Riddle Me This: I search. I find. I copy. I paste. What am I? Transforming cheating skills to information skills


Photography by Alexa Rae, published by reliken at http://imgur.com/gallery/8lU1m

Monday, an article in University Affairs Magazine by Alex Gillis led me to a study by Julia Christensen Hughes and Donald McCabe (2006). The study showed that 53% of nearly 15,000 Canadian undergraduates “reported having engaged in one or more instances of serious cheating on written work” in the previous year (p. 10). Although the study was published in 2006, the data was gathered during the 2002-03 academic year, which means that the ‘cheaters’ made up the majority of students a full 12 years ago. According to Gillis, the researchers are preparing to release a follow-up study that shows that cheating has ‘likely’ increased still more.

Institutions struggle to combat these numbers through awareness campaigns, strict academic misconduct policies, and expensive plagiarism detection tools. Still, the numbers suggest the problem is far from conquered.

It’s easy to attribute the increase in cheating to the advances in technology that have facilitated access to information, but I’m not so sure that’s the real problem.

Maybe the reason why these numbers keep going up is that we haven’t yet adapted our instruction and assessment measures to reflect the ways that we engage with information now. The classic model, still employed by some instructors, is that the instructor holds and controls the course information. The assessment that follows measures how well the students have stored and processed that information. However, this model may conflict with student experience which tells them that they can find any information they want any time they want it.

Maybe a new model needs be developed, one that surrenders the illusion of control over information and instead empowers students by teaching them how to find, understand, evaluate and productively use the information out there.[1] Assessment, then, would be less about the answer and more about the process for finding that answer.

Who better than Google, the company whose name is now a verb that means ‘to find information on the internet,’ to explore this idea further?

Once a day, Google asks a question that Google itself can’t answer–a stroke of beautiful and deliberate irony, in my opinion, and a clear statement about what Google perceives as ‘true’ information skills. It’s not what you know that matters. It’s what you can discover.

Here’s one Google-a-Day: ” An 11-foot bird lives less than two miles from 30.891383,-102.885032. What’s his name?”
This isn’t a question. This is a puzzle. It’s learning in its most active form. It’s problem solving and critical thinking. It’s the stuff that actually matters and makes it possible for us to live productive, successful, and meaningful lives.

So riddle me this: why are we asking questions that Google can answer when Google itself knows that that’s not what really matters?[2]

ally1Allyson Miller, Learning Skills Instructor and eLearning Developer, A-Z Learning Services, Brock University

[1] In actuality, problem-based learning is far from new. For more see Queen’s University’s overview.
[2] This line of thought was inspired by a session I plan on attending at Connect 2015, Canada’s Learning and Technology Conference. The presenter is Kendra Spira and the title of the presentation is “If you can Google the answer, are you asking the right question?”

Hughes, J. C., & McCabe, D. L. (2006). Academic Misconduct within Higher Education in Canada. Canadian Journal Of Higher Education, 36(2), 1-21.

Preparing for Chemistry Exams: Get an “A” using one quick trick?

Sorry, it’s not that easy, and guess what, it shouldn’t be. Chemistry isn’t called one of the “hard sciences” for nothing.  🙂

At this time of year, I’m busy running exam review sessions for first-year chemistry students as part of our A-Z Learning Services support at Brock University. I’ve worked at Brock since 1970 as a lab demonstrator, lab coordinator, first-year chemistry instructor, and now (after retiring, ha ha) as an instructor for Learning Services.

A question I’m asked frequently: “Have students changed over the years?”


Sliderule – The precurser to calculators

In my experience, students have always had a tendency to skim information to“look for answers” rather than read for understanding.In the 60s and early 70s, there were no calculators, no cellphones, no online lecture notes, no Google for answers, and no internet (The Horror!).

So, rather than seeing a change in students, I’ve seen an increase in tools that facilitate this skimming approach. Learning can be work. Learning can be hard. Learning can be satisfying (when you finally get it).

When students ask me what they can do to do better in Chemistry, this is what I tell them:

1. GO TO LECTURE-because it is helpful to hear as well as see and write down information.

2. MAKE MINI FLASHCARDS-with definitions of terms, concepts, formulas, and symbols, and carry them around in your pocket. (You are learning while you make the cards, and it is fun.). When waiting in line (for coffee, bus, etc.) pull them out and test yourself (rather than texting). Put the cards you know back in your pocket. Those you miss go on the bottom of your stack. This is the fastest way to learn material.

3. KNOW YOUR VOCABULARY – because knowing your Chemistry vocabulary will make the rest of your studying much easier

4. REVIEW ALL YEAR – because Chemistry exams are cumulative. Your review should be ongoing starting from the beginning of the school year.

