Monthly Archives: April 2012

Cheating on Tests

The Student Caring website posted a podcast a while ago that has some anecdotes from me. It’s entitled “How to Cheat in College, and What to Do About It.” It’s fairly short and worth a listen. These folks try to come about things from a fairly compassionate position, which is easy to lose track of when you’re dealing with people who sometimes take advantage of the compassion of others.

Who needs computers?

Basically everyone, that’s who. Here’s the story:

Not just CompSci as a major, but the entire department.

According to their website, they have a Computer Engineering program, a Digital Arts and Sciences program, applied mathematics, a department of statistics, an Institute for Fundamental Theory, all of whom are going to have to teach their own computer programming courses now that CompSci is gone. Or maybe they’ll cut Computer Engineering too, since that doesn’t make much sense without CompSci.

I’ve seen some boneheaded moves, but this one is just incomprehensible to me. I’m sure there’s some sort of motivation here beyond the $1.7 million they’re supposedly saving by excising one of the most important skills of the 21st century. I couldn’t tell you what that motivation is.

Job Prep

What I learned as a high school student:

  • How to write well
  • How to edit other peoples’ work
  • How to prioritize my time
  • How to interact with people
  • How to do basic calculus
  • How to solve a few well-known physics problems
  • Work ethic and responsibility

What I learned as an undergraduate in physics:

  • To start my homework the second it’s assigned
  • How to use basic matrices
  • How to solve a large variety of well-known physics problems
  • A tiny amount of lab work
  • How to oversee people working toward a common goal

What I learned as a graduate student in physics:

  • How to grade two hundred labs a week
  • How to solve more complex well-known physics problems
  • How to do tensor calculus
  • How to teach courses
  • How to carry out research

What physics professors do:

  • Propose and carry out research
  • Oversee graduate students
  • Run a lab
  • Write grants
  • Serve on committees
  • Design and teach courses
  • Write papers
  • Review papers


  1. My high school education did as much to prepare me for a professorial job as my graduate and undergraduate education combined.
  2. I learned as many useful things outside of my coursework as I did inside.

Depth and breath of physics knowledge is a worthy prerequisite for being a professor. Unfortunately, it is a “necessary but not sufficient condition” for doing well as one. If we’re not preparing our physics majors to be professors, what are we preparing them for?

That’s a genuine question, not a rhetorical one. If you can spot the job for which physics students are ideally prepared with their current curriculum, not counting electives, I’d love to hear what it is.

Not every physics major becomes a professor, nor should they. However, given that it’s the current “expected route” for which we prepare people, it may be worth considering a revision to the undergraduate and especially graduate-level curricula.

Update on parental takeover

In an update on an old post, sadly, things look like they’re going to court.

I’m not sure if I should feel heartened by the amount of effort put in over school-related things, or worried that the kids are getting caught in the crossfire between people who don’t really care about them. I’m trying to see things more positively these days.


Morality in Heirarchy

If you are in any level of school administration, you need to read this article, passed on to me by a friend:

It boils down this lengthy report of the UC Davis pepper spray incident.

The key message is, over and over again, “failed to communicate.” To quote George Bernard Shaw, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” The UC Davis administration and the police that they called in were both permeated with that illusion, for weeks, and the pepper spray assault was the result. Here’s an excerpt:

Chancellor Katehi, on her part, “thought she made it clear” that when police ordered the students to leave, they were (a) not to wear riot gear into the camp, (b) not to carry weapons of any kind into the camp, (c) were not to use force of any kind against the students, and (d) were not to make any arrests. But all that anybody else on that conference call heard her say out loud was “I don’t want another situation like they just had at Berkeley,” and Chief Spicuzza interpreted that as “no swinging of clubs.”

This sort of situation is constant throughout the report. When you have to say “I thought I made it clear,” you didn’t. When you have to say, “I thought I understood,” that’s a sign that you didn’t know what the hell was going on and you weren’t about to admit it.

