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The Cheating Art

24 Jan

If you teach, you will have encountered cheating.  And if you’re honest, you’ve probably cheated yourself at some point in the past – I don’t remember specific incidences of cheating from when I was at school, but I do remember attempting to ask my classmates for answers, little slips of paper in pencil cases and writing the answers out onto rulers and the insides of pencil cases, hands, wrists and arms.  I also remember that hunched over posture, arm wrapped all the way round the test paper, to guard against someone cheating off you…

Ann Loseva has just written a great post on the impact the accusation of cheating can have.  This prompted Graham Stanley to reflect on encounters with plagiarism and cheating he has had as a teacher and to investigate the cheating culture.  Both of which have inspired this post and a lesson that I ran with some CAE (Advanced) classes yesterday.  The lesson outline follows at the bottom of this post.

One of the things I tried to do in the lesson was to gather some informal data on how prevalent cheating is.  In percentage terms, it makes interesting reading, though as I occasionally asked for a show of hands the validity and reliability of the study is questionable!

  • 100% of my students said they had cheated on a test.
  • 53% said they thought it was OK to cheat on a class test.
  • 0% said it was OK to cheat on a formal exam
  • 60% said they thought cheating was culturally acceptable in their country

I’ve heard different theories for this last statistic.  One is that Catholic countries are more tolerant of cheating because these are minor sins that can be absolved and penance performed for following confession.  Another is that people who live or have lived under more authoritarian regimes have a greater need to understand how to “game the system”, in other words, cheating is a necessary life skill.

My students thought both these ideas were rubbish, though one student did point out you are more likely to break the rules if you think the rules are wrong and where you have absolutely no respect for your national leaders and politicians, this lack of respect may extend to the rules the government enforces.  This also filters down to the classroom – when the students have little or no respect for the teacher, they do not value the lesson content as much and equally see no point in attempting to perform well on their tests.  My little survey certainly seemed to suggest that the more seriously they view a test, the more effort they put into preparing for it and the less likely they are to cheat in it.

The seriousness with which they view their tests also comes from how much value they perceive the test to have.  There are tests they are given because the system demands it – neither the students nor the teacher value them and they are treated as a formality.  Students told me stories about their teachers “monitoring” during the tests and pointing out incorrect answers, telling students the answers under the cover of fake cough.  One student told me “I cheat when, it’s like I understand the topic or something and I know it but the test wants answers I don’t know.” – essentially, when the test is testing the reproduction of knowledge rather than any deeper level of understanding.

What worries me most, though, and which sums up the cheating issue in a nutshell is the feeling that they all agreed with:  “it’s easier than thinking.”  How do you combat that?  Seriously – any and all answers gratefully received!

Two ways that suggest themselves:  (1) Zero Tolerance and (2) Better Invigilation.

There does have to be a policy decision somewhere near the top of the academic tree about what is acceptable and what is not within school walls.  Personally it annoys me when I see students frantically copying each others’ homework right before class because it defeats the purpose of setting the homework in the first place – I’d rather they were late with it – but that’s the sort of thing I let slide.  But I have struggled to impose any kind of test discipline (for example, no talking during tests – there’s always someone who makes some kind of comment!) – mostly because it simply isn’t considered part of test protocol here.  There’s a sort of “don’t ask / don’t tell” situation – the policy against cheating is theoretically zero tolerance, but only as long as you don’t have to put it into practice…

Better invigilation:  in theory I’m sure we all agree that no teacher should invigilate their own students (or subjects) and that invigilators should be doing absolutely nothing other than monitoring the exam room for the duration of the test.  In practice however, this is unlikely to happen in all testing situations.  But a teacher who is marking, lesson planning or doing the crossword is not invigilating – they are increasing the opportunity for students to cheat.  If schools and institutions are serious about reducing or stamping out cheating – invigilation policy is certainly a good starting point.

References (my lesson plan follows below the picture):

The Lesson I did with my classes:

(1) A letters circle ( A C E H T) on the board – students make as many words from the letters as they can in a minute.  Feedback: did you get the five letter words TEACH / CHEAT?

