Poorly Designed Courses Can Offer Easy A's...

Poorly Designed Courses Can Offer Easy A's...


A recent Chronicle of Higher Education article asserts that it's online courses which offer the prospect of more easy A's, but as usual the issue is not with the delivery mode.

If I had written this story, the first sentence would have read more like this: "Easy A's may be even easier to score these days, thanks to poor course design and ever-more enterprising students seeking to game the system." As my article comment (search for "jsener" in the article) noted, to the extent that cheating is a problem, it is a problem regardless of delivery mode. Change the title of this article from "Online classes" to "classroom classes" and the statement is even more true, simply because there are still many more classroom courses: much higher volume => much more cheating. The specific cheating technique discussed in the article could be used for any type of course. Likewise, read any sentence in this article and remove the word "online", and you will find that the statement becomes even more accurate (e.g., "...he never read the materials for the course and never cracked open a textbook...").

The problem is that poor course design, including poor assessment design, creates a dilemma for students: conform to a bad situation, or "go outlaw." In other words, poor course design can exclude enterprise, creativity, exercise of time management and other critical thinking skills and instead often puts them into the realm of cheating. Summative assessments which rely solely on test question banks send the message that the instructor doesn't care enough about the activity to do anything more rigorous. So why should the students? Simply because the professor says so, and because doing otherwise is labeled cheating? The first notion ignores the current reality of today's students, with whom a process of renegotiating authority is in order -- one which takes the needs of the instructor, students, and the educational enterprise at large into account.

Keep in mind that this entire activity is happening within a context of exploding college costs, so that these students (and/or their parents) are paying dearly for the privilege of completing multiple choice tests. Is anyone really surprised that some of them either cut corners or apply their talents toward economizing their time, especially if the course design and assessment structure is set up in ways that don't value their time or learning experience?

Perhaps the root of the problem is that, fundamentally, professors in particular and higher education in general feel no need to justify themselves, thanks to practices which developed in the days when higher education was a privilege and no justification was needed. Well, this reality is changing, and simply clinging to past practices will only invite a destructive, opposite reaction. A far better approach is to look at what's happening more closely: why are these students doing what they're doing? Are they simply bad or misguided students who need to be put back on the right path -- or are students also seeking, or at least needing, a better learning experience which engages their critical thinking skills, creativity, curiosity?

The answers will vary by individual student and situation, but the larger picture is instructive. Good course design aligns course elements -- objectives, assignments, assessments, resources -- which helps each course element make more sense. Even better course design values student time, values instructor time, and enhances the value of the entire enterprise and its participants. Believe it or not, I can imagine one or more scenarios where a test question bank does this -- for example, by inviting the students to analyze the cleverness of the available answer choice construction -- but I can't think of a single real-life example of this. Most of the time, using test question banks for summative assessment is just lazy practice. It sends the message, this activity is not that important because the assessment is not very meaningful. In this day and age, a course which relies solely on such assessment practices is inviting alternative responses...

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