Because you’d rather see other people harmed than have yourself look stupid.

If you have trouble looking stupid, if it really scares you to the point where you’d rather have someone else rub capsaicin in their eyes than admit your temporary, changeable shortcomings, then I’m sorry but the world needs you to not be in charge of anyone. If you need to gather your courage first, that’s understandable – but gather it quickly, and act. For me, it helps to consider it as setting an example to the students I work with: that anyone can admit their faults and work to correct them. That, to me, is a lesson worth embodying.

Separately, there is also the issue that several people had been given directives, or even orders, that were either impossible or illegal. From the chancellor to the police chief to the officers at the scene, these people attempted to complete those tasks.

If you are in a position of power, it can be very jarring when someone underneath you says, “What you’re asking us to do is wrong and I won’t be a part of it.” It should be more than just jarring. It should be a show-stopper, an instant halt to operations. People do not stand up and say such things easily or lightly. I’ve been on both ends in such situations, and I wish that I had listened more often, and listened better, when someone under me told me that what I was doing was wrong. I’ve also been the whistle-blower. Sometimes people listened. Other times they just took the whistle out of my mouth and patted me on the head like a dog.

Any one person involved in the chain could have stopped this. From the chancellor saying precisely what was or was not allowed, to the police chief refusing to allow riot gear and weapons, to the lieutenant, to the officers themselves. Someone should have stepped up and been the moral compass. Even one officer, even one, should have taken another officer by the shoulder and said, “Holy shit, stop spraying them.”

It would have been so simple.

This, to me, is one of the great failures of our educational system: that when human beings are given illegal or immoral orders, they do not immediately refuse. We do not truly think and speak for ourselves often enough; we want to have someone with us. We want to rebel en masse or conform and keep our heads down, as if by doing so we can avoid the moral consequences of our actions and the actions of our leaders.

We as human beings turn acts of moral fiber into acts of social or professional suicide.

There will always be people who make immoral decisions, sometimes intentionally, more often not. If we do not teach our students, and train our teachers, to stand against such decisions, we will be ruled by them.

Automated Grading

It’s not just for Scantrons any more.

First, a few recent news items along these lines:

The last link is a little different – it’s about predicting how well students will do in courses based on their past performance. Just consider that a little automated student advising.

I think that every English teacher in the world would like to have some sort of automated paper-grading machine, which takes in student papers and spits out corrections. Now that the world is getting closer and closer to that, we’re suddenly frightened of it.

I understand the concerns. First, as teachers and professors we want to believe that our feedback and input is important, which it is. If we let a machine take that job from us, it feels bad – we feel inadequate and easily replaced – but in my mind that’s just a misunderstanding of what’s happening. More on that in a second.

Second, as someone who gives questions that say things like “derive,” it seems like it might be difficult to do well. As things become less formulaic, in fields like English and History, it feels like it would be harder and harder to get a computer to “correctly” grade papers. Certainly we can train TAs to grade derivation problems faster than we can train a computer to do it. As evidence, I present the past hundred years of education, where TAs graded derivation problems and computers did not. Developing computer grading systems is hard.

Testing such systems, however, is really easy. It works like this:

  1. Have a bunch of human graders mark up a set of papers, rating them on a set of criteria as one would with a rubric.
  2. Create the “inter-rater reliability” score: how well did human graders agree as to the quality of such papers on the chosen criteria?
  3. Have a couple computer grading programs rate the same papers on the same criteria.
  4. Create the inter-rater reliability score for the set of computer and human graders together. If your reliability increased when you added in the computers, then your computers not only agree on what the scores should be, but they can find those scores more reliably than human beings.

If you want to say that the computers might calculate numbers but can’t give nuanced and helpful feedback, you first need to convince me that your students read your feedback.