(2) Quick Poll:  (This was done quite conversationally and involved some definition of terms on both sides – what constitutes cheating / the difference between a test and an exam etc)

  • Have you ever cheated on a test?
  • Do you think it’s OK to cheat in a class test?
  • Do you think it’s OK to cheat in a formal exam?
  • Is cheating culturally acceptable in your country?

(3) Split reading:  I divided the class into two groups:  Group A got Ann’s article and Group B got Graham’s article.  They read their article and in their groups had to come up with a comment they would write under the blog article.

Then I paired one student from group A with one from group B and they summarised what they’d read for each other and discussed whether having read the articles would change their views or behaviour as regards cheating.

(4) Lexical mining:  Each pair had to find two or three words / collocations / expressions that they either (a) thought would be useful, or (b) liked the sound of, or (c) didn’t know.  These were collected on the board (each pair had a board pen) and in small groups they peer taught what they could, working it out from context.  I then filled in any gaps.

(5) I then gave student a handout with the following questions from The Internet TESL Journal:  (you may wish to edit these for your cultural context).

  • What is your definition of cheating?
  • Have you ever cheated?
  • Why do you think that people cheat?
  • Have you ever cheated in an exam?
  • Have you ever been caught cheating on an exam?
  • If you had a chance to cheat now, would you take it?
  • In what situations do people usually cheat?
  • Have you ever been cheated on by somebody else?
  • Describe a time when you cheated and it helped you.
  • Do you think if people stopped cheating the world would be a better place?
  • What do you think of people who cheat in their relationships?
  • What do you think can be done to prevent cheating?
  • What are some things you can do to prevent cheating?
  • What would you do it you saw someone cheating at something.

The students made notes individually on their own answers and then came together into two larger groups to share and discuss their responses.

That took pretty much the whole lesson (75 minutes) – with more time I would have done some reactive language feedback on correction following that final discussion, but we can do that next time!

The Tai Chi of Reading

25 Jun

This is a ten minute presentation I gave at the recent International House Teachers’ Online Conference (IHTOC60) on the Tai Chi of Reading.

The basic premise is that there are certain movements or forms that exist within the Tai Chi Chuan and Baduan Jin which can be used to illustrate successful reading strategies, particularly for exam based classes.

I’m not suggesting that this is something everyone should do with every class, but that for some classes, where the learners might benefit from having a physical analogue for their mental process, it might help remind them of what they should be doing.

The video runs to about 16 minutes, which isn’t bad for a ten minute talk, and can be seen here:

If you want to take a bit more time to process any of the information on the slides in the presentation then these are available to view on Slideshare below, though the video demonstrations of the Tai Chi / Baduan Jin motions won’t play in Slideshare.

My thanks to Neil Morley for graciously acting as a Tai Chi model and thus allowing me to hide my own ineptitude in the forms, to Neil McMahon and Shaun Wilden for putting in the work to organise and run the conference, and to the International House World Organisation for allowing the re-post of the materials here.

To view recordings of any of the 60 (yes that’s right… 60!) presentations from the online conference, check out the conference blog: http://ihtoc60.blogspot.co.uk/

The Shambles of CPE: a bit of a rant

2 Mar

I am not impressed.  For whatever reason, it simply seems as though both Cambridge ESOL and most of the major publishers seem to have shown and complete and utter disregard towards the students and prospective candidates studying at CPE level.

I published my analysis of the changes to CPE sixteen months ago and it’s proved to be one of the most popular posts I’ve written.  I simply do not understand why the corporate stakeholders in the process couldn’t achieve more in those sixteen months than they have done.

I appreciate that it takes a long time to put a book together and that some publishers were doubtless taking advantage of the exam changes to give some familiar titles a much needed overhaul, but I was shocked and frankly unimpressed when, at the start of the school year in September 2012, there were no titles available to prepare classes with.

What went wrong?  Is CPE really such a small market segment that you can ignore the needs of the students and teachers like this?  Are publishers unaware of when the school years of their target markets start?  Again, this is a euro-centric view and school years in other regions start at other times, but I think the first book that arrived on our school doorstep for the revised exam did so in January.  In our case, our preferred supplier also consistently lied to us about the imminent availability of our preferred coursebook, which meant that our students were essentially working with whatever adaptations our increasingly skillful proficiency teacher could come up with.