5. PRACTICE – because practicing calculations, understanding the use of units, studying with friends, turning in assignments and reading the textbook are important to do too. Remember, ten minutes per day is much more effective than one hour per week.

So . . . Enjoy the good feeling that you will get when you work hard and finally understand.

BRAIN OLYMPICS FEB 2009 033Gail Neff
Learning Skills Instructor
A-Z Learning Services, Brock University

6 Reasons for Student “Apathy”

Did I get your attention? Are you up in arms? Good!

If you’re a student, let’s hear from you. If you provide student support, please share your wisdom on this question: Why don’t more students take advantage of the resources we provide?

people-431943_1280This question has been bouncing in my head since last week’s Academic-Zone webinar, Supporting at-risk students transitioning to post-secondary: Study skills and writing focus.

During the webinar, I chatted with representatives from Loyalist College and Royal Roads University about our respective student support initiatives. The bottom line? We offer students many opportunities. We’re on-campus. We’re on-line. We’re creative, resourceful, flexible,  determined, and approachable. . . IMO 😛

The problem? Student engagement.  Don’t get me wrong. Many students use our services (approximately 5,000 last year); however, some don’t and those who don’t are often those who would benefit most. Based on my own experience at Brock University, I have listed several common reasons why students do not use  support services:

  1. Time management and self-regulation: Procrastination, over-scheduling, or an inability to break down complex assignments often results in poorly researched/written assignments or inadequate studying (let alone time to ask questions or explore support services)
  1. Independence: Many students see “help-seeking” or question-asking as a weakness rather than a strength. No judgement here: I think independence is an admirable quality.
  1. Self-Concept and Confidence: Students often make closed statements about their “abilities”, saying “This is how I write” or “I can’t do math” or “I am a 60s student”.  If I don’t believe that I can do better, why would I assess and revise my current strategies? Why would I invest more time and energy?
  1. Embarrassment: If students are unhappy with their work, they may not want to show it to anyone.
  1. Strategic Decision Making: Students make choices based on “value”. What value are we giving to the extra time and effort needed to improve assignments that require several revisions, like essays? Can we blame students if we accept poor quality?
  1. Motivation: Last, but certainly not least. Everyone is motivated to do what they’re doing, and to not do what they’re not doing. John Hope Bryant raises the question: Have young people “‘checked out’ of the traditional educational system”? Check out his post, A Bold New Approach to Education: Aspiration-Based Learning (ABL).

Our webinar session reminded me of a 2009 post on The Chronicle of Higher Education by Bob Kunzinger, Associate Professor of English and the Humanities at Tidewater Community College: “The $5,000 Approach to Teaching Writing”.

Obviocalculation-390319_1280usly, this post left an impression on me. In a nut shell, Kunzinger argues that many students basically decide to submit poorly written papers—that they know that their professors have to read it, regardless of quality, and that they “know there are usually ways to avoid putting forth a gallant effort on a paper.”

(Selection from Kunzinger’s post)

“What if I had a check on my desk for $5,000? And what if I rewarded the writer whose introduction most caught my attention, who most effectively made me want to continue because of a solid and clear thesis, with a check for five grand? Would your introductions improve even more?”

Cries of “Absolutely!” filled the room —to which I replied, “Then you always could do it. You just couldn’t be bothered.”

Silence followed.                                                    See full article

From my perspective, “you just couldn’t be bothered” is a complex statement and relates to reasons in my “why students do not use our support services” list. So what do we do? Unfortunately, I don’t have $5,000 kicking around.

One of the strategies we’ve employed at Brock University is to develop close partnerships between teaching faculty and student academic services, through which students are rewarded for successful participation in service skill-building activities (e.g., participation or assignment bonus grade for scoring over 70% on an academic-zone academic writing, numeracy, or lab report on-line quiz). Then, we draw students into other resources and supports that are available on a self-select basis, either on-line or on-campus.  This strategy provides an additional “value” to developing skills and increases students’ awareness of services.

Now, back to the list . . .

Your challenges? Strategies? Thoughts?

(I’d love to hear from students, staff, and faculty!)

3c94c98Margaret Groombridge, MEd, BEd, BA, OCT
Lead Designer, Academic-Zone
Coordinator Learning Skills Instruction
A-Z Learning Services, Brock University

Perseverance is the Name of the Game

JesseBarrazaOne of the most gratifying things about working with students at a post-secondary institution is seeing them achieve their goals. There is nothing more satisfying than suddenly being stopped in the hall by a student who just wants to say, “Thank You!”

