Thursday, July 27, 2017


Friday Fragments

A few days ago, a reader wrote to ask about how professors police cheating during in-class exams, now that smartphones are pretty much ubiquitous.  

Wise and worldly readers who teach, how have you adapted in-class exams for the age of the smartphone?


Actual in-car conversation, having just picked up The Girl and some of her friends from a party:

Friend 1: She’s such a Veronica!

TG: She’s more of a Heather, I think.

(antennae up)

(drop off the other girls)

Me: What was that?

TG: Oh, they’re talking about this musical called “Heathers.”  I think it’s based on a movie.  Have you heard of it?

(mind reels)


TG: That’s what (friend)’s Dad says, too!

It’s good to see the classics get their due.  Generation X’s mark on the culture may have been fleeting, but I’ll happily own this one.  Neither Winona Ryder nor Christian Slater was ever quite that good again.


“When you have an area that just isn’t working like Upper New York State…” - Donald Trump


In an interview this week, Donald Trump advised residents of “upper” New York to move to Wisconsin.

A few thoughts.

First, nobody there calls it “upper” New York State.  It’s Western New York, or, in some cases, Upstate.  As a lifetime resident of New York City, I would have expected him to know that.  But that’s a minor point.

The President of the United States is writing off regions of the US with millions of people in them?

Um, not okay.

In Western New York, where I grew up, there’s a chronic sense of being in the shadow of New York City.  NYC dominates state politics, and it dominates the state’s national image.  When I got to college and people asked me where I was from, I learned quickly that if I just answered “New York” they’d assume I meant The City.  When I mentioned Rochester, a classmate asked me which subway line it was on.  Rochester is farther from NYC than Washington, DC is.

The rule is that you’re only allowed to criticize it if you’re from there.  If you haven’t personally washed down a white hot with a Genny Cream, or you have no idea what a Garbage Plate is, I don’t want to hear it.

Those of us who grew up there and moved away -- some of whom even work at IHE -- have complicated feelings about the place.  But we earned those.  And they’re based on knowing what we’re talking about.

It’s a new era, I know that, but I’m still put off by national political figures trashing states they didn’t win.  That’s not what a _national_ figure is supposed to do.  I don’t recall the presidents Bush trashing Massachusetts, or Obama trashing Alabama.  The Clintons liked Upstate so much that they moved there (sort of).  

Early next week I’ll be in Nashville for a conference.  I intend to go the entire time without indulging in any regional stereotyping.  Anytime Mr. Trump would care to learn from my example, I’d welcome it.  Besides, he doesn’t seem like someone who would turn down a Garbage Plate.

Oh, the humanity!
I am confused about the smartphone question. They are not supposed to have it out, just like they are not supposed to have other extraneous material out. Unless you have a large lecture hall, the policing is pretty easy.
To answer the proctoring question: just be vigilant! Walk the aisles and look around the room. Preventing them from using a phone on an exam is not much different from preventing them from using a cheat sheet. Besides, if I wrote a good exam, the answers I'm looking for (both essay and multiple choice) demonstrate more than a superficial level of understanding, so it is not like they can just look up one word that will be an obvious answer.

It is for the same reason that when I transitioned from closed book to open book lab quizzes in some of my classes (no phone use, though), the scores didn't improve. Those who didn't understand the material or the context of the experimental data also didn't know what to look up.

I will concede one point -- I still don't have a good system to prevent them from looking something up on a phone in the bathroom during an exam. I suppose I could collect a phone from anyone who wanted to use the restroom, but I don't know how comfortable I feel doing so.
I rarely give exams—in my current course, I grade on the design reports that the students turn in. The reports are done in pairs, but the students need to have a different partner for each report, so there isn't much freeloading. Plagiarism is sometimes a problem, though, and I spend a lot of time making sure that students understand appropriate citation practices and the need for explicit written acnowledgement of any collaboration.

I do sometimes give a an exam in the course, when not enough students have been doing the pre-lab homeworks. The most recent time I used two different forms (alternating seats), and made the students who normally sit in the back row sit in the front row and vice versa. The questions were all straightforward ones that just required a little calculation—a phone would not have helped much unless they mailed photos of the exam to a confederate who was much better than them.

It helps that there is almost no memory work in the electronics course—all I expect them to memorize for a 2-quarter sequence fits comfortably on one page (and they come in knowing some of it, like Ohm's Law and Q=CV for capacitors). I don't care what students can recite from memory—I care about what they can do with what they know. Unfortunately, timed tests are a rather poor measure of that.

Back when I used to give exams more often (usually in computer engineering courses), I generally did open-book exams.
Nick Tahou's Garbage Plate!!
I work with a College of Dentistry--the students have lockers. A number of in person tests are pen/paper or Ipad only. Smart phones and -- more recently-- smart watches are to be left in lockers. As are bags and everything else. The Ipads are only to be in the test software and faculty do have to circulate the rooms.

One of my undergrad profs (years ago) had a "if you're responsible for another person [child, parent, etc], your phone can be on silent; otherwise, turn it off" policy. I liked that one.

I expect my students to put their phones in bags or away -- they expect it too, not sure why it'd be a point of contention.
I am the reader responsible for the question on cheating. Here's what I wrote - perhaps that provides a bit more context?

My institution has as its official policy that "possessing unauthorized aids" is an academic offence. (Using unauthorized aids is, of course, also an offence.)

In the old "days", possession would take the form of crib notes. If you had them, if they had course-related material written on them, then the balance of probabilities tipped against you.

Nowadays, however, we have smart phones and smart watches. "Possession" can mean having the phone in your pocket, or wearing the watch. My question [to you] is, should possession of a smart device absent clear evidence of (attempted) usage constitute an academic offence? Has - or should - the balance of probabilities shift in favour of the student?

Thank you to all of have commented on the question.

IMDb says "Heathers" is going to be TV series, with its debut in 2018. Sounds like a planned mid-season replacement. I never saw it, but IMDb knows all. Interesting that you and your daughter both enjoy a movie about murdering popular kids in HS and making the deaths look like suicide.

If someone is an EMT or parent on call, they can leave their phone on my desk so I can take the call. Everyone else has their phone in "airplane mode" and out of sight. The very rare bathroom break requires leaving the phone and anything in their pockets before they can leave.

To the original questioner: If the policy is possession, then enforce it after defining phones as illegal and advertising it. Turn out pockets before the exam and kick out anyone with a phone. Purses and bags could be exempt if they are placed in a pile at the front of the room. If everyone at the college isn't willing to do that, then amend the policy so it reflects what you actually do. Empty threats are bad policy.

Hint to everyone proctoring in a lecture hall: Observe the rows on the far side of the room. You can see what might be in their laps when they think you aren't looking at them, and you can also see who keeps looking across and back to see where you are. They shouldn't be doing that either. Also a good tip about seating people in front who normally sit in back, although proctoring from the back of the room usually keeps them in line.

Hint to Brian @7:40pm - If the room is too big for one person to proctor, you probably have TAs who can help proctor. They can handle the mundane stuff like keeping track of exams at the front of the room, freeing you to actually proctor.

I've never done it, but some people allow a reference sheet or card but require that it be attached to the exam. I'm told one person even grades them.
At the university where I did my PhD, professors are asked not to actively proctor exams; however they are allowed to remain in the testing room to answer questions.

This is because of a 100+ year old Honor Code, and I got the impression that students and professors take it really seriously. Penalties for violating it are quite stiff.

Each faculty member or instructor has the responsibility and opportunity to determine how best to apply the Honor Code to their particular course, and any resource or course of action not permitted by the instructor is prohibited.

This probably doesn't help the person that asked the question since it's a systemic policy, but it does show that there are alternatives out there.
I teach middle and high school math.

For "normal" tests and final exams in my course, I used to tell them that their phone needs to be away and non-distracting (off, on silent, airplane mode, whatever - it needs to not be able to get their attention or bother anyone else). Having had no issues with cheating using this policy, I've since loosened the policy to let them listen to music on their phones using headphones as long as the phone itself remains face-down and they don't touch the screen during the exam. (These tests are already open notes, so I'm not worried that a student will use some convoluted way to record notes and listen to them during the test. I just don't want them communicating with the outside world, looking up things they didn't bother to write down, or using more elaborate calculators/solvers than those on the allowed calculators for that exam.) This works because I'm generally proctoring less than 20 students at a time, so I can keep a pretty close eye on what they're specifically doing. If I had more students to watch, the rules would have to be stricter.

For "big" standardized tests, I have them write their names on sticky notes, put sticky notes on their phones, and leave the phones on a table by the proctor's desk on silent or airplane mode. This has the disadvantage of opening up possible theft, so it's not something I'd recommend in a large group or a school with a theft problem. I know all of my students pretty well and the school culture is such that we haven't had a theft problem here, but I've taught other places where I absolutely wouldn't do this. (The main problem here, and the reason for the sticky notes, is that we'll often have at least one student forget their phone when they leave.)
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I should add that at the high school level, state law now requires that we collect cell phones and smart watches when giving statewide standardized tests. Merely possessing a phone during a standardized test leads to automatic failure if caught.

And yes, we have lots of well-intentioned students who fail state exams for phone possession every year. Many kids just don't like giving up their phones and would rather just keep the device in a pocket and tell the proctor that they didn't bring a phone to the test.
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