The first session of the revised CPE exam runs here next weekend.  The only practice tests for proficiency our students have seen are the two different versions that are available from the Cambridge ESOL website.  There is no task specific writing mark scheme available either for the free download materials or for the writing tasks in the handbooks, only a description of how the writing is assessed and some sample answers.

This is not good enough.

If you are an exam body you have not only a duty and responsibility to provide a secure, valid and reliable exam but you also have a duty of care to those other stakeholders who are involved in the exam process.  In other words, you have a clear and current responsibility to provide complete information about your exam, examples of the content and a full description of the assessment process.  Every coursebook and test book for the revised CPE I have seen gives equal weighting to the four parts of the exam.  It is only tucked away in a small corner somewhere in the handbook that Cambridge ESOL say otherwise and give the weighting as 40 / 20 / 20 / 20.  It is my view that Cambridge ESOL has let slip some of their responsibilities and it’s reputation as a full and fair provider of exams has been tarnished.

Neither are publishers free of criticism.  Why was it not possible to get the materials ready sooner?  The first revision bulletin published by Cambridge ESOL was released in October 2010 – was this not enough time to start getting projects ready and writers keyed up?  What about April 2011, when the “at a glance” changes to the specifications were published?  Let me think, that’s almost an 18 month lead in?  Is that really not enough time?  I don’t know what the full process of creating a coursebook is, from start to finish, though I am aware that there are a number of stages in the process, drafts and revisions and trialling.  I also appreciate that the reticence of Cambridge ESOL to share specifics probably doesn’t help.

Nonetheless – if you are in a materials business, if your core activity is the design, creation and publication of coursebooks, then I would hope that you also would take into account the needs of the people who buy your products and provide them in a timely manner.

Rant Over.  Normal service to be resumed shortly.

Keep Calm and Write On – #IHTOC3

5 Nov

For those that may have missed it, here are the slides (as pdf) from the webinar I gave at the IH Teachers’ Online Conference on 3rd November.

The session was a look at common problems learners have with writing for exam classes, particularly Cambridge exams (FCE etc), but also, I think, applicable to other exams and writing in general.  It then goes on to suggest a range of activities you can do with those learners to help them with these problem areas.  There’s about 36 different activities suggested – so there should be something in there for everyone!

The webinar was recorded, and if you have the time and the patience to sit through the 60 minute session, you can do so here:

Adobe Connect – Keep Calm & Write On

That should open up in a new window.  I don’t know how long that’s going to be up for, so apologies if you can’t access it.  I found the Adobe Connect software worked better in Firefox than Chrome, though that might just be me!

It’s worth taking a look at the video if you can, not just because you get an explanation of the activities, but also because there were loads of great ideas coming up in the chatbox – additions, extensions and adaptations to alternative contexts – so thanks to everyone who took part for the contributions!

Any problems, questions or queries – let me know!

Opposition debates for CPE Summary tasks

12 Apr

This was something that popped into my head the other day as a way to change the dynamic of a CPE lesson based around summary tasks – and which will also be useful for the 2013 revised exam (writing part one).

Frame the summary question (the last question on the exam paper, usually question 44) in more contentious, combative terms and write it on the board.

Set the class up in two groups and give each group one of the texts from the CPE part 5 task – so group a gets text a and group b gets text b.  Give the learners some time to process the input and to prepare their arguments, discussing what they found in the texts, developing any elaborations and predicting and preparing ripostes to any counter-arguments.

Usually with an opposition debate, I like to seat the learners in two lines down the middle of the room, so that learners are (a) facing each other and (b) up close and personal.

Begin the debate!

At the end of the debate, and before focusing on any language feedback, do some content feedback.  In particular ask the learners what the main areas of discussion were and get these listed on the board.  Point out that these are the (probably – obviously you’ll need to check with the task key) content points they need to identify for the summary task.