Working with university students has definitely changed over the last few years. One main factor: Technology. I like to consider myself part of the generation that saw the birth of technology as an integral part of our every day life. I remember the first video game consoles and playwolfensteined very archaic PC games with very simple goals and streamlined objectives. I remember my copy of Wolfenstein that consisted of a case of twelve, yes TWELVE, 3.5-inch floppy disks. Floppy disk. How is that for “dead vocabulary”? I also remember my first cell phone and found a copy of my first cell phone bill from when I first moved to Canada in the early 2000s. There were no data plans or texting. You simply called someone and did it again and again if the line was busy.

Although the complexity of video games and the pace of communication have changed drastically, I still remember what inspired me to play thefootball-606235_1280 Pixabay http://pixabay.com/en/football-clip-football-boots-soccer-606235/se games or what drove me to call the girl I liked, again and again. Perseverance. I just kept going and going until I got what I wanted or until I got “it” done. Perseverance is a term I use often when working with our student athletes. It’s a term they understand well in their sport and that they strive to apply in their academics.

Now, I am part of a team that is proud to create technological resources for students. Resources that help them achieve their academic goals at university. I truly enjoy my work, and I observe students working hard to reach their goals. Although technology has changed dramatically, I feel that some things have not changed: Success means perseverance!

Whether the goal is to get into one particular class or to achieve the ultimate prize of their degree, I find that it’s the students who don’t give up who achieve academic excellence, sooner or later. You support students, either directly or indirectly through the resources you built. You may not see those students for days, months, or years. Then one day, they cross your path. You see their success and then you know that they never stopped. They persevered.

JesseJesse Barraza, Hons. BSc, MEd
Retention Programs Coordinator
Systems & Services Coordinator, Academic-Zone
A-Z Learning Services, Student Development Centre Brock University

Illiterate vs. Innumerate: Why is one okay?

mathematics-327488_1280 (1)Last week, a friend shared an article with me from the Globe and Mail. In it, the author stated that she was “never ashamed of [her] limited numerical skills”. Over the years, I have often ranted about the pride people take in saying that they were never good at math. I have a secret to share: while I love math, I wasn’t always good at it.

There. I said it. My secret is out. I have always found the patterns of mathematics comforting. There was also comfort that there was a right answer. While I worked at math problems, my stubbornness would kick in. I knew that if I worked at it, I would get it. When I did master concepts, I felt a certain pride in my accomplishments. My parents can verify my initial cursing over calculus. Most people think you need to be “smart” to do math. I think you just need to be tenacious.

I firmly believe that ALL people can do math. I also acknowledge that not everyone will enjoy math. However, in order to do math, some of us will require more effort than others. Some of us will have to work hard at addition and subtraction. Others will need to start working harder when algebra is introduced. There will be some people that only start working at math when they are doing graduate level research in a new number theory.   That being said, I think that most people, with a little effort and patience, can get to a point of competence with numeracy.

Admittedly, practicing multiplication tables or solving equations may not be as exciting as a team practice, a new video game or a good book. The excuses of “I will just use a calculator,” or “I am not good at math” don’t preclude you from still requiring math in life. Most people will wonder when they will need to find “x” in real life. However, almost all college and university programs require some type of mathematics course. With the basic numeracy skills, the courses become less of a struggle.

Let’s get rid of the notion that it is okay not to be good at math. We work hard to achieve literacy – let’s put the same effort into numeracy and abolish the idea that just because it doesn’t come easily means that you can’t do it.

Bayless, Maureen. (2015, February 12). A grave mathematical error. The Globe and Mail, p L6.

sueSue Guenther
Special Projects Coordinator, Academic Zone Resource Developer and “Math Guru”
A-Z Learning Services, Student Development Centre, Brock University

The Heart of a Balanced Schedule: A University Perspective

pic 1

“Time is our most precious and fleeting resource.
We never have enough, yet we have all there is.
This is the time-management paradox” (Tom Reilly).

I love these words of wisdom and find my daily experiences reflect this sentiment. As a Learning Skills Instructor at Brock University, I often talk to students about “time management”.  I hear about their struggles, their confusion, and their ongoing quest to juggle and balance a multitude of tasks and activities—yet their loss as to how. As I listen, I see my past self. I know my own approach and attitude towards time management changed drastically over the years from an undergraduate student to a graduate student. So, I will often draw upon my past learnings and experiences, as I explore tips and strategies for time management, aiming to meet students where “they are at” and with authenticity.

In my early undergraduate years, I would say I had a patterned process—beginning as an “extreme optimist” and moving towards sheer panic. Each year as I was positively sure I could fit in every class, work, volunteer, and social activity that my heart desired. What was at the root of this philosophy? I was young and energetic and the world was my oyster. Saying “yes” to presented opportunities could open up new doors—new career paths. If I turned something down, I might lose out. So, I would pack my schedule full. Then, more often than not, only after I was deeply committed, reality would hit. pic 2There are only 24 hours in a day and 7 days a week. Try as I might, I could not alter this math. Yes, I had moved to that “place of panic” where I had no idea how I would complete everything. My solution? Head down—I would forge ahead hoping all would work out. Often it did (which allowed me to repeat this pattern for a few years). But, eventually the stress of the pendulum swing began to take its toll. I needed to discover a better way of figuring out the reality of time limitations.

