Can Teaching be Measured?

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By Justine Rogers

Last week UNSW had its second ‘Great Debate’, introduced last year as a fun, accessible way for the UNSW community to explore a serious and stirring topic. (For a post on last year’s, click here)

Each team: professor-manager, non-prof academic, and student.

The topic: Of Course Teaching Can be Measured (it’s a 5.3!).

I was on the affirmative (which I knew going in would be tough).

Given it was a private event for staff and students, I’ve written this assuming some version of the Chatham House Rule applies.

The affirmative’s arguments were:

  1. Teaching can be measured, albeit imperfectly, and certainly better and more reliably than it is now.
  2. Teaching needs to be measured to enhance the quality, rewards and status of teaching.

The negative’s arguments were:

  1. Teaching cannot be measured, only learning experiences and learning outcomes can. 
  2. Teaching measures are flawed and unreliable.

The negative committed to the empirical questions, whereas I tried (unsuccessfully in the 4 or so mins we had) to engage both sides in the wider empirical and normative argument suggested in affirmative point 2: whether there is some positive correlation between measurement, and motivation, quality and status, and therefore whether a more robust measurement of teaching is worthwhile.

I wish we’d had the format and time to examine this: whether this is true, or whether, using research measures as example, such measures have too many biases, perverse incentives, and inefficient and/or demoralising effects to be of real value (even if it entails superficial value). 

I will share my main arguments here, some of which I am fairly convinced, many posed as part of my role on the affirmative side, and some raised in the spirit of fun and provocation. Above all, I think the topic raised several questions left that need to be contemplated, many of which I’ve posted below – so please share your thoughts!

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Cheating at University

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Justine Rogers

Last week I was asking students in my ethics class to discuss legal values and what ones they’d picked up from law school. They raised a range of things, from compassion to competition. But one student said, “No plagiarising, no cheating, being honest in your work!”. “It’s drummed into us from Day 1”, one added.

I was rather chuffed to hear this, but I am not sure I can or should be too pleased. The research shows that these are problems affecting all Australian universities, though unevenly across them and within the disciplines. Sydney University has just released part 1 of report, ‘an approach to minimising academic misconduct and plagiarism at the University of Sydney. Its focus is detection and prevention. The Report shows that most instances of misconduct were categories of negligence (lack of understanding or carelessness about how to cite and reference). The rest, the active fraud, is where it gets disturbing.

There’s the less-straight-forward (as far as severity of categorisation goes) collusion and recycling, but most of it is outright dishonest plagiarism and ghost writing, or getting someone else to do the work and submitting it as your own. Ghost writing, in particular, is becoming more prevalent and difficult to regulate. Students are taking advantage of sophisticated and therefore hard-to-detect online services, marketed to them, ones like MyMaster. These fraudster strategies affect most directly take-home assessments, but now students are adapting the technology available to cheat in exams. They are using their phones and watches to bring in material, using loo breaks to quickly check the internet, taking photos of confidential papers, and one I hadn’t thought of in my old cheating (paper-based) days:* paying impersonators to come and take the exam on their behalf. Other categories found in the report were fraudulent medical certificates or other bad faith uses of special consideration.

A summary of the Report’s recommendations (produced by the Academic Misconduct and Plagiarism Taskforce, Sydney University, 2015: 2): Continue reading

Self-Plagiarism

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By Carolyn Penfold

Self-plagiarism is a thorny issue. On the one hand I sympathise with students who say ‘but it’s not dishonest, it’s my own work, why can’t I hand it in again?’ This view seems borne out by the University’s website where in answer to the question ‘what is plagiarism?’ the following response is given:

Plagiarism … is using the words or ideas of others and passing them off as your own. Plagiarism is a type of intellectual theft.

It is not until we follow the link to ‘common forms of plagiarism’ that we come across the following (as the very last example):

‘Self-plagiarism’ occurs where an author republishes their own previously written work and presents it as new without referencing the earlier work, either in its entirety or partially.   Self-plagiarism is also referred to as ‘recycling’, ‘duplication’, or ‘multiple submissions of research findings’ without disclosure.   In the student context, self-plagiarism includes re-using parts of, or all of, a body of work that has already been submitted for assessment without proper citation.

At my university students attach a cover sheet to their submissions acknowledging ‘that this work has not been submitted for credit elsewhere.’  We may think that as law students they should be aware of the need to READ declarations before signing them! On the other hand, it is understandable that students might attach and sign the cover sheet without taking too much notice, treating it as a record of their name, student number, word count and date of submission.

Nonetheless, I would have thought it obvious that when we’re assessing students we want to know what they’ve learned and how they’ve developed their understanding during the particular course in which they’re being assessed. However, I have to wonder how obvious this really is in relation to self plagiarism. My brother, a teacher, says ‘it’s their own work, it’s not dishonest to re-submit it.’ My son, a university student, says ‘but that’s what academics do all the time…’

Perhaps we would do better not to call this self plagiarism at all. Let’s separate it from the copying / theft concept and simply call it what it is: recycling or resubmitting. Students know why ‘plagiarism’ is prohibited, now let’s teach them why ‘recycling / resubmitting’ are prohibited, and see if that gets the message across.

Any thoughts?

Academic Calendar Rationalisation (some benefits especially for the Southern Hemisphere)

The below will briefly (sic) address: (1) Southern v Northern Hemisphere calendars & (2) Academic Calendar Rationalisation.  It turns out these are related, for universities on Southern Hemisphere calendars the issues posed by their academic calendar provide extra incentive to consider the more efficient trimester approach.

1.  Southern Hemisphere v Northern Hemisphere Academic Calendars

Its at this time of the year that I more often consider my Southern Hemisphere academic calendar.  This is when my colleagues in the Northern Hemisphere are wrapping up courses, marking/grading their final class papers/exams, or are perhaps even “done and dusted” with graduation ceremonies behind them and the long summer stretching ahead.  We, in contrast, are just now into exam period, followed by the winter break, and back to the semester by mid to late July.  We can, however, gloat when our classes finish in November and, aside from a few summer classes, do not start again till March.

Of course, any academic calendar is the manna from heaven of work schedules. We are truly lucky to work in academia. But, if one works in the international academic environment and moves between the two hemispheres’ calendars then one notices the negative consequences and issues of the two not fitting together too well. In fact, most of my Southern hemisphere colleagues do in fact feel these issues as they will typically work in an international environment of one form or another (it is the consequence of working and living in a smaller jurisdiction).  In contrast, Northern hemisphere academics typically have no idea that there is even a Southern hemisphere calendar.  When informed of it, they think it is so very strange and perhaps even a bit perverse.

Coming from a smaller jurisdiction we tend to try to adjust our interaction with the Northern Hemisphere, for they will certainly not budge – as they are the overwhelming majority.  Its true that from a population perspective, we are in a smaller jurisdiction.  Indeed most Southern Hemisphere states are somewhat off the beaten track.  Geographically most of the world’s land mass is in the Northern Hemisphere, as is a disproportionate share of the developed and dominating (often former colonial) states and legal systems.  (Though, here I do have to point out that Australia bats significantly above its weight in law, especially in the international fields.)

Thus, when we plan international conferences or invite guests from the North we try to ensure the timing fits with their calendar.  They never do the same for us (its not from being selfish, for they do not even know about our calendar).  Similarly, our visits to their institutions, by academics or students, also fits into their calendars – when possible.  While we generally are successful at such manipulations, there is no denying that we lose efficiencies and opportunities as a result of the significant differences in calendars.  Of course, we also gain some opportunities not available to those working with a Northern Hemisphere calendar.  For example, our students do not have to compete with the European and North American students for internships.  We can run programs in our breaks that permit our students to experience term time in Northern Hemisphere campuses (e.g. the UNSW Berkeley Law program).  Nonetheless, being the outlier to the major academic systems of the world may not be ideal.  Indeed, the University of Tokyo recently changed its undergraduate calendar to conform to the European and North American calendars (it also had not matched up with the European/North American model – despite sitting in the “correct” hemisphere).

Perhaps we should be taking our long holidays in the winter, to huddle under blankets at the beach – so as to maintain the integrity of and fit within a mythical world calendar.  Nope.  Not going to happen.  The beaches are, rightfully, too integral to our (as a nascent Australian I can now say “our”) culture to abandon those perfect summer holidays.   So – what can be done.  Perhaps academic calendar rationalisation.

2.  Academic Calendar Rationalisation Continue reading

Inspiring Addresses to New Students

The new UNSW LLB and JD classes heard inspiring addresses from alumni, respectively, Sean Lau (recently awarded the Rhodes Scholarship) and Michael Rose (Chief Executive Partner of Allens).

Sean gave excellent advice on decision-making, in which he looked critically at clichéd advice students always get to ‘keep your options open’ and ‘do what you love’.

Michael Rose gave an inspiring speech on ‘why law matters’. He started from his experience of a child’s preventable death in PNG, which he saw as a product of a society lacking the rule of law. He went on to talk about how law will matter in the world you will be working in, and your responsibilities as lawyers.

Sean’s and Michael’s speeches can be found here.

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Jobs for law graduates

The issue in Australia is not as stark as it currently is in the USA. But, as a recent article in The New Yorker suggests, many US law graduates are having difficulty finding jobs. Students with high levels of debt are left without a means of paying it back.

There are important differences differences between Australia and the US: (1) our fees are lower (for now), (2) law in Australia is an undergraduate degree, so many graduates choose non-law career paths, often treating law as a useful general degree rather than as a professional qualification, (3) the Australian economy is doing relatively well, and (4) some international students wish to use their degree in their home country, where demand may be higher. Nevertheless, on the numbers, there are still many more Australian law graduates than there are law jobs for graduate lawyers in Australia.

What is the ethical responsibility of law schools in Australia in this regard? Is it simply a question for “the marketplace” or should universities (typically funded on a per student basis) think carefully about appropriate numbers? Should weaker students (who are less likely to find employment) be provided with more help and advice?

Lyria Bennett Moses

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The “Good Lawyer” Quiz

Two of my former colleagues from the UMKC School of Law, Professors Nancy Levit and Douglas Linder, recently published a book entitled “The Good Lawyer“, Oxford University Press (2013), which  “[t]akes the reader on a fascinating and insightful tour across space and time to uncover the qualities that make for the best lawyers” and “[o]ffers suggestions for concrete quality reforms while also exploring broader ethical issues.”

This book is, in some ways, a successor to their previous “The Happy Lawyer: Making a Good Life in the Law”, Oxford University Press (2010).

Levit and Linder have now provided in the ABA Journal a fascinating quiz (with answers) that highlights some of the  critical and at times surprising findings in the “Good Lawyer”.  It can also be taken interactively online.

While the book and quiz are necessarily US-legal practice focused, they will still be highly relevant to the practice of law outside the US, especially in other common law countries.

Colin B. Picker