November 30, 2011

Questioning the Socratic Method and Academic Integrity

After I read an article on, I wondered about the state of the Socratic method in American classrooms. The article chronicles the case of Professor Steven Maranville at Utah Valley University. He teaches a capstone business course and his style is to ask questions even if students don't volunteer to answer.

It seems that students complained about that (and pedagogical choices) and that those complaints contributed to the university denying him tenure.

I won't attempt to judge his employment status or his classroom teaching, but the article points to other cases where the power of student evaluations and opinions on faculty rehiring was significant. Professors at Louisiana State University and  at Norfolk State University are noted. I also noticed a number of online posts recently about an article headlined "NYU Prof Vows Never to Probe Cheating Again—and Faces a Backlash."

Maranville's style of pedadgogy is described as Socratic, "engaged learning" in which he "pushed for students to go beyond lectures" and created teams for assignments outside class. I don't hear anything very radical in any of that. If done well, it sounds quite admirable.

The Socratic Method as a style of teaching is named after the classical Greek philosopher Socrates who used this method of inquiry. It is covered in chapter one of the textbook I use in my critical thinking course, and I can't really imagine teaching a class face-to-face or online without using some form of this questioning technique.

This kind of inquiry and debate between individuals is popular in law schools and probably used more in the humanities and the social sciences. Using opposing viewpoints and asking and answering questions stimulates critical thinking and often illuminate ideas.

It is a dialectical method, and so it can often generate oppositional discussion and the defense of one point of view is up against the defense of another. I suppose that opposition can, if the discussion lacks discipline, lead to out and out arguing.

Maybe the Socratic method seems negative because it uses a method of hypothesis elimination. The stronger hypotheses are found by identifying and eliminating those that lead to contradictions or that cannot be defended.

As the article points out, one advantage of this kind of teaching is that it challenges students "to learn how to think on their feet." In general, I find that students at the undergraduate and graduate level don't like that challenge, especially if they have been not been asked to do it in other classes.

It wasn't Socratic teaching that got the NYU prof mentioned above in trouble. It was his attempt to be more aggressive about cheating and plagiarism in his introductory information technology class. Perhaps feeling safer because he had tenure, he decided to use the Blackboard course-management system and Turnitin's plagiarism-detection software together for the first time. Those integrated software packages allows assignments that are submitted to be automatically checked for matches to materials online.

He found that plagiarism was "pervasive" and 22 of the 108 students admitted cheating by the end of the semester.

The connections to the earlier Socratic case? Students, especially those in certain majors, are simply not asked to do much writing. (It is one of the reasons the Writing Initiative at PCCC was launched.) And faculty in those disciplines often feel unprepared to evaluate writing "as writing" as opposed to grading based on subject matter content. Students have not been asked to do this kind of writing, and instructors are not prepared or unwilling to "police" writing for plagiarism.

Introduce some powerful software that detects it automatically, even on papers or students that you would not have suspected, and an ugly truth is revealed.

Of course, the other connection in these two cases is that the teachers paid for their actions with bad student reviews. Professor Ipeirotis dropped to a below-average score of 5.3 (of 7.0) from his usual 6.0 to 6.5. He claims that "The Dean’s office and my chair ‘expressed their appreciation’ for me chasing such cases (in December), but six months later, when I received my annual evaluation, my yearly salary increase was the lowest ever, and significantly lower than inflation, as my teaching evaluations took a hit this year."

As anyone who has pursued an academic integrity case at a college with the administration probably discovered, it can take up many hours away from your actual teaching or research. Sadly, when he posted on a blog that he had decided to no longer pursue cheating instances, that too was met with a backlash.

Lesson learned? Well, I completely agree with what he says: "Rather than police plagiarism, professors should design assignments that cannot be plagiarized."  I am actually presenting tomorrow at a writing across the curriculum faculty roundtable here at PCCC on just that topic. I hope to get a positive response from faculty, and will report back here soon.