Here’s when the misunderstanding comes in: when educators confuse writing comments with connecting to students. I’ll believe that, until real AI comes around, students will need a human being with whom they can connect. However, you’re not doing that with your red pen. (Or even a green one.) You do that in the classroom, in your office hours, in the lunchroom or the dorm, in the gym, in passing interactions and long sit-down talks. Teachers and even college professors can connect meaningfully with their students. I absolutely believe that it can be beneficial for both parties; formative, even. But that’s not what giving grades is for.

Most importantly, in order to reject computer grading, I would have to accept the importance of grading in general – which I don’t.

Putting numbers on papers was never our job. Educating other human beings is our job, has always been our job.

I’ll be glad to shuffle this massive stack of papers into the grade-o-matic and let it spit out pointless numbers, while I work on inspiring my students. At least the grade-o-matic will be more reliable than having me score student work when I’m low on sleep.

The day will come when we can get computers to reliably read in papers and spit out important and useful information about them. Information that lets us as teachers talk to the students one-on-one in an informed manner about how to improve their work. That day will be awesome. That day is not yet here, but the day of automated grading is apparently very close.

Edited to add: 

Just yesterday an article came out in the Times with Les Perlman of MIT trying to find a good way to cheat  auto-graders. Here’s a great line from the article:

“He wants to show why it doesn’t work,” said Peter Foltz, a Pearson vice president.

“Yes, I’m a skeptic,” Mr. Perelman said. “That’s exactly why I should be given access.”

As one would expect, the automated graders don’t understand things like context and factual accuracy yet. They do, however, understand grammar and sentence structure. Some of it comes down to whether you’re intentionally trying to fool them, which of course many students will.

It would be interesting to see a two-grader setup, with an expert checking for facts and sensibility, and then handing the paper off to a computer to assign numbers.


An upcoming study in Educational Studies in Mathematics shows that learning music can help with fractions:

You know, quarter notes and eighth notes and such.

And some musicians are a little annoyed that music isn’t being taught for music’s sake:

Which is just how many mathematicians feel when people ask them to keep applying their discipline to all these other areas.

The mathematicians are just more used to it by now – everyone uses their work. It gets valued for that reason, but not often on its own merits. Music and art have some aspects that are headed the same way these days.

Of course, every mathematician I know is also a musician…

200% Completion

(It’s a video game reference.)

Today I wanted to look at college completion and drop-out rates. This was brought on by seeing this site, which I was linked to by an old co-worker:

After you see the stats on the main page, just type in your favorite university at the top and take a look around. Not every feature works on every browser, but it’s fairly good overall.

It’s a rule of thumb right now that one third of the U.S. has a college diploma, one third has a high school diploma, and one third does not. I find that somewhat terrifying – the high school dropout rate in particular.

The dropout rate in my broad field, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics), is even higher. Check out the PCAST Engage to Excel report (click here for a .pdf download), which I was lucky enough to see presented by one of its writers. Only about 40% of students who start off in STEM in college end up getting a degree there. We lose more STEM students to college courses than to high school courses.

Let me repeat that: We lose more scientists, mathematicians, engineers, and technology folks in general… in college. Not in standardized high school courses that teach to the SATs and AP exams, but in college-level courses where there is greater freedom to innovate and more fascinating topics to explore. We lose most of them in the first year or two.

That is shameful. Downright shameful.

The reason, I think (and this is just opinion here), is inspiration. I’ve been in more high school courses where the teachers come in with a love for the material and an enthusiastic presentation, seeking to inspire their kids. Intro-level college courses are often boring and dry, with the promise of more methodical and boring stuff afterwards.

I admit that there may be something to say for the effect of the difficulty level gradient – I’ve never heard people say that they left the humanities or a business program because it was too hard, but I do hear that about science and mathematics. I also hear people say that they thought science would be interesting, but it turned into boring mush, whereas business was up-front about what business does.

Luckily, we all know how to teach better – we only need the desire to pull it off.

It’s odd to see colleges needing to pull inspiration from high schools – and even middle or grade schools – when it comes to keeping kids in STEM fields, but that’s what we need right now. We need inspiration, and so do our students.

