September 3, 2023

Taking a chance at learning

Taking a chance at learning

Why would a student cheat? 

In the past several years of teaching, I’ve changed the way I approach formative assessments in my AP United States History classes. This partly stemmed from the pile of homework and classwork I’d have to grade each week—everything from textbook outlines, key term definitions, and short answer writing responses. I’d get especially outraged when I came across an instance of cheating or plagiarism given the hours I devoted to grading student work. I asked myself, “Why wouldn't students dedicate as much time to learning as I did to grading?'”

Punitive points

One of the conclusions I landed on was the following: Students were so focused on not losing points and protecting their grade that they found shortcuts to getting the points for the assignment, while losing out on the learning the assignment was supposed to promote. That’s not to say that this is the only reason a student cheats on an assignment; procrastination and lack of time management play a role too. However, the reality was that a system meant to encourage learning actually did the opposite by creating punitive points deductions. I wanted to eliminate the fear that discouraged a student from trying on their own, and in its place create an environment that encouraged learning from mistakes.

A new setup for formative assessment

The first step I took was to modify the weight of the categories in my gradebook such that formative assessments only counted for 20% of the total grade. The new approach to formative assessment reduces the impact of a student’s homework by half compared to my previous weighting. The graded assignments in this category also allow chances for multiple attempts and learning. Students can redo nightly homework based on recorded lectures and submit online to receive full credit before the assignment deadline. Additionally, I give students full credit on the weekly reading questions for the first 4 weeks of school to give students enough time to internalize my feedback. And finally, I don’t grade the work students do in class.

For the ungraded classwork, Class Companion is an extremely helpful tool. Despite the work being ungraded, I didn’t want students to be left without feedback for the work they produce. Additionally, Class Companion can provide hints if the student is stuck, give individualized feedback to every student’s responses, and allow students to try again with the feedback it generates. I can review every attempt a student makes on the platform and address any disputes they have with the AI feedback. 

The outcome

Combined, Class Companion and the policy of not assigning points to classwork create an environment in which students are not afraid to answer incorrectly. The progression of their responses makes it clear that learning is a process, requiring various attempts and iterations. Yes, students can still cheat when they use the platform, by googling the question or asking another AI platform. The built in “pasting” flags on Class Companion help a teacher pursue a case of cheating if they believe it is warranted. But the incentive for cheating significantly diminishes when students can try multiple times or seek assistance from the Class Companion AI. 

Making the change was not an easy decision to make. I initially feared that if students didn’t have the extrinsic reward of points for an assignment, they wouldn’t do it at all. However, that’s not what happened at all. Students still engage with the Class Companion assignments. They try multiple times until they get a correct answer on their own. Students even exhibit learning when they open a dispute against the AI and have to further defend their answer.

Overall, I am happy with the change. There’s always room for improvement, and even a case to be made that all formative work should be ungraded. That may be where my classes ultimately end up, but that also depends on what grading policies my school district will allow. 

TL;DR: Stop assigning points for assignments that are meant to help students learn. Use Class Companion to give immediate feedback.

Bruno Morlan

Bruno Morlan is an AP US History teacher at Acalanes High School in Lafayette, California. He has been teaching AP US History for six years, before that he primarily taught AP US Government and AP Comparative Government. He created APUSHslides.com where teachers and students have access to free lectures, notes and activities to prepare them for the AP exam. In addition to teaching, he enjoys cross country in the fall and Track in the spring.

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