This is a cross-posting from my blog at

November 24, 2011

Thanksgiving Break

Happy Thanksgiving from the staff
of the Passaic County Community College
Writing Center.

We will reopen on Monday, November 28th.

November 14, 2011

Plagiarism and the Web

Educators have been complaining about student plagiarism since books came to be printed. Since we have moved from an analog to a digital culture, it has become much harder for teachers to keep up with student use of online sources.

We have tried to use technology to fight technology. I know a lot of teachers at all grade levels who rely on trying to “Google” a key phrase or sentence of student writing that they suspect is plagiarized. It's not a great method. It doesn't tell you how much of the overall paper is borrowed, and it doesn't compare it to the "hidden Web" that is behind logins and walls. And it doesn't compare it to papers by your other students this semester or from last year or from other teachers at your school or any school.

I got to thinking about this topic again because of a query from a faculty member about PCCC using a service like I had downloaded a white paper awhile ago on "Plagiarism and the Web: Myths and Realities" from

A few findings:
  • Plagiarism is going social.  One-third of all content matched in the study is from social networks, content sharing or question-and-answer sites where users contribute and share content.
  • Legitimate educational sites are more popular than cheat sites. 25% of all matched material is from legitimate educational web sites - 15% of content matches come directly from sites that promote and benefit from academic dishonesty.
  • Wikipedia remains the most popular single source for student-matched content on the Web, comprising 7% of matches in the months examined.

Want to know where students are most likely to look, copy and paste?  The top 8 matched sites, along with their corresponding category in Turnitin's database, are:
1) - Encyclopedia
2) – News & Portal
3) - Social & Content Sharing
4) - Social & Content Sharing
5) - Cheat Sites & Paper Mills
6) - Social & Content Sharing
7) - Homework & Academic
8) - Homework & Academic

Of the 25 most popular sites, 14 are legitimate student resources for learning. It is a bit encouraging that more students are frequenting legitimate academic or educational web sites than cheat sites.

But before I get to using a service like Turnitin, I want to share some of my own thoughts and observations from 35 years of teaching and more than a decade in educational technology.
  1. The majority of instances of plagiarism can be prevented by creating good assignments and by not using the same assignments semester after semester. Yes, I blame teachers for a lot of plagiarism. Assigning topics that abound in online answers encourages using the material online. For example, just crossing a topic with a contemporary issue makes it much harder for students to "find the answer" and promotes some original thought.
    Asking for an essay on the symbols of evil in Lord of the Flies will send a student to Google and turn up any number of answers. Asking students to compare the hierarchy of leadership on the island to our current Washington administration and Congress, or to the people who control our financial institutions will be a lot harder to plagiarize.
  2. Don't rely on English teachers to be the only source of instruction on research and citation. Don't blame whatever level of teachers comes before you for the problems. Now that I am in a college setting, I hear, "They should have learned this in high school."  When I taught high school, I heard, "They should have had this middle school." And yet I know from watching and helping my own sons that they DID have this in elementary school - but it's a process of learning and sophistication, not a one-time lesson.
  3. Teach and give smaller assignments in how to take what is found in sources and either summarize, paraphrase or quote it.
  4. Teach the art of careful note taking. I wouldn't assume students know how to do it well unless I saw them do it. I have used exercises in having students just highlight new information in an article and been amazed that most of the article ends up highlighted when there were only 4 instances of new information. This does not come naturally. I am amazed at how many of my college students expect me to give them notes, slides, and study guides.
  5. Have students do an annotated bibliography as a standalone exercise.
  6. Model academic integrity. Do you credit and cite things that you use and photocopy for class?
  7. Address plagiarism before it occurs. Show examples. Tell them what you consider plagiarism to be. What are the penalties in your class and in your school?
  8. If you just tell students, "I don't allow you to use Wikipedia," you might as well stick your head in the sand. They will use it. They will not cite it for you. Better that you teach them how and when to use Wikipedia. It does have a place in starting research. Most teachers use it themselves. It has pretty extensive source information in the history behind an entry and includes sources for the vast majority of information. Wikipedians are very careful to note when articles are incomplete or questionable. Show your students good and bad entries in your field. Let them know that you know how it works.
    You do know how Wikipedia works, right? One of my favorite lessons that I have used with graduate students and undergrads is to have them read How Wikipedia Works and then create an original article in Wikipedia and have it grow and survive until the end of the semester. Do you know how challenging it is to just find a topic of value that is not on Wikipedia?
  9. Use examples from the "real world" of writers who have been caught plagiarizing or violating copyrights and what the punishments can be. Students who have grown up in a digital culture have had sharing, openness and re-use (good things) mixed in with sharing music, retweeting thoughts and downloading free software. I'm not sure that their ideas about originality fit at all into the world of academic research and writing. 
  10. When you have a student who clearly plagiarized, don't make it only a disciplinary action. Make it a teachable opportunity. Require the student to redo the work and fully document the research. The worst use of a service like Turnitin is as a "gotcha" tool.
  11. Much plagiarism comes from laziness, but a lot also comes from students who don't know how to do the research, and are not good (or confident) writers.
  12. Students are poor at time management. If you give 3 weeks for a research paper but don't do anything during those 3 weeks in class concerning it, many students will not begin until day 20. Break the paper down into smaller sections with milestones that are checked. This doesn't need to require a lot of "grading" by the teacher. Have them bring in one book they will be using and put bookmarks/Post-Its on 3 passages they plan to use and cite. Show the citation format.
  13. Students know that without some software like to do the checking, the teacher is not going to check many or any of the sources they cite. If no one is monitoring the speed limit on the highway, people will exceed the limit with impunity. is designed to assist educators in identifying potential instances of plagiarism but also to give students feedback during the writing process.