Here is one of my favourite strategies which emerged —guided by the “experts”, and personally tweaked for different seasons of life. Over the years, during workshops and consultations, I often find that students enjoy hearing about this strategy. Some even return to let me know how successful it has been for them. The strategy? I like to call it, “creating a balanced weekly schedule”.

Basically, you take your computer, or a piece of paper, and create a blank schedule—Monday—Sunday, for every hour you are up. For the next steps, you can choose to use different colours, if you are a visual person like me. Fpendulum old-clock-436495_1280irst, in one colour (say green), slot in all of your fixed activities for the week. For students this will mean their lectures, seminars, labs, and part-time work schedules. For the second step, you take a different colour (purple, sounds good), and block off the time you need to complete your university work (e.g. your times for reading, reviewing, studying, writing assignments, etc.). The general recommendation, which can come as a surprise to students, is to block off two to three hours for every hour of class (e.g. 15 hours of class = 30 hours of school work). Next, in a different colour (maybe blue), you schedule in time for balance (e.g. hobbies, physical activity, family and friends—all the things that make us happier and healthier in life).

During this activity, students may experience an “uh-oh” moment, when they realize they cannot fit everything into their schedules (“hello past-self”). I have met students who are working thirty hours a week in addition to taking five courses. (Yes, these students would discover not only could they not fit everything into 24 hours, but there was also little to no room for “blue” time, or balance). Rather than letting students panic, this is the moment to guide students to feeling empowered to make decisions which work best for their lives. “It is good when we discover the reality of time-math” (Usually at this point, I’ll make a quick analogy to my personal past). “There are just choices to be made. Some people may choose to work fewer hours at a part-time job. Other people may choose to do a course in the spring or summer, in consultation with his/her academic advisor, and fewer courses during the fall and winter terms. And there are other options too. What do you think will work best for you?”…

What is at the heart of the “Balanced Weekly Schedule”?


For me, it is allowing myself to live life to the fullest. When I know that the time-math works and I have created a healthy balance to my week, I can be fully present in each moment and not distracted by distance thoughts of, “How am I going to get everything done?” Is the schedule perfect? No. But it does allow me to better enjoy, even though it is momentary, that “precious and fleeting resource” of time.

What is your best time management tip for students?

Karen karenSmith Herrow
Learning Skills Instructor and Academic Zone Resource Developer
A-Z Learning Services, Student Development Centre, Brock University

Teaching the Science of Writing

eis-01Figure 1. How scientists see writing a paragraph.

I teach a mandatory Scientific Writing course for Chemistry and Physics PhD graduate students to help them write their thesis or dissertation, and hopefully publications.   The funny thing is that I don’t have a PhD, and when I first started teaching the course, I didn’t even have a Masters!

Surprisingly, in the 7 years I’ve taught the course, my lack of a PhD has never been an issue. The problem has been getting students to believe that they can work on their writing while in grad school. I’m not saying that they don’t recognize or value good writing, but with their courses, TA work, lab demonstrating, supervising undergrads in the lab, group meetings, seminar presentations, let alone their research, adding one more task seems overwhelming, even if they know that it’s something that they need to work on.

horses-01Although we can lead horses to water, how do we make them drink? Or in my case, although academic regulations lead them to my writing class, how can I make them think (that it’s worthwhile)?

What do I do? I try as much as possible, to talk their talk. Every example is scientific. Use non-science examples and the class tunes out. Show the same example with chemicals or lab terms and I get buy in. These students need to see the direct relationship between the examples and their writing. It’s a simple thing, but surprisingly effective.

I also try to show that writing is like any lab skill. There are specific steps and rules to follow, but at the same time they can improve with practice and reflection!

Finally, I tell them that I’m their litmus test. I know about as much as a new Masters student who might pick up their thesis for background reading. I might not understand their research, but if I can follow their thinking and believe their argument based on the evidence- their writing is clear! I might not know if the science is correct, but at least their ideas are clear.

How do you inspire your science students to “drink”?

eis photoElizabeth Ilnicki-Stone, MSc (Chem), BSc, BEd, OCT
Academic-Zone Resource Developer
Instructor, A-Z Learning Services
Brock University, Student Development Centre

*Figure 1. Formula for a good paragraph. Elizabeth Ilnicki-Stone, A-Z Learning Services, 2015.