Thursday, October 13, 2011

Peer-Driven Learning: Plagiarism, Motivation, and Acceptance

I've written already that I need to work on accepting the strengths and limitations of each of my peer-driven learning classes. But this week has really tested my patience, my resolve, and my faith that this change in approach is really a good thing. 

My...less-enthusiastic class has been struggling. Their first paper was due on Monday. I realized during the drafting process that one of the reasons this class hasn't embraced the peer-driven concept is because they are insecure/unsure writers. The first day that they were supposed to have brought drafts to class for peer-review, only three did. And this was after I forced them to go to the library to do research for their paper. Instead of sending them away, I was able to quickly find an available computer lab and take them their to actually write their draft (those three who brought a draft did the peer-review work by themselves). Turns out, the majority of the students did in fact have a draft but were too afraid to let anyone read it. I was able to work with each of them through their various issues and they came away from the class with a bit more confidence and a workable draft (or at least a better sense of how to get there).

I am a little ashamed to admit that I was feeling pretty proud of myself after that class. I was able to help the students rather give the knee-jerk reaction of simply dismissing them and their apparent lack of motivation. Sometimes, a good teacher needs to discern what the students want or need, even in a peer-driven setting. And I also knew that the direction we had initially set in the class probably needed to change. On Monday, when the entire class was there to hand in their essays, I announced that on Wednesday we would re-evaluate how we approach the rest of the semester. Did we still want to all work on the same topic, or would individual groups like to work individual topics of their choice? Did we still want to do group work? Did we still want to do projects? Be here on Wednesday if you want a say in the direction of the second-half of the semester.

A little less than half the class bothered to show up.  Now, I will give the less-than-half of the class that did show up credit. They came full of ideas and prepared to defend them. We sat down in a small circle and came up with a second-half plan (which closely resembles what the other class is doing right now). But, we are going to waste Monday's class forming groups for the other students who weren't there. 

And then, today, when I was grading their papers, I came across one of the most blatant case of plagiarism of my career. The student found a conference presentation on poverty and education online. It was even a Word document, so all the student did was take the first few pages of the presentation, double-space it, and stick her name on the top. The language was so obviously beyond the student's level, that it was the giveaway I needed. A simple Google search turned up the paper immediately. 

I don't know what to do. I make the course peer-driven, empower the students to make their own decisions about the direction of the education, and I still can't get better than 45% attendance. I told the students that if they didn't show up that others would make the decision for them. This saddens me, not just for the success of the class, but for the future of democracy; the students don't seem to care if someone else decides their future for them. And, I know all of the reasons why students plagiarize, but thought that I had managed to remove all of them. 

I don't know what else to do but accept that some students aren't motivated. Or that there are many, many factors that I can't control. Then, why continue with peer-driven learning? Why put up with the stress and the added work if more than half the students don't even care one way or the other what they learn or how? 

Even writing that, I know why. 

It's just this week has been really, really hard. I'm still working on acceptance. 


  1. Taking the plagiarism case out of the picture for a moment, might some of the general lack of motivation be due to:

    - A failure to see the importance in what they are doing;
    - The fact that this is peer-driven and, therefore, related to the group as opposed to the individual?

    There are probably a number of reasons why class members are resisting, even though you're trying to give them so much free reign. The following two papers are well worth a read:

  2. Your benchmark cannot be 100% of the students will be engaged and focused and doing great work. It just can't.

    I see lots of evidence of excellent teaching here. You are adapting and helping students. How does the 50% engaged (coming full of ideas and making a new plan) compare to the level of engagement in the peer-driven process in the 1st week of the course? Is that more students who are genuinely engaged in the process?

    And how many of the students you worked with in the computer lab are now more engaged in the process.

    I think you are focusing too hard on the half of the glass that's empty.

  3. Sometimes, a good teacher needs to discern what the students want or need, even in a peer-driven setting.

    I don't pretend to know how you should change your approach to help your students learn, but I do know I hear so many complaints from students about group projects.

    The blatant plagiarism is depressing to hear about, but not too surprising. Student cheating – the SAT, the Internet, and Ted Kennedy

  4. You did your 50% (sounds like 80%, actually) but the students didn't do their part. You can't force students to care or to do the work. You can't prevent them from cheating, either.

    Sounds as though you are being too hard on yourself.

  5. I sympathise with you completely. I teach 2 sections of the same course (second year cell biology) and see the exact same kinds of differences that you are describing. This week I did a midterm student evaluation, to get some feedback on what is working. Both classes has about 200 students in attendance. In one class I got 140 responses, in the other I got 84. In the 84 class most of the comments were more or less the "why can't you just give us the answers? Why don't you tell us enough so we don't have to ask questions?" type. It was demoralizing.

    Its frustrating when you work so hard to make it the best possible learning environment that you can, and they don't even care. It makes it hard to stand here and do what I do some days.

    In the end of the day I live by the idea that you can't teach anyone anything. You can only give them the best conditions in which to learn for themselves... the rest is up to them. I can't force them to learn... or even to care. But I really wish that I could.

  6. This semester (Spring '12), I am definitely going to incorporate Peer-Review session before handing in their paper to me. This is a great idea!!!!!

  7. There is only so much we can do as educators. Don't forget students need to be responsible for their learning. When my students plagiarize, I let them know I know it is plagiarism and return the paper to them. I treat it as if it was not handed in. They can redo and hand it in. You have some great ideas. This is why it is important to have time to sit and discuss concerns and ideas with other educators for our own sanity.

  8. You obviously care about what you're doing, and that's more than half the battle. My experience tells me that in a class of 20 to 30 students, I can't expect more than two or three to show any caring, a lacking I couple with the immaturity of youth. I used to tell my son, "Youth is wasted on the young," and he would counter with, "and so is education." I was thrown out of English class in high school for belching. Now look at me...a virtual teacher committed to helping students learn the art and craft of writing. I agree with those who say you're too hard on yourself.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

You May Also Like: