Maybe Academic Librarians Can Improve The Quality Of Cheating

What would lead any academic librarian to say something like that? Am I being sarcastic or serious – I’m not quite sure myself. I certainly don’t mean to endorse cheating at any level in higher education. However, it’s apparent that cheating, whether it’s plagiarism or testing, may be spiraling out of control. I think what I do mean is that if students are going to use electronic devices in exam situations to access information perhaps we should at least be working collaboratively with faculty to educate students to access high quality information when they cheat during tests. Let’s take a step back.

First, maybe you should read two articles. One is a piece from the New York Times about the epidemic of cheating and how IHEs are working to keep pace in detecting hi-tech cheaters. The other is an essay in today’s Inside Higher Ed - in response to the NYT article – advocating that instructors should accept students “Googling” for information during tests because that’s what we all do in real life anyway, and that efforts to keep one step ahead of students in preventing hi-tech cheating is doomed to failure. Both the essay and the comments (maybe even better than the article) do tend to agree that at the heart of the matter is a mixture of poor teaching and equally poor tests and testing environments that are conducive to cheating. My own reaction is that in some testing situtations allowing students to access information makes perfectly good sense – open book/note tests are nothing new. These tests are not about rote memorization, they are about analyzing a problem, accessing information needed to develop a solution, and then quickly writing an articulate response. Expecting students to have memorized everything learned in a semester will lead those who cheat to do so – and as the author asks – what’s the educational value of expecting rote memorization.

Where I take issue with this piece is the assumption is that all students need to do in their exams is have access to Google. Has anyone told the author that Google doesn’t index all the information students might need in a testing situation (e.g., deep web resources)? Is it possible that students might need to find a quote from a scholarly article (not found on Google Scholar) to support a point? Might an e-reference tool in the library’s collection be the best resource to consult during a test? So here’s my suggestion. If an instructor wants to make the testing environment more reality based by allowing students to access information on the fly – call it cheating if you will – I say make the resources used a part of the test situation. For the lazy and uninformed students who use only Google – go ahead and deduct a few points. Reward those who diversify their information resources during the test. Does the student cite an article in a library database? Great, add a few points. Does the student use more than one search engine to compile information? Even better – add a few more points. Once students start to realize that becoming more knowledgeable about all of their information options – and recognizing that having the ability to demonstrate their diversified resource knowlege will pay off with better test scores – our information literacy chores may just get a whole lot easier.

6 thoughts on “Maybe Academic Librarians Can Improve The Quality Of Cheating

  1. I agree that when an exam is given as “open book” (or open web), students should be encouraged to use a variety of sources (and, as StephenB suggests, be graded accordingly). However, I do take some issue with Mr. Socol’s general assumption that memorization is somehow passe.

    In order for information to become more than simply sound bites and a shallow appreciation of the “facts”, people need time to internalize and develop information into understanding and knowledge. In spite of ubiquitous and omnipresent computing and quick access to networked information, students still need to possess a baseline or foundation of internalized, memorized information which can serve as a point of departure for the creation of new ideas, concepts and knowledge.

    By simply tossing the value of memorization to the wayside, we risk creating students who are savvy about quickly finding reliable information, but very shallow in thier understanding and knowledge of what this information means. Instant access to information does not make one instantly knowledgeable. Unfortunately, I think many students consider themselves knowledgeable because they can quickly look it up in a database, search engine, etc. In his comments, Mr. Socol states that he doesn’t “want a doctor who diagnoses all diseases simply from memory.” Indeed, but (going down the slippery slope) wouldn’t you want a doctor who instantly knew the anatomy, the physiology, the vocabulary (and, yes, even the spelling) instead of having to constantly look things up?

    I am in total agreement that we should be teaching students how to properly find trusted information from a variety of sources. But this should not become an either/or proposition with the value of possessing a baseline of memorized information from which to move forward.

    Furthermore, I see a strong parallel between this conversation and the issue of students losing the ability (and desire) for sustained reading. But that is an entire other can of worms…

  2. I agree Ameet. When calculators came out supposedly there was some discussion about not teaching times tables anymore. I’m really glad my 3rd grade teacher wasn’t paying attention to that edu-reform flavor of the month. I can’t imagine being in a store and not being able to do a few quick calculations without whipping out a calculator.

    I also agree there’s a connection to sustained reading. It’s paradoxical that while the new technologies give us more access to greater depth and breadth of information, they also give us great temptation to procrastinate, to waste time by midlessly surfing, to obsessively check news and email, to read and comment on blogs….uh wait a sec…

    Here’s hoping that “ability to focus” will become as cool and hip a trait as “ability to multitask.”

    It seems “to Google” has become shorthand for “to look stuff up.” I think most of the professors I deal with though understand the difference between google and scholarly databases.

  3. I’m not sure if you are being sarcastic or serious either. I can only hope that students can still be required to know certian facts and dates, eg. July 4, 1776; December 7, 1941; who was president of the US during the Civil War. Yes all of thes facts can be looked up on Google or any other search engine, but it should not be unrealistic to expect a college student to have basic knowledge.

    Colleges do teach information literacy and it continues to expand. We attempt to educate students in how to search for information and how to interpret and use that information, not only for their time in school, but for use when they enter the “real world”.

    I’m sure that if academic institutions wanted to end this problem, they could. Separate test taking centers with computers lacking internet access, stiff penalties for anyone caught cheating (without second, third or fourth chances).

    We are in an information age and it should be embraced. The goal of academic institutions should not be requiring students to recite facts and dates ad infinitum, but to foster the development of critical thinking. Ultimately, just knowing where to look up facts is not enough. Higher education should have loftier goals than that. Let the students use the technology or don’t, it should not matter, we should be teaching and testing the ability to interpret that information.

  4. I was not at all surprised by the response of university faculty to my article. They are often tied so deeply to the past, to their own unique success in school, that they can not possibly see alternatives (“you must take notes in the library by hand!” – “you must memorize these formulas!”), but I am saddened to hear similar refrains from librarians.

    Let me ask a few questions:

    1. Do you really disbelieve in the capacity to learn? What is “looking something up” other than reading it, and probably absorbing it? And can’t any discerning professor, grading a final, note the difference between answers generated by superficial searches and answers generated by better searches? Won’t students learn from that fact as well?
    2. While I understand that many faculty members believe learning only happens across the course of a semester, surely librarians cannot be locked into that paradigm? Can a student learn even while being tested? Even while taking a final?
    3. Doesn’t information change? Don’t facts change? I’m glad Mr. Jackson remembers dates, but I hope he is not locked into the facts of the European Economic Community or the capital of Nigeria or the status of Scotland as he learned them in 1983.
    4. How can librarians really argue against “the internet”? Is it not nothing more than the world’s biggest library – as full of crap and brilliance, fact and fiction, as any library? Of course deep deep search methods, but face facts folks, less than one percent of high school seniors can use Google efficiently and effectively. Not many more college sophomores can do it either. If they can’t use Google, believe me, they can’t figure out the hyper-complexities of your search systems.

    Please challenge me. I remai “fascinated”

    - Ira Socol

  5. I didn’t entirely disagree with your promotion of the idea of allowing students to look things up when test taking. I only suggested that your piece was Google-centric in its view of what should be used by students in their information retrieval. I don’t advocate that students only use library databases. Rather, they need to be educated to understand what all of their options are – and to make wise choices when writing papers, looking up facts – or gathering information needed to respond to test questions. I further suggested that students who show the ability to make wise choices could be rewarded on their exams. That doesn’t seem particularly “tied to the past” – does it?

    For many students “looking up” isn’t learning. It’s just capturing some content to slap into a paper – or to insert into a test question. Whether it becomes learning or not depends on the instructor, the assignment, and the context in which the resources are used. I’m not sure many professors could discern what information sources used (unless students are properly citing those sources) because the librarian’s experience indicates that most faculty are not aware of the many different resources their libraries offer. To some extent that’s the librarian’s fault for not providing good faculty development opportunities.

    I’m not sure where you get your data about how many students use Google efficiently (what defines that anyway – using the advanced search? going beyond the first result screen? knowing what a dot.com is versus an edu – I haven’t seen anything quantifying that). I do know the PEW Internet studies have documented that a very high number of search engines users – something over 85% – believe their searches are always successful and they are highly satisfied with their results – but again we don’t know what kind of searches that refers to – but my point is it doesn’t matter if they know how to use it effectively and efficiently – they think they do. That being the case, what’s to stop them from using just Google to look up stuff for a test – find the crap – or miss something really useful that you can’t find with Google – and they’ll just think they did one heck of a great job retrieving information. That’s the problem with Google-centricity.

    So I would argue that they can use Google – and to their way of thinking they do so successfully. I would also argue that while library search systems offer more features (and added value) they are not necessarily more complex. Take a look at any EBSCO, Gale or ProQuest database. All offer simple search boxes just like any search engine. Yes, they have advanced features too – just like Google. My experience shows that some basic user education (do they have an information literacy initiative in progress at your institution – perhaps you’ll want to talk to your librarians about that) most students can learn not only the basics of using any general library database (and upper classman can learn more discipline specific systems like ISI Web of Science or Mergent’s Financial Database) but they can benefit from library user education by becoming a better search engine user as well.

    But I’d rather not argue with faculty about whether library databases are too complicated for students. My focus is on working collaboratively with faculty to help them design assignments and projects that help students build the skills that will make them better researchers and test takers.

  6. I wouldn’t blame librarians. University library staff I know are always willing and ready to get into classrooms and help students with this. Faculty rarely invite them. But, please stop focusing on my use of the word “Google.” The idea is searching, and my research (observational and not quantitative, but fairly extensive right now) shows that high school students have no idea how to combine words in searches, how to try different words, phrases, etc. How to narrow searches. How to select results, no matter what search systems they are using. Of course the reason is that high school faculty don’t know either (only 30% of the high school faculty I have observed understand the use of quotation marks in searches, as an example). Honestly, they can’t search a library catalog either. The other part of my observations show that college sophmores can’t do it either. And everything you describe about what faculty needs to be working on and emphasizing (insisting on citation, insisting on quality information properly presented, insisted on being able to explain search strategies) is the very point of my argument.

    So, if I, as an instructor, ask a question and allow internet use my grading will include citation issues, source quality, and evidence of complexity of the search. Time settings will also determine search efficiency. That is teaching real world skills. If I allow internet access and ask for the date of the Declaration of Independence, I’m an idiot and should retire. And if I cannot grade on the new criteria, I should probably also retire.

    But, if you are devoting class time to myriad fact memorization, you are probably not devoting the time to these essential strategies.

    I don’t think we’re far apart here. I really don’t.

    Years ago, in the internet’s early days, I depended a great deal on “profnet” for technical answers. You had to know who to ask, how to ask, and who to trust. But knowing how to use that made me far more successful in my work. Nothing has changed, except that it has gotten easier to do this successfully.

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