Make sure learners have a copy of both texts (a and b) and then with their debate partner, they can formulate a written answer to the summary task.

In defence of: The Test

13 Mar

There seems to be a lot of anti-testing sentiment prevalent in the teaching world at the moment.  There’s a particular degree of vitriol that seems to be reserved for standardised testing, but which has tapped a general anti-educational zeitgeist and spilled over, flooded even, into ELT.  In this piece I’m hoping to look at where some of these attitudes to testing might come from and think about what might be the best way forward.

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The Best Education Articles From “The Onion” | Larry Ferlazzo’s Websites of the Day…

7 Feb

If you don’t know The Onion – you should take a look – it’s a satirical newspaper that sometimes hits the nail on the head.  It’s also a great source of articles for use with classes – the occasionally puerile sense of humour appeals to teenagers, whilst the (not always) sophisticated parodies of mainstream news events makes adults smile.  Also some great stuff for business English classes and I think they now have short videos which could be used for listening tasks.

Anyway – this was all prompted by a post from Larry Ferlazzo – The Best Education Articles From “The Onion” – with well – these are Larry’s picks for the best education related Onion material.  My favourite is the cost cutting decision to remove the past tense from school curricula….  after all – who needs to talk about yesterday?

Do learners know what they need?

27 Jan

There is a lot of talk about learner needs, needs analysis and learner centred lesson planning and course planning.  But do learners really know what they need?  Or do they just tell us what they want?

The difference between “wants” and “needs” is neatly illustrated by the image on the right – a want is something that is desirable but unnecessary.  A need is something you have to have no matter what!  And do we always know the difference?  I know that I often say I need to go and buy something, when the truth is, I can probably do without it!

In education the reliance on needs analysis worries me, as I fear it might be misplaced.  After all, we go to our doctors and describe our symptoms but we don’t tell the doctor what to do next – why should we as language teachers rely on the input our learners give us?  Surely as a professional I am capable of spotting the problems a learner is having, communicating those problems to the learner and working out a set of solutions.

But we don’t always notice and the doctor analogy is perhaps right – the learners come to us and say “I’m having problems” before we then think about what the causes and solutions might be.  So learner input is valid – but can it be trusted?

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Using Haiku for Summary Tasks

12 Jan

Summary task woes
Unfound ideas from the texts
Lacking clarity
 
What is a Haiku?
Distillation of ideas
Concisely worded 
 
This could go quite wrong
Haiku for summary tasks?
Might be worth a try 
 
 
 

Learners at CPE (Proficiency) level frequently have issues with the comprehension and summary task on the Use of English paper (click here for Cambridge ESOL’s candidate guide).

Answering the comprehension questions can be difficult enough, but the summary task is enough to turn teachers and students into gibbering wrecks, sobbing in the corner of the classroom and wailing at their own percieved inadequacy.  The truth is that they aren’t inadequate in any way – they just need some training!  Using Haiku is an approach I’ve used to try and help learners access the core ideas of the texts in a simple and succinct way.

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The Twelve Days of Geekmas: eleven tips for writing

2 Dec

On the eleventh day of Geekmas, teflgeek gave to me:  11 tips for writing

Welcome to the teflgeek Christmas celebration!  Themed around the classic Christmas carol – but going backwards, mostly because it’s more like a countdown that way:

12 blogs worth clutching

11 tips for writing

Although to be more accurate this should be called “11 tips to give your students to help them develop their writing (for exam classes)”, but again, that just wouldn’t scan properly…

Teachers – feel free to cut and paste and print out (some editing may be required!)

  1. Read the question!  It shouldn’t need saying and I’d be willing to bet this is a constant cri-de-coeur for many a teacher, but failure to read the question – or more importantly failure to respond to the required aspects of the question – is what costs learners the most marks.  Cambridge exams are lovely and kind.  They tell you what to write about – massive amounts of thought not required – just good identification technique….. (see below)
  2. What’s important here?  Every question has “content points”.  If you miss one you fail.  But on the plus side they’re easy to spot – they usually appear in sentences that read:  “You should write about….”  /  “Include information on”.  Or sometimes they have little arrows pointing to them (only in part one).  Teachers – give your learners a copy of the sample writing paper from the handbook and a highlighter pen – take the time to go through it step by step.  It won’t be wasted time.
  3. Don’t get word fear!  Word fear is when learners worry too much about how many words they need to write.  Key symptoms include:  (a)  obsessively counting the number of words they’ve written to make sure they have enough.  (b)  Using a lengthy and inappropriate style to try and increase the number of words in a sentence.  (c) adding additional random sentences and paragraphs to the end of your text upon realising they don’t have enough content.  There is a simple cure:  relax.  No-one’s going to count the number of words.  Examiners have lives too!  Besides – the only true way to eradicate word fear is in proper planning.
  4. PPPPP – PROPER PLANNING PREVENTS POOR PERFORMANCE.  Very very few learners actually plan their writing.  This also explains why very very few learners get top grades for exam writing.  Having insisted all my learners submit a plan along with their compositions, I was once accosted by a worried student before class:  “I’m really sorry I haven’t finished it all.  I can give you the essay now, but can I give you the plan next lesson?”  I don’t insist anymore.  If you can’t be bothered, then fine.  It doesn’t work for everybody, and I hope you’re happy with your “c” grade.
  5. Know your genre.  Again, it seems silly to state it so obviously, but learners need to know what the different texts types (a) look like, (b) feature stylistically.  If learners have a clear visual representation of the text type, it makes the planning process easier.  I tend to do block diagrams of the different text types as a labelling task, so that learners get a clear idea of what all the different sections involve.  This then leads into a language matching task, with key phrases matched to the relevant sections.
  6. Who’s the reader?  A mistake that many writers make is in mis-imagining the reader.  A letter for publication in a newspaper or magazine is written as personal correspondence between the writer and the editor – but not written for the wider audience who’ll read the published letter.  Another common fault is writing for the Examiner, not for the target reader.  Knowledge of who the reader is also affects register choice (as well as genre does).
  7. Leave a blank line.  This is possibly a personal bugbear of mine, but I speak as someone who’s sat down and gone slightly insane whilst attempting to mark over a 150 FCE writing scripts in a single afternoon (with some help).  The blank line is a psychological trick.  Learners need to leave one blank line between each section of their writing text as it is more pleasing to the eye, clearly indicates attempted paragraphing (and hence organisation, even if the organisation doesn’t actually exist) and basically puts the examiner in a much better frame of mind.  Generally, you want a better disposed examiner marking your paper – they tend to give higher marks!  (Apparently research bears this out, but I don’t know whose.)
  8. Don’t draft – plan.  It’s not unknown for learners to write out an entire first draft of a text and then copy it out again neatly.  Fine, if you can get away with it and not run out of time, but why go to all the trouble of doing twice the work?  Couldn’t you just do the work once, but twice as well?  If you plan, you don’t need to draft (at least not in an exam situation).  Also, planning gets rid of all those unsightly crossing outs and substitutions and insertions.  If you know what you want to say before you start writing…..
  9. A brief note on paragraphs.  Earlier, I may have given the impression that a paragraph is a collection of words separated from a similar collection of words by one blank line.  Psychological trickery will only get you so far – there does also need to be some substance behind the style.  In an attempt to help with paragraph structure, I’ve been talking to my learners about TARS – Topic Sentence / Argument / Reason / Specific Example.  As a basic paragraph structure it works quite neatly, though obviously there are variations…
  10. It’s the way you tell ‘em.  With some answers, you feel really engaged, as though the writer really cares about the topic and wants to share that with you.  With others, you feel as though the writer is going through the motions.  And let’s face it – why shouldn’t they?  It’s an artificial situation that wouldn’t occur to them in the real world.   But to get the top marks, the writing needs to make the reader feel loved.
  11. Role play it then write it.  Which is why, I like converting writing tasks into role plays.  If, for example, a task asks the learners to write a report for the principal on the use of technology in the college, it can be nice to put half the class in the position of the principal and half in the position of the writer and ask them to converse on the topic.  It can give both parties a new appreciation of the roles and requirements of the task!
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