Turnitin's database compares papers submitted to against three main repositories of information: 14 billion current and archived web pages; 150 million student papers; and 110 million content items from academic publishers.

You might not think about user-generated content (on sites such as Facebook, Scribd, SlideShare, Yahoo Answers and as a source, and some of these "walled gardens" don't show up fully in a search query.

Turnitin also queries academic, educational and homework help sites (such as and the National Institute ofHealth, and popular homework help sites like and

Another legitimate category for research is News and Portals like The New York Times, The Huffington Post and Associated Content.

The bad guys are the "paper mills" that are made for cheating and academic dishonesty. They profit from students by selling, exchanging or placing advertising around offers of "original student papers." Teachers should be aware of these sites (like and Turnitin spots many of these usages not only because they index those sites but also because the papers have already been submitted to the Turnitin database in someone else's name! The student papers in their database and the most controversial aspect of their service and also what makes it far more powerful than using a search engine.

Encyclopedia web sites are as popular as the paper encyclopedia were in the 50s, 60s and 70s were with people who are now teaching. Wikipedia, Brittanica. com and fall into this category.

According to the Turnitin white paper, "...institutions with widespread adoption of Turnitin see a reduction in unoriginal content of 30 to 35 percent in the first year. By the fourth year, many institutions see levels of unoriginality fall by up to 70 percent."

As I noted in #7 above, demonstrating how you use technology like Turnitin, Google, and sites like to your students BEFORE they do research writing has a chance of deterring them from improper research, citation and writing practices.

When I was on the Academic Integrity committee at NJIT (where I introduced Turnitin to the university), I never saw a case of a student being confronted with a detailed and even color-coded Turnitin "Originality Report" of their written work next to the original sources when the student didn't admit to using those or similar sources.

In every case, was it plagiarism? Was it grounds for disciplinary action? Those are questions that institutions and instructors need to decide. But each instance was certainly an important “teachable moment” if we want to change students' approach to using information in the proper way.

Further Reading

November 11, 2011

Information Literacy, Primary Sources and Native Americans

Following up on an earlier post today, the Library of Congress also has many resources related to the experiences and contributions of Native Americans to our nation which would be useful for units during this Native American Heritage Month.

It would be interesting for students to consider  how many of the items were created by Native Americans versus how many were created about Native Americans?

New-York Tribune Article
on “The Iroquois Wampum”
A list of American Indian History exhibitions and collections includes primary sources.

Students should also learn that there are multimedia items (such as Omaha Indian Music and Florida Folklife from the WPA Collection, 1937-1942) and that items related to Native Americans are intertwined throughout many of the Library’s online collections that also focus on other topics.

For example, search the historic newspaper collections to analyze newspapers published by or dedicated to Indians of North America as well as articles and images published in newspapers serving a broader audience. To get started, search on terms such as Indian agency, Indian bureau, Indian war, or the names of particular groups or tribes, including Ojibwa, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Iroquois.

Native Americans narrate their personal experiences serving in conflicts from World War II to Iraq in audio and video interviews collected by the Library’s Veterans History Project in “Willing to Serve: American Indians.”

You can find primary sources and historical context for teachers and students in the presentation Immigration…Native American.

A listing of Primary Source sites on the Library website is at

Information Literacy, Primary Sources and American History

The Library of Congress has a wealth of materials for promoting the effective instructional use of primary sources. Primary sources are the raw materials of history and culture and can be great tools for teaching.
Draft of the United States Constitution:
Report of the Committee of Detail,

ca. August 6, 1787

A number of our writing intensive courses have students analyzing primary documents, images, recordings, or maps from an earlier era.

It's a natural way to get students engaged with content. It certainly lends itself to building critical thinking skills. Obviously, it is an interesting way to use information literacy in class.

Primary sources related to U.S. legislation help students explore the writings and ideas at the core of the American experience—the documents that have made the United States the nation that it is, and that continue to shape its evolution today.

Some lessons that can be easily undertaken using the Library's resources:
  • Look at the drafts of the founding documents and compare them to the final copies. Identify significant changes between the documents, and speculate as to how the nation might have been different if those changes hadn’t been made.
  • As you study issues in U.S. history, use THOMAS to find and examine recent legislative documents on the same topic—immigration, poverty, the role of religion in politics, for example. Identify whether the recent documents use similar language or persuasive techniques as the historical documents, or if approaches to the topic have changed in the intervening years.
The Library of Congress Teacher Guides and Analysis Tool can guide students through analysis of these primary sources.

The gateway to investigating these landmark documents is the Legislative Resources for Teachers page from the Library of Congress, which provides free online access to primary sources that trace the legislative history of the U.S., along with teaching tools that allow educators to quickly and easily integrate these documents into the curriculum.

Creating the United States lets students examine rough drafts of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, as well as providing insights into the intellectual environment and collaborative process that saw these charters come into being.

Once students are immersed in the world of Adams, Madison, and Jefferson, Library of Congress lesson plans on the Constitution and Bill of Rights let them ask critical questions of the documents and their authors, as they consider how the smallest changes might have made the United States a very different nation today.

SOURCE:  Teaching with the Raw Materials of the Law: Primary Sources and the Legislative Process

November 9, 2011

Getting Started with eTutoring at PCCC

The PCCC Writing Center helps support the college's participation in the eTutoring Consortium.

Students in writing-intensive courses are required to make use of tutoring twice each semester, either by using eTutoring or by meeting with a writing consultant.

Instructional videos are available online to help students "walk through" the process of using this and other services. These videos are accessible on our eTutoring LibGuide and the Writing Center's YouTube channel.

November 3, 2011

Thinking, Fast and Slow

Rodin's The Thinker, doing some System 2, slow, deliberative thinking.
I teach one of the sections of the writing intensive course in Critical Thinking. Students have just completed a paper on "thinkers" who I define as people who changed a paradigm in their field of study, but also caused a shift in thinking beyond that field  - and in many cases beyond their lifetime. The easy subjects are people like Copernicus, Darwin and Einstein. But we also look at how Edison's light bulb changed our concept of day and night, or how King Gillette changed marketing "freemiums" or Clarence Birdseye's impact on how we look at fresh food. It's fair to say that Steve Jobs changed the way we buy music and other media and use the Net and perhaps Mark Zuckerberg is changing the idea of friends and privacy.

In 2002, Daniel Kahneman won a Nobel Prize in economics. But he isn't an economist. He won it for work in psychology that challenged the rational model of judgment and decision-making. He is considered one of our most important thinkers and his ideas have had an impact on economics, medicine, and politics.

His newest book is Thinking, Fast and Slow about two systems that he feels drive the way we think.

In a simplified explanation, System 1 is the fast, intuitive, and emotional system. System 2 is slower, more deliberative, and more logical.

Both are necessary and Kahneman shows both the capabilities and benefits, and the faults and biases of them.

Perhaps the part that most interested me is that he has found a type of thought that's actually not very compatible with the way we think: decision-making. Decision-making is a chapter in every book about critical thinking.

"We have a very narrow view of what is going on," Kahneman says. "We don't see very far in the future, we are very focused on one idea at a time, one problem at a time, and all these are incompatible with rationality as economic theory assumes it."

In an interview, he said that an example of System 1 thinking would be the response to hearing a male voice say, "I believe I am pregnant." That would be an example of very fast System 1 thinking. Kahneman says, "It's the same process of recognizing things and distinguishing the familiar from the unfamiliar. You're coming up with solutions that have worked in the past, that's what's called expert intuition."

But if you are asked to multiply 87 by 14 in your head, System 2 takes over.

Here's an excerpt from the book:

When you are asked what you are thinking about, you can normally answer. You believe you know what goes on in your mind, which often consists of one conscious thought leading in an orderly way to another. But that is not the only way the mind works, nor indeed is that the typical way. Most impressions and thoughts arise in your conscious experience without your knowing how they got there. You cannot trace how you came to the belief that there is a lamp on the desk in front of you, or how you detected a hint of irritation in your spouse's voice on the telephone, or how you managed to avoid a threat on the road before you became consciously aware of it. The mental work that produces impressions, intuitions, and many decisions goes on in silence in our mind.

System 1 activity is completely unconscious, automatic and very quick. "You're surprised by something, but you don't really know what surprised you; you recognize someone, but you don't really know what cues cause you to recognize that person," he states.

System 2 activity is orderly computations, rules and reasoning. It is also the system that (luckily for us) is monitoring thoughts, actions and speech so that we don't always say everything that comes to mind.

Kahneman's two systems are an interesting approach to thinking and decision-making. But he recognizes that they are just language to explain concepts and don't actually exist in our brains.

My students might then ask, "So why study about them?"

"Clearly, the decision-making that we rely on in society is fallible," Kahneman says. "It's highly fallible, and we should know that." We should know it because knowing gives us the ability to do something about it.

November 2, 2011

NEA Grant for PCCC Poetry Center

The Poetry Center at Passaic County Community College (PCCC) has been awarded a $10,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).

With this funding, the Poetry Center will provide free poetry workshops to seniors in Passaic County and publish an anthology of their work.

The Poetry Center at Passaic County Community College is one of 1,145 not-for-profit national, regional, state, and local organizations recommended for a grant as part of the federal agency’s second round of fiscal year 2011 grants. In total, the NEA will distribute more than $88 million to support projects nationwide.

Stanley Kunitz, then Poet Laureate of the United States
and Maria Mazziotti Gillan, talk with a reading attendee
Since the Poetry Center was founded in 1980 by Executive Director Maria Mazziotti Gillan, it has organized quality programs that have brought it to national attention, such as the Paterson Literary Review, four poetry contests, and a cable TV show. The Poetry Center reaches more than one million people annually, and is unique not only because of the number and variety of services it offers, but because of its connection with an urban, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic community.

The Poetry Center was named a Distinguished Arts Project and awarded several Citations of Excellence, and is funded, in part, by a grant from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts/Department of State, a partner agency of the National Endowment for the Arts and by funds from the National Endowment for the Arts.