23 March 2009

Questions are More True than Answers

"What do you do when you find out a student is using other websites or your class notes to answer questions on an assignment or test?"

This is a question that is asked of me regularly as other teachers know that I like to put all of my course content online. For some reason this really tends to get under teachers' skin. They feel like a student got away with something unethical, or that it is cheating or something. I'd be curious to see what student responses are to that kind of attitude. Here's mine:

So what?

We live in an age that has very nearly achieved ubiquitous internet access. People are more and more frequently accessing the whole of human knowledge online. Considering Moore's Law, where do you think that will take us in the next couple of years, the next 5 years, 10? If a student can find the answer to one a question in a quick internet search, what does that say about the question?

Those type of questions rank fairly low on Bloom's Taxonomy. Certainly students should be taught how to access and interpret credible information for questions like that, but I have always concerned myself more with Evaluation and Synthesis kinds of questions. Do students understand concepts? Are they able to transfer information to other areas? Can they predict likely outcomes? Teachers should be asking questions that students can think about, reflect upon, or even see other people's reflections and add their own insights. It's easy enough to know if an answer is plagiarized or not. We need to ask questions that evaluate a student's thought process.

Ralph Nader's father used to ask him and his siblings at the dinner table about their day at school. "Did you learn how to believe or did you learn how to think?" I never want to be accused of telling a student what to believe.

I once had a college student pull out a cell phone during an open book quiz and try to find the answer to a question. She was trying to hide it from view so no one could see her "cheating". Another student came up to me at the end of class to make certain I was aware. Perhaps that type of creativity and resourcefulness should be rewarded. Why hide the fact that you know where to get an answer? There's more than one path to the right answer.

The internet gives you the same access to information as everyone else. What puts you a step above everyone else is if you can use that information to your advantage.