Syllabi and the “Inevitable”

Over at one of my frequent reads, the Community College Dean, he asked for advice on how to deal with students that leave their groups hanging high and dry on presentation day. My response was a simple “What’s wrong with just simply giving the absent student a “ZERO” for the presentation?”

After reading many of the other comments, I find that the readership over there is quite a creative bunch! I enjoyed much of what they wrote, but the discussion reminded me of something else I have noticed of late. Syllabus Creep.

It seems as professors and instructors face the wide range of situations students present, we have added more and more to our syllabi. No, not content about the course–that would be reasonable. We are adding more and more about expectations of behavior, how not to cheat, when to attend class, what you will have to do if you don’t attend class, and the like. Lately, I have gone for the more minimalist approach: DON’T CHEAT, OR YOU WILL BE CAUGHT.

I had read a syllabus where there was not only a list of items to bring for an exam, but an extremely long list of what not to bring. No hats. No music players. No scarves. If one could write on it, one couldn’t bring it.

I have gone a slightly different route: I now allow the students to bring any personal music device that they wish. iPod, CD Player, Radio (with headset.) Whatever helps get them through the exam. Why? I know many people focus better with some “controlled distraction” rather than the random noises of other test-takers, and the opportunity to listen to something familiar may help overcome test anxiety.

I know what you’re thinking. “What if they cheat? What if they dictate notes into the MP3 player? What if they include text?” Hmmm… interesting. I almost hope they do. Why? Because they had to actually read/review the material to put it into their device. Learning occurs, if only through repetition.

“Ahhh,” you may ask “but what if one person does it, and then gives it to the others?” Another interesting question. The way I see it, you need to be fairly familiar with the material to be able to move quickly and accurately to the material covered in the question. Students never quite realize just how difficult an open book exam can be if you don’t already know the material well enough to quickly/efficiently move through the chapters to find the answers. Those that have understood the material best are those that are best able to find the relevant information.

My goal in my classes are to encourage students to learn the material. I think this helps get there.

8 thoughts on “Syllabi and the “Inevitable”

  • First of all, if a student is allowed to throw some words into an IPod why not let them bring in a cheat sheet. It is repetition. Ipod, MP3 Player, what have you, it is cheating with any medium a student uses when the effect is to answer questions on a test.

  • as a student, if a student wants to cheat, they do. it is doable if the student is clever enough and some are. now, i have not but have seen alot and know how ‘good’ students are at getting away with it.

    so allowing a musical distraction is no more permission to cheat than bring a 20oz bottle (where answers can be written on the inside label.) The music is a great distraction and keeps me from stressing even more. 🙂

  • I agree with what everyone has been saying, in that if someone is going to cheat, they will find a way to do it — whether on ipods or the good ol’ write things on the hands method.

    However, there is a difference, at least that I have seen, from open book exams to closed book exams. First, open books tend to be harder (IMHO).

    More over though, for open books, everyone knows they are open and hence everyone has the opportuntiy to bring their cheat sheets. By rationalizing that someone who cheats is merely taking an ‘open book exam’ is doing a disservice to those who DID study but did not ‘prepare’ for an ‘open book’ exam.

    As opinion loafer said, why not just allow everyone to bring in a cheat sheet in the first place? I would assume the reason not to is that 1.) it does take a different type of test for open book and 2.) you hope that folks aren’t using the ipods to cheat.

    Another option would be to allow them, but state you will randomly look at the ipods/mps player after. Or perhaps state they can set/turn on the ipod/mp3 player only at the beginning of the exam, but then they must set it on their desk. (I highly doubt anyone would be able to listen through an entire ‘cheat sheet’ effectively without jumping around.) Or you could even walk about the room and listen randomly. But, that would show you do not have faith in the students.

    Ah, but what is a simple thing like faith anyway?

  • Thanks for all the comments.

    Honestly, I don’t think that a student that is predisposed to cheating (usually, but not always, a sign of laziness) would be all that interested in doing the work required to put all that information into an iPod.

    What a fine line this is. Perhaps the one thing I can say in all this is that I haven’t seen any grades change in a significant way with this policy, at least not in a way that would indicate cheating. Of course, I would hope to see an improvement–that’s one of the reason I want to allow students to do this. I want them to be relaxed, and if music helps, then I want them to be able to listen.

  • Oh, and about the “cheat sheet.”

    As Mike writes, I do hope that people using the iPod aren’t cheating. But the significant difference between the cheat sheet, and using some sort of ipod, is that one must be fairly well versed in the material in the first place to be able to quickly move through the material in something like an iPod. On a “single sheet cheat sheet” it’s all right there, and they can quickly scan what’s available–and one person can do the sheet for many to use. A “distributed” cheat sheet doesn’t (in my opinion) lead to significantly greater learning for those who receive copies.

    I suppose my goal is to provide (as I said) a means for relaxation for those students that stress, while at the same time hoping that the work load required to cheat would far outweigh the work required to simply study.

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