Demanding Education

These kids don’t deserve a suspension, they deserve a commendation.

And, of course, an education.

Copyright in the Classroom

This is a continuation of Friday’s post on intellectual property. Today I’m going to talk about different aspects of copyright and how they relate to classroom materials. Let’s start with licenses.

Standard copyright is the most restrictive intellectual property license you can get for copyrightable materials. There are a few common licenses that are more permissive: Creative Commons and the GNU GPL and FDL are the most common. (If you haven’t seen the FDL before, many of Wikipedia’s images are licensed that way, and its text is dual-licensed under CC and FDL.) The most permissive thing you can see is something released into the public domain.

Some folks confuse “public domain” and “fair use.” These are not synonyms; they’re not even particularly related to each other. “Public domain” means that something is not protected by copyright: free for anyone to use for any reason at all, in any way. “Fair use” is when someone uses a work that is under copyright, but in a legal manner. If you want to take advantage of someone else’s copyrighted work, you can do it, under certain guidelines. Note: not laws, guidelines. This stuff is all suggestion and case law, with very little hard legislation.

There are a few major considerations for fair use:

  1. What am you copying from? This is perhaps the least important consideration – only the most historically important or purely factual items will be exempt here.
  2. What are you making? Is it for educational use? For non-profit use? Is it a parody? This is not a sufficient condition on its own, but it helps. Let me repeat that: educational, non-profit use is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition. It helps.
  3. Is what you’re doing transformative? That is, are you turning the original work into something with a different purpose? Placing a clip from someone’s amusing YouTube video into your educational video is more likely to be ok than putting it into a video intended for entertainment. The reverse is also true – making an amusing remix of PBS Nova clips is more likely to be legal than sticking clips from Nova into your own educational video.
  4. Are you harming the ability of the original copyright-holder to make money off their work? For instance, if I took someone’s textbook, rewrote it better, and released it, I would have hurt their ability to sell their book even if mine is free. This is probably the biggest consideration. (There are also trademark and “derivative work” issues in this example, but those are separate issues.)
  5. How much are you using? Did you copy an entire chapter from someone’s novel to add to your textbook? That’s probably not going to fly.

Now, all of that is fairly general. If you’re a teacher, and you’re wondering whether you can use something in class, there’s a special protection for that. If what you’re doing is the one-time, spontaneous use of a particular resource, that’s fine for a teacher in a classroom. This is designed for the day when you say, “Oh my god, this passage will be perfect for my history class in half an hour! I’m going to make copies for my students!” If you planned ahead for that one-time copy? That’s not spontaneous. If you use it again next year? That’s not one-time. I haven’t seen any word on how this guideline applies to online education, but my guess is “badly,” since online education resources are stored in perpetuity.

I’ve seen some guidelines that list a certain number of lines of poetry, a certain number of minutes of audio, a certain number of words that you can excerpt – those are wrong. I’m not sure where they come from, but all the more reputable sources I’ve seen say that there are no solid numbers that will keep you in the clear.

As far as student use goes, that depends. Students creating works for their classroom teacher alone would probably fall under “private use,” and thus would be more of a fit topic for classroom and school policies than for law. However, if you’re creating works for public  consumption, just because you happen to be a student doesn’t give you any special protection.

It’s weird that all this is something teachers have to know about, but it’s not going to get less important anytime soon.



Fair use and classroom examples from the US Library of Congress – probably the best resource for classroom teachers.

Copyright law at the US Copyright Office

Fair Use guidelines at the Center for Social Media

NASA’s images are generally not under copyright. This is also true of most other government agencies. The rationale? The public already paid for this; they don’t have to pay to use it again.

Morguefile is my favorite resource for nearly-public-domain images.

There are whole blogs about this; here’s one: Copyright on Campus


If you have any other resources that you like, feel free to list them in the comments.