Friday, April 21, 2017

Teaching and Learning Lessons from Turnitin

Guest Blogger: Bill Donohue

Here we are in Spring, and as we all await those final student products that demonstrate student learning from another successful semester, I know what you are thinking: “I wonder how Donohue’s use of Turnitin that he blogged about in January went this semester.” Fear not; I am here to give you an update!
Throughout the semester, students were required to submit select writing assignments using the Turnitin feature on Moodle. These assignments were ones that I have seen plagiarism in the past from essay mills or Sparknotes.
Overall, I saw five instances of plagiarism, two of which came from the same student. These are interesting cases to discuss as they shed light on both teaching and learning at Lincoln.
In ENG 101, students had to write an essay about Langston Hughes based on a close reading of his poetry and essays. Two students submitting essays to Turnitin had high similarity scores that proved to be opportunities for formative teaching and learning.
Both essays had sentences copied and pasted from internet sources. One student had minimal use of plagiarized sentences, and I addressed the issue through feedback about proper citation on the assignment through Turnitin’s feedback studio. The other had a very high rate copied sentences. I addition to feedback on the essay, I followed up with the student during a writing workshop. An underlying issue for the student was not understanding the writing assignment and the critical thinking concepts we had been discussing and practicing building toward the essay assignment. In a desperate attempt to submit something, the student wrote a biography of Langston Hughes, mainly by copying from internet sources. Not only was this teachable moment about plagiarism, but also a formative learning opportunity regarding the more difficult concept of close reading and critical thinking. The student revised the essay and was able to engage in the independent thinking and writing exercise intended by the assignment (without plagiarism).
In ENG 099, there were three instances of plagiarism for assignments related to the reading of the novel A Lesson Before Dying. Two of the plagiarized submissions were by the same student. My concerns are broader than difficulty with course content as seen in ENG 101.
All three plagiarized papers were emailed to me as opposed to submitted to Turnitin, as required. Part of the reason for need to email the assignments was that the assignments were completed after the due date. Turnitin will not accept submission past the due date. (The regular Moodle assignment submission function allows for a due date and a grace period. Good to know if using one or both tools during a course). I uploaded these emailed assignments to Turnitin for analysis and feedback. However, the emailing of the plagiarized assignments may be an attempt at subterfuge by avoiding the plagiarism checker altogether.
One student had a similarity score in the green at 23%, but the plagiarism detected was enough to fail the student. Although the assignment required analysis, a more difficult task than writing a summary, this is a student who usually does not have problems thinking independently and is quite vocal in class. One reason for the plagiarism might be the desperation to submit a late assignment. However, the student came to class high last week (smelled like marijuana; glassy, bloodshot eyes; delayed responses; evasive). My fear is that the student is heading down a road that will adversely affect academic performance.
The other student emailed both a chapter summary assignment and a character analysis assignment after the due date. Both were heavily plagiarized. The student has been consistently inconsistent all semester. When she is on, she does quite well. But other times, she misses class or does shoddy work, if she has completed the work at all. Other than online feedback, I have not had a chance to talk to the student directly, mostly because she has missed class. In an email exchange on a different topic, she did indicate how “swamped” she is with work, especially in trying to complete overdue work with work that is due next week. Is this another case of plagiarism due to desperation? Does she not know how to properly complete the assignments? Is she struggling with course content? Is she failing at organizing and prioritizing her work? How is she spending her time outside of class? Is she going to make it? What can I do for this student?
Such are the questions that keep me up at night.
One change that I made for a final writing portfolio assignment in ENG 099 was to engage higher level thinking skills. The straightforward character analysis that was plagiarized by two students has been altered to an assignment where students are placed in a position of running for sheriff in the fictional Louisiana town where A Lesson Before Dying is set.  The students need to have an understanding of the character responsible for much of the systemic racism in the town in order to create an argument as to why they should be sheriff instead. The critical thinking started right away in our class discussion of the assignment when one student asked about the time frame. Should they write in the 1940s setting of Bayonne, Louisiana, or current day? We settled on 1940s Louisiana, but without voting restrictions based on race or gender. 
I look forward to reading those assignments and all the final portfolios due next week from another semester of teaching and learning. 
What was your experience with student writing and/or the use of Turnitin in your classes this semester?

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Learning Matters

“Is it still possible for me to get a passing grade?” or “What do I have to do to get and A in your class?”; you, like me, have probably heard these questions more than once in the last few weeks. I post all my grades on Moodle so there is really no need to ask me grade questions, but there are always a handful of students eager to enter the hypothetical “what if I hand in all late assignments, get a 95% on the final, and complete all extra credit”. I must admit that I indulge these students. I invite them to sit down with me in my office and we go over every detail of their grade, enter reasonable and unreasonable estimates for the next few assignments and tests, and talk about what has to happen for them to earn that wished-for grade, whether it is a C or an A. Sometimes I try to talk about the bigger picture, especially if the student is one of my advisees. We talk about career aspirations, the realistic (im)possibility of being accepted to medical school with C’s in all biology and chemistry classes, repeating classes, taking and extra semester or year to finish college, and occasionally the conversation touches on learning. I may ask something like “do you feel like you have gained mastery of the material in the class?”, or “do you think you could use the knowledge in a different class or to solve a real-world problem?”, but those times are rare. What can we do to take the focus off grades and move it onto knowledge generation and learning? In her blog post Five Ways to Get Students Thinking about Learning, Not Grades, Maryellen Weimer lists a handful of thoughts on the topic. I particularly like the last point where she gives an example of an eye-opening question she once asked a student:

“5. Change the conversation – Talk “learning” with students. I once had this exchange with a student. ‘So, you’re taking political science? Tell me what you’re learning in the course.’ To which the student replied, ‘Nothing.’ ‘Really?’ I asked incredulously. ‘And what’s going to happen when you’re interviewing for the job of your dreams and the interviewer says, ‘Gee, I see you took a poly sci course. That’s such an interesting field. Tell me what you learned in that course?’’ I loved how the student’s eyes widened.”

She also admits that we do need grades as performance measures - she simply wishes to nudge the conversation to focus more on learning. What is your take on grades versus learning? More importantly, what do you do to help students think about their own learning processes?

Friday, April 7, 2017

Leading Lincoln

For the next few weeks we will all have the opportunity to meet, listen to, and hopefully ask questions of five presidential candidates. Are you using this as a teachable moment and encouraging your students to participate and be part of making Lincoln history? Most of the candidates have backgrounds in higher education, but there is one exception: the only male candidate comes from a more political background and currently serves as the president of a Philadelphia boarding school. More information about the candidates is available here:
Each one of these individuals have the potential to hold the future of Lincoln in his or her hands. If you were in their position, what would you present as your vision for Lincoln University? Should we try to become the “first” HBCU again, not just in chronology of founding but in rankings? Or maybe you would like to emphasize a strong and distinctive general education program that supports all majors and defines what it means to be a Lincoln graduate? Would you try to bring in more certificate and continuing education programs, work more closely with the local and Philadelphia community, bring in more resources through grants from foundations and state and federal agencies? Maybe you would emphasize a global presence or make sure that the University honors all types of diversity? Or maybe you would be of the mindset that growing the endowment should be a priority? Would you adopt the current strategic plan or immediately start working towards a brand new and different plan? Would environmental, fiscal and social sustainability play a prominent role in your vision for the University?
What about institutional organization – will next year’s Fact Book display re-drawn organizational charts? Would you keep the current VPs and directors or bring in new ones that you prefer to work with? What would you do about bridges and walls? Would you prefer to keep people and programs in their silos or would you try to build a more collaborative and interdisciplinary campus?
And how would you divide your attention among all the different responsibilities that require your devotion? Would you spend most of your time on campus or traveling to promote Lincoln and raise funds? How often would you go to University City and Coatesville? Would you attend basketball and football games? Dine with student and faculty? Would you go for a jog around the campus grounds every morning, trying to get to know the grounds crew, athletes and coaches and anybody who arrives to work early? Or maybe you would spend your time remodeling the President’s House and purchasing new furniture? Would you be a leader that communicates openly and honors transparency?
As I think about it, stepping into the role as President at any University is plagued with as many difficult decisions as it is peppered with opportunities to make a tremendous difference.
When it comes to teaching and learning at Lincoln, the president can be in the forefront giving ideas for curricular reform, promoting service learning by fostering relationships with the local community, offering opportunities for training of faculty to use more experiential learning, and being actively involved in educational policy and curricular decisions. Alternatively, the president can take the back seat and let Academic Affairs and faculty lead the way. There are benefits to both models. Stronger leadership may mean increased cohesion among programs and faculty, but it may also feel like a threat to academic freedom. If you had a magic wand, what type of academic leadership would you wish for the fall of 2017 and beyond? What questions will you ask of the candidates to ensure illuminating answers? Are you encouraging your students to attend the open sessions?

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Teaching Diversity

Unlike the current White House administration, the average Lincoln classroom is tremendously diverse. A first glance through Lincoln’s gates, or at our Fact Book*, reveals a largely African American student body composed of more women than men (63% women at the undergraduate level, 71% at the graduate level), but you don’t have to dig very deep to find that our students come from different social, socioeconomic, geographic, religious and cultural backgrounds. Lincoln has a little over 3% international students, many of whom come from west African and Caribbean countries, and we draw American students from 30 states. Many of our student are first generation collegegoers with neither parent ever attending college. About a quarter of our students have parents that live together, more than half (64%) have parents who live apart, while a full 10% have lost one or both parents. Religious backgrounds vary (although a vast majority come from families that identify as Christian), as do cultural identity, sexual orientation and gender identity. Add to that the students’ physical abilities and disabilities, along with mental, emotional, and cognitive abilities, and you paint an even richer picture of diversity. We have students that are athletes, dancers, musicians, writers, visual artists, activists, leaders, followers – the list goes on. The point: our classrooms are diverse. 
With diversity comes strength; any ecologist, whether a biologist or sociologist will tell you that a diverse ecosystem is more stable, resilient to disturbances and recovers more quickly when catastrophe strikes. But diversity can also bring challenges including less cohesiveness and effective communication side by side with increased anxiety and unease. Both faculty and students are bound to make assumptions based on their own cultural frame of reference. For example, you may talk about parents as being married, or assume that a household has a mother and a father, but our Fact Book tells us that this only holds true for a quarter of our students. What if a student was raised by two moms or two dads? Changing the language in the classroom to be more inclusive may mean that more students feel valued, which translates to a sense of belonging. Anytime students feel like they belong, they are more likely to contribute to classroom discussion and to be engaged learners.
It is also useful to identify the assumptions that the students bring to the classroom and begin to deconstruct biases and beliefs that are obstacles to group discussions or projects. I must admit that I don’t always feel like I have the time or resources to talk about classroom diversity with my students. I often ask students to work in groups, and although I am aware of a few techniques for effective team-building, I don’t always use them to help construct functional groups where everybody contributes equally and diverse opinions are respected. These skills are so important that the World Economic Forum has listed them among the top ten skills required by future employees to be successful in a global economy. We don’t even have to look to outside sources for affirmation of the importance of diversity; our very own strategic plan lists Globalization and Diversity as Imperative 6 with the additional description:
   While we remain committed to our legacy of providing the highest quality education to African American students, we recognize the importance of offering students a diverse environment and global collaborations which will prepare them for leadership in the 21st Century.”

Have you developed effective tools to celebrate and draw on classroom diversity in discussions and projects? What are your thoughts around classroom diversity at Lincoln? Have you explored the biases that you bring to your classroom, and how those biases influence your teaching?

The web offers a plethora of information on diversity in higher education. I found the following reference to be most concise and useful with several good references for further reading: