In 2015 I had a random conversation with a representative of the ‘school help’ site Brainly at a conference. The company had 50 or so million (now 350 million) registrations and I was told that any student could go on the website and ‘exchange answers’ to questions.
You could call it cheating. Students going online, pasting their questions into a search bar and finding an answer from another student, somewhere else in the world. Or you can see it as part of a broader systemic challenge that comes with the Internet. (or both) One way or the other, they were getting answers to classroom assignments from the Internet.
This week, Michael Feldstein wrote an excellent piece about how Chegg, another version of this answer exchange, has not only setup ways for people to find answers together, they actually bought some of those answers from the textbook companies.
The students not only (literally it seems) have the teacher’s copy of the textbook they have the means of getting answers to anything else you throw at them. My students tell me that the answers to questions on exams can sometimes be posted on services like Chegg minutes after the exam has started. These sites aren’t magical. You can get ‘wrong’ answers on Chegg. There are also times when getting answers to those questions take a little longer, some posted questions from students go unanswered… it’s not a perfect system. But it does work. If a student is working with access to a computer, and your question has a correct answer, they can find it.
So I’ve been asking students and faculty what the implications are…
The faculty response
Throughout the pandemic, I’ve trained and worked with 60 or so students who were hired to support faculty and students. It’s been a few years since I worked with University students in this way and I’d forgotten how straightforward and honest the relationship is. We’ve talked about how they are living through the pandemic, about how their friends are doing and, increasing as their grasp of education design increases, how education has been changing in the last 12 months. Interestingly, their perspectives match up almost perfectly with the conversations I’ve been having with clients and colleagues from around the world – except for the students, it’s more personal.
You see, faculty know that Chegg & friends are out there. Moving their courses online (thereby removing in class exams) has removed the only secure check or balance they had that could guarantee that Chegg wasn’t doing assignments for their students. They are responding, and it’s not making things better for anyone. I’m going to leave virtual proctoring out of these responses as that is primarily a school based response, and is a terrible solution.
Response 1 – Make the exams harder
The most common response that I’ve heard is to make the assignments and exams themselves harder. Whether by asking more questions, giving less time to answer the questions, making the questions themselves more difficult, or some combination of the three, the idea is to try to make the event of the test so challenging that students wont have time to cheat. It does make one wonder… if last year’s exam was fair, and this year’s exam is harder… doesn’t that make this year’s exam unfair?
Response 2 – Entrapment
There are a variety of ways this plays out. Some faculty are lurking on Chegg trying to see when their assignments/tests get posted. Some are making very small changes in their questions from pervious years and calling out the students using previous years answers. Lots of ways to do this. Doesn’t necessarily make for friendly feelings all around.
Response 3 – open/take home exams and assignments replacing high stakes exams
Some faculty are taking a different route. They are saying ‘hey, i know you have the exams answers, I’m going to create these really involved exams and give you 24 hours to do them.’ Alternately, they are throwing the exams out the window entirely and giving students assignments and projects to replace those exams.
So what’s the problem?
Well. The first problem is that each of these solutions makes the course experience more difficult for the student. The student experience of education is not, usually, a one course experience. It is a cumulative experience from across 4-6 courses. Options 1 (make exams harder) and 3 (make more assignments) increase the stress and workload on students, leaving them with less time to do all their work. Less time leads them to, you guessed it, look for help from places like Chegg. Faculty are creating a scenario that is pushing students towards the very solution that they are trying to design themselves out of. Cheggification leads to more cheggification.
I’m also worried about how combative the whole thing seems to be getting. Faculty feel like the core social contract of the education system is being betrayed by students. I’ve spoken to long-tenured, student loving faculty members who are getting really frustrated. I’ve also spoken to students who I firmly believe to be students who are trying to do the right thing who suggest the ONLY way to get the grade in the current situation is to get answers from Chegg. It’s not healthy all around.
Underlying this conversation is the idea of there being a right answer to a question. In order for Chegg to work as a cheating tool (rather than, say, a tutoring tool) the assignment that the students is looking up has to have an answer that is ‘correct’ that they can ‘find’. And you might say ‘yes, dave, that’s what a test is’. Ok. I hear you. But it doesn’t ‘need’ to be that way. There’s a distinction in cognitive education research between a well-structured problem and an ill-structured (or ill-defined) problem that tells a story that I think is interesting. (for long tenured readers of this blog, it is similar to Cynefin’s complicated/complex)
A well-structured problem is what Chi and Glasser call a classroom problem. That’s a problem with a clearly defined question, clear inputs and a well-defined answer. Think of any math problem, any definition you’ve ever been asked to remember, or even a writing piece with a super-well defined rubric. They are problems that have been created with the express intent of teaching someone something. They are, necessarily, artificial.
An ill-structured problem is what Spiro might call a real-world problem. I kind of like Herbert Simon’s definition of an ill-structured problem, “all the things that aren’t well-structured”. If it’s hard to formulate the question, or the inputs could be different for different people, or there isn’t only one answer (or maybe it doesn’t even make sense for there to be an answer) you’ve got yourself an ill-structured problem. If it helps, read the excellent 1973 Dilemmas in a general theory of planning by Rittel and Webber… they know an ill-structured problem when they see one.
Why do we want well-structured questions?
So, if you have well-structured questions, students are going to use Chegg (or something like it) to find a way to answer those questions without ‘doing the work’ that you want them to do. If you try and fight against it, you make the situation worse. So. That seems easy. Lets just get rid of them. Ill-structured questions For The Win.
Well… maybe not so fast. Maybe it was William Farish who started this whole ‘lets assign a grade for right answers’ business, and maybe it wasn’t, but we’ve sure been doing it for a long time. We might want to consider what we’d be losing by getting rid of well-structured problems. I mean. They’re also called classroom problems. What do we lose if we get rid of them?
A certain kind of equalness
I didn’t say equity and I didn’t say fairness, because i don’t think it’s either, but at least with a well-structured question it’s easy to grade. You either chose (b) or you didn’t. You either did this thing that i specifically laid out in the rubric or you didn’t. It ends a lot of arguments. I know I’ve talked to a ton of high school teachers and even some university professors over the years who’ve moved to this approach just to settle arguments with parents calling for higher grades for little Johnny.
Maybe it’s better for novices?
The research I’ve seen on this is mixed (like all educational research). There are some suggestions that giving people simple answers to things like ‘how is that cell constructed or how do you write a good essay’ is a good way to start people on the learning journey. Novice learners tend to look to the superficial answer, and maybe this helps them develop some basic language or something, that makes it easier for them to dig in later on? (more on this in a future post) I have also seen it argued that it sets people on the wrong path to believing that there ARE simple answers to questions… something they need to break as they move towards being experts.
It’s easier for grading
I mean. Obviously. grading for multiple choice or with a clear rubric is way faster.
Why should we be using ill-structured problems?
Well. that’s going to be the next post. They are ‘real-life’ problems, and, well, it does seem like learning how to deal with real-life might be useful. The big issue though, is that our entire educational design and planning system is designed to work on well-structured problems. There are HUGE implications to change it. Lots more to discuss.
Chi, M. T. H., & Glasser, R. (1985). Problem solving ability. In Human abilities: An information-processing approach (pp. 227–257). W. H. Freeman & Co.
Rittel, H. W. J., & Webber, M. M. (1973). Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy Sciences, 4(2), 155–169. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF01405730
Simon, H. A. (1973). The Structure of Ill Structured Problems. Artificial Intelligence, 21.
Spiro, R. J., Feltovich, P. J., Feltovich, P. L., Jacobson, M. J., & Coulson, R. L. (1991). Cognitive Flexibility, Constructivism, and Hypertext: Random Access Instruction for Advanced Knowledge Acquisition in Ill-Structured Domains. Educational Technology, 31(5), 24–33. http://www.jstor.org/stable/44427517