiences of previous victims of courses.

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