Director’s Blog

Pandemic Pedagogy: Assessment Woes Part One

by | Nov 17, 2020 | Director's Blog

Assessment has never been an easy task, and the move to remote teaching has made it more frustrating for faculty and students alike. Faculty feel like cheating on exams has increased while students struggle with technological barriers and seemingly intrusive proctoring tools. Large class sizes makes grading difficult and giving detailed feedback nearly impossible. How can we navigate this?

To be honest, I don’t enjoy talking about assessment. There are so many creative ways of doing assessment, but also many barriers to making them happen. I feel like I never have a satisfactory answer for faculty because it asks them to trust students, to move away from large exams, and to offer different modes of assessment. Some don’t want to do assessment this way while other faculty can’t because they are constrained by department policies and lack of adequate TA support. It often feels like a no-win situation – for me, for faculty, for the students.

So before I offer suggestions for assessment (Part Two will focus on this), I want to share a few thoughts (that will probably make me unpopular with many of you). I’ve been involved in many conversations about students cheating during remote instruction. Are students cheating? Absolutely. Did students cheat prior to remote instruction? Absolutely. Cheating will happen no matter the mode of instruction or the deterrents we put in place. That’s just the sucky reality. It’s frustrating and it’s not fair. But that doesn’t mean I’m advocating turning a blind eye. Instead, I argue that we shift our focus away from cheating and look to creating assessments that are better at assessing learning and make cheating more difficult simply because of their design, not the precautions surrounding them,

Another thought – take a look at your syllabus. Does it spend more time telling students how they can fail versus how they can succeed? In other words, is it full of policies against cheating, late work, and absences while leaving out advice and encouragement for their success? In attempt to deter cheating and late work, we often focus on policies that will “scare” students away from doing these things. But what really happens is that we’re telling students from day one that we don’t trust them. Or worse, that we don’t care when life gets in the way, so no late work, no make-up exams, no excuses. Instead of creating an encouraging environment, we (often inadvertently) create an us-vs-them scenario where students see their faculty as gatekeepers versus facilitators or mentors. Once again, I’m not advocating turning a blind eye and throwing out policies on cheating. We need those policies and they need to be clear to students. They just don’t need to take center-stage over our encouragement and pathways to success.

Finally, my own experience with students and cheating. Prior to coming to UCI, I was an associate teaching professor at a branch campus of Washington State University where I taught literature and writing courses. I taught there for 7 years, but I had also taught as instructor of record all through grad school so I had nearly 15 years of teaching under my belt. Every year, I caught students plagiarizing their papers. Every year, I listened to them deny it, cry about it, and promise it would never happen again. Some of them had panicked and just lifted a paper off the internet. Others didn’t understand the assignment so turned in the same paper as a friend. And others just didn’t care about my class so they took shortcuts. Every year, I became more frustrated by the cheating which led to me becoming more uncaring about the students themselves. I started to view students with suspicion – who had a legitimate excuse for late work versus who was just trying to take advantage of me? Stories of sick grandmas or medical emergencies made me roll my eyes and think “yeah, right.” When a student handed in good work, I often spent hours on trying to find it on the internet. I started taking their cheating personally, as if students were trying to trick me or see what they could get away with. I had become incredibly jaded. So much so that I left teaching behind to focus completely on faculty development, which had been my part-time position at WSU.

Faculty development work felt refreshing – nothing to grade, no cheating! (Spoiler alert – faculty do cheat. I’ve served on hiring committees and seen faked publications, faked syllabi, etc). And while I’m so grateful to be in my current position at UCI, I’m also sad for what a bitter and frustrated professor I had been. Many students didn’t deserve my attitude as they dealt with real crises. I wish I had been able to take a step back, to see how I had directed all my attention and energy to student cheating instead of student success. I let those issues overshadow the good, because I also had students who worked hard, who appreciated my classes, and valued a college education. But I couldn’t see that in the end. So I hope by sharing my experience and advice, I can give some of you what I didn’t have – someone to reshape my perspective and approach to assessment and help me salvage the joy I used to find in teaching. The next post, Part Two, covers my assessment advice.

In other news…

What I’m currently reading: Fifty Words for Rain by Asha Lemmie. I enjoyed this novel even though it is filled with heartbreak as it tackles issues of race, class, and legitimacy in post-WWII Japan. I did find the ending a bit disappointing.

What I’m currently drinking: The election week brought out a few extra cocktails for me. One is from the book Drinking French – a Lillet Reviver. I found it to be refreshing after consuming the bile on social media.

Andrea Aebersold

Andrea Aebersold

Director, Faculty Instructional Development

Andrea Aebersold is the Director of Faculty Instructional Development at University of California, Irvine. She earned a PhD in English and was an associate professor of teaching before coming to UCI. She specializes in active learning, evidence-based teaching, and reading mountains of books.