Cheating Our Children: Who Is Responsible? Part 2

Which 3 educator practices hinder learning outcomes and student motivation?

Posted Apr 08, 2016 with permission
Source: with permission

In the first installment of “Cheating our Children” I outlined the long-term decline of educational standards in the U.S. and Europe. Although the decline can be attributed to many factors, direct linkages exist between how educational systems are structured and governmental funding models. Many schools are rewarded based on “output” formulas that provide incentives to graduate students as a means to ensure or maintain financial subsidies. The consequences of this approach have resulted in learners moving through school systems with mediocre talent, believing they are highly qualified and skillful, yet being deemed radically underprepared based on actual skill and employer perceptions. Graduates are ill-equipped and lack the competencies employers desire for available positions, resulting in many key jobs remaining unfilled. Compounding the performance gap is the reality that rankings of U.S. education compared to other developed nations have fallen steadily over the past 30 years.

Along with deterioration at the structural and organizational levels of education, disturbing trends have emerged at the student level. Despite verified skill slippage, increasing numbers of students think they are more qualified for employment than ever before. These unjustified personal assessments contribute to an unprecedented spike in student narcissism (Twenge & Campbell, 2009). Behaviors associated with student narcissism include an unjustified belief in self-superiority, overconfidence, and feelings of entitlement that are unsupported by actual accomplishment. Ironically, despite an aggrandized view of the self, the frequency of cheating and plagiarism has increased during the same time period, suggesting  despite reported beliefs, students may question the depth of their actual knowledge when assessing self-competence. While it may be convenient to generalize these egotistical student behaviors to being part of “Generation Me” (1982-1999), the daily practices of many educators also encourage inflated perceptions of the self, along with a host of other problems that inhibit quality education.

Problem #2 – Educators inflate grades and are reluctant to give authentic feedback

Bobby Hoffman
Source: Bobby Hoffman

One of the most disturbing trends over the last 30 years is the astronomical increase in grade point average (GPA). The increase has been approximately .15 points per decade (on a standard 4-point scale) since the late 1960s (Jewell, McPherson, & Tieslau, 2013). This inflation means that a grade that used to be a “C” has become a “B,” while yesterday’s “B” has morphed into an “A,” without a documented corresponding increase in skills. Using data from 135 schools with an aggregate enrollment of 1.5 million students, Rojstaczer and Healy (2012) concluded that A’s and B’s represented 73% of all grades awarded by public universities and 86% of all grades given by private schools. The problem is particularly troublesome when investigating discipline-level data as grade inflation is most pronounced in teacher education programs, where on average 71% of students earn an “A.” Teacher education candidates are the same students that will be accountable for providing constructive feedback and grading their own students’ academic performance post-graduation, a situation, that in all likelihood, perpetuates the grading inflation problem to the next level of the educational food chain.

How it happened: with permission
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Along with increased expectations at the university level to accelerate graduation, student beliefs about the role of education have changed. Many learners believe that a college education should accommodate their busy lives which often takes a backseat to employment, childrearing, and social schedules. I am frequently asked by my own students for accommodations and deadline changes based upon family status, mid-semester trips, or just because the student is tired or busy. Student beliefs concerning learning delivery have evolved into a commercial model, where educators are perceived as providers of an on-demand Netflix streaming service, disguised as education, that should be convenient and adjusted for individual priorities and lifestyles. The “student as consumer” ideology means the student is entitled to have their personal needs met, time and again at the expense of competence (Porfilio & Yu, 2006). Student expectations are no more obvious than as indicated in a recent survey where 66% of learners indicated “a professor should increase a grade if I try hard,” while 34% indicated “if I show up for most of my classes I deserve at least a “B” grade,” while 30% agreed that “professors who won’t change the final exam schedule to accommodate student vacations are too strict. with permission
Source: with permission

Under the pretense of student-centered education, the customer-service motivated educator changes how instruction is delivered, how feedback is provided, and what happens when an academic “disagreement” occurs. This nouveau education paradigm operates under the premises that students expect to be told exactly what to study, be given work samples showing precisely how assignments should look when completed, and includes the provision that unlimited opportunities to submit work are permitted until a grade of “A” is earned. I know of at least one instructor who allows “homework” to be completed in class, while giving students word-for-word answers that must be included on their submissions to earn a top score. When it comes to test preparation, the same instructor advises her students to “not worry about reading the textbook,” and instead provides handouts indicating precisely what information will be on the test in an attempt to boost student performance and appease the customer service mentality of her learners. While this may sound like good teaching to some, providing the exact answers needed to earn an “A” is a shallow and patronizing strategy designed to earn positive teaching evaluations at the expense of learner competence and expertise.

While one hallmark of sound pedagogy for learning is providing specific explanatory and corrective feedback to learners (Van der Kleij, Feskens, & Eggen, 2015), the student-as- consumer mentality requires subtle nuances in the choice of words and methods used when feedback is provided. Some schools now prohibit using red ink to point out errors in favor of purple, because purple has the connotation of being a gentler hue and is perceived as less derogatory and threatening to students. Ratings of teacher effectiveness are also more positive when the teacher uses a color other than red. One California school has instituted a policy of grading in 20% increments and equating a score of greater than 20% correct to the equivalent of a “C,” to soften the blow of negative grades and corrective feedback. Only when scores dip below the inconceivable mark of 20% accuracy would a grade be considered an “F!”  My own experience of providing students with candid feedback often results in feelings of alarm and resentment. I was recently chastised by a student who described my corrective feedback as “demeaning and hurtful.” Upon responding to the student that the feedback was designed to be crystal clear, correct issues, and support growth for her future courses and classroom career, she informed me that I had offended her and she assured me she would “be writing to my boss,” because my “comments were harsh and offensive” compared to the feedback she typically receives from other, more lenient professors . with permission
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The extent of the student malcontent is massive and far reaching. When students feel especially disgruntled, rather than work with professors to understand or resolve issues (a problem-solving skill), complaints are filed, which often rise to the highest ranks of the academic hierarchy, sometimes reaching the desk of the university president. Senior university administrators usually support faculty, but mind boggling, politically-driven decisions are also made in favor of students. Personally, I have witnessed degree requirements waived to pacify an obsessively complaining student, and have been party to involuntarily revision of admission processes when a rejected applicant protested too much to an admission denial, despite not fully meeting entry requirements. These faulty decisions do little to thwart the burgeoning “consumer is always right” mentality percolating throughout academia today.

Edward Schlosser a professor at a mid-size Midwestern university, writing under a pseudonym to protect his employment status, described an incident where a coworker did not get his contract renewed after students complained about being required to read "offensive" texts, written by none other than literary icon Mark Twain. Edward Morrissey in his Fiscal Times column lamented that higher education has deteriorated to a point where educators will “ensure that no cognitive dissonance enter the lives of those going into deep debt to experience what can only be considered an intellectual day-care, run by the toddlers. Those students have now become the masters.” Mirroring Morrissey, Dr. Everett Piper, President of Oklahoma Wesleyan University was tired and irritated over the incessant and unjustified complaints at his university and declared in his blog “This is not day care. This is a university.” His commentary was met with outrage and a host of negative criticism by the media, presumably because he was politically “incorrect.”

The consequences:

Grade inflation, providing tempered feedback, and acquiescing to student demands are significant realities of the “student as consumer” mentality. However, when learners are immersed in a system that may lack instructional rigor there are also direct consequences for individual motivation and performance. First, let’s keep in mind as inflated grades have become increasingly awarded, time devoted toward studying has plummeted. Babcock and Marks (2011) found that study time by full-time students has dropped by almost 50% since 1961! The study time nosedive actually is a logical extension of what happens when instructional standards are diluted. Reduced demands provide little reason for a student to exert effort to earn a grade, when the same grade can be achieved in some cases by just showing up, a phenomenon I call the effort withholding hypothesis.

Data supports the “withholding” hypothesis because effort and grade expectations are related, meaning that more studying