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Sneaky Assignments

"You tricked me into studying!"

November 17, 2020

When I taught American Government at DeVry -- yes, that happened -- a dispiriting number of students took the class under duress. It fit their schedule and checked a box. After getting over the shock of that, I realized that it was up to me to win them over. That’s when I discovered sneaky assignments.

Sneaky assignments are tasks that students don’t realize are teaching them something. I had to harness their bracingly instrumentalist view of grades, among other things, to get them to engage enough with the material to discover why it mattered. Come for the grades, stay for the learning.

One sneaky assignment was the preannounced pop quiz. I found an inexpensive paperback textbook that had multiple-choice chapter quizzes in the back. Each quiz had about 20 questions. I told them that each week’s class would begin with a short quiz drawn verbatim from the questions in the back. If they read the chapter and mastered the answers before class, these would be free points. Some of them smirked, thinking they had found the world’s easiest grader. A few weeks in, some of the sharper ones let me know that they realized they had been tricked into reading. I smirked back. As long as they read, and even quizzed themselves on the reading, I didn’t mind awarding some points. I sneaked some education on them.

My favorite tactic was the handwritten index card. I used to give exams consisting of short essays. The week before the exam, I’d give them a list of, say, six possible essay questions. I told them that the exam would include four of those, and they could pick any two to answer. And I’d allow them to bring one index card to the exam, no larger than 4 inches by 6 inches, on which they could handwrite anything they wanted. Again, some of them couldn’t believe what a patsy their professor was, until they found themselves spending hours crafting the perfect index card, which necessarily involved reviewing and thinking through the material. When they thought they were pulling one over on me, they were actually studying. One student summarized it perfectly: “You tricked me into studying!” Yup.

I’ve been reflecting on these lately as I’ve started to get anecdotal reports about increased student cheating on traditional exams when taken on Zoom. It may be time to start looking for sneakier assessments.

For example, one colleague mentioned that she has started having her students record podcasts on certain topics, replacing a short paper. The students work in pairs, and they have to hit a set number of minutes. We have the technology now where recording and sending audio files has become practical. She reports that the students do quite well with it; the format seems familiar enough that they don’t get intimidated by it, and they actually have to dig into the material in some depth to fill that much time. And it’s effectively impossible to cheat, at least for now.

I recognized a sneaky assignment when I heard one. I thought it was brilliant. The surface accessibility of the medium gave students confidence that if they dived into the material, they’d do well. That got them to dive into the material. Once they started working with it, many discovered a taste for it. As any teacher can tell you, once the students are into it, you’re halfway home.

Remote classes bring certain losses, as we all know, but they also open up new possibilities. Suddenly, group work outside class is much easier to arrange; as long as they can connect on an app, transportation is not an issue. And many apps lend themselves to group work, so there’s no issue of someone having to get their notes to someone else. Certain kinds of projects that once would have been nightmarish to coordinate are now relatively straightforward.

None of this is to excuse cheating, or to suggest that students aren’t responsible. It’s just to say that some cheating is as much a response to perceived irrelevance as it is a sign of a character flaw. Once students see relevance, cheating goes down. It doesn’t go away -- some people are just perverse -- but once part of the motivation for it goes away, cheating drops noticeably. And as an educator, I’d much rather intrigue students than police them.


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