On getting the answer right at any cost

Something very interesting happened in my iPad pilot class today. We've been studying Spain's royal family, and I created a web-based formative assessment that integrated an audio clip about the recent embezzlement scandal that has shamed the Borbones with a few comprehension questions. Little did I know that this activity would lead to a total breakdown of integrity and academic honesty.

The task was to listen to the audio and answer the questions (identify the words that you hear, true/false), submit your work, and repeat until you reach a benchmark of 80% mastery of the content. Usually, with listening exercises, I play the sound file twice and the students have to respond to the questions based on just that exposure--the same for everyone, no matter what each student's proficiency level. If the students could listen to the clip as much as they wanted to, I reasoned, they would be able to gain a more specific understanding of the language, and the activity would be self-differentiating: once they finished, students with more advanced proficiency levels could move on to an extension activity about how scandals are portrayed in the media, while students whose proficiency isn't as developed could take the time to practice listening strategies.

At the beginning, it worked pretty well. Everyone focused on the task, headphones on, in total silence (something I'm not usually comfortable with in the classroom, but that's a topic for another post). Then, one by one, students started raising their hands. I'm not sure if the problem was that I didn't craft one of the questions correctly, or if I weighted the questions wrong, or if it was a scoring glitch in the program I was using (Quia, which is usually great). This was the problem: on the first question, students had to check off on a list all of the words that they heard in the news report, and if they didn't get them all correct, it was counted as completely incorrect, with no feedback about which of the words they checked were correct. I stepped in to guide students, giving them clues about how many words off they were, but in a class of 26 students I cannot give one-on-one attention to all of them. Within minutes, students were copying answers off of their classmates' iPads and flouting the Spanish-only rule (I was too, I must admit, in my attempts to figure out what was going on).

It was by no means a disaster, but it gave me pause. What happened? Why did the students so readily give up on the task's purpose--comprehension--in favor of just getting the right answer? I thought immediately of Drive by Daniel Pink. Pink's argument is that passion and a penchant for problem-solving are what lie beneath human progress and success, rather than extrinsic factors like money, power or grades. Of course, he explains this with much more expertise and style than I can at 8 pm on a Monday night after a full day of work; it's an excellent book that has made a huge impact on the way I teach, and well worth a read.

Anyway, my point is this: there's a chapter in Drive in which he connects widespread cheating on high-stakes testing with the actual existence of high-stakes testing. The over-reliance on standardized tests to promote children to the next grade, determine a teacher's effectiveness, or as proof of whether or not a school is failing could actually be the cause of cheating and malfeasance, and no amount of negative consequences will deter that behavior. If you dump all of a task's importance on only one correct outcome, and not the process of discovering a variety of acceptable solutions, then people will do anything necessary to reach the preordained outcome, even if implicates dishonesty.

What happened in my class today was that phenomenon in miniature. I set a (deceptively simple) task in which the only way that students could move forward was by earning a minimum score, and there was only one way to achieve that score. No wonder they started cheating when they were chucked back to square one with almost no information about their thinking processes. As I'm writing this, I just thought of gaming, which does require you to repeat the same tasks over and over before you can move on, but the difference in gaming is that there are usually different ways to meet the goal, not just one.

Did I mention that the principal of my school dropped by this class today? Actually, I'm glad that he did--today's lesson was a classic case of learning more from failure than from success, even if it's not the lesson you set out to learn.


  1. Katherine, I have no doubt you have it all figured out for the next time. A classroom 2.0 is a learning experience and a challenge for teachers as well as students. I will have to get a copy of _Drive_ for my summer reading. I'm so incredibly impressed with your openness and willingness to share a lesson that was less than what you thought was the top of your game.

  2. Patty, thank you so much for your support!

  3. This was a fascinating post, especially given the discussions we've had about teaching to the test and the pressure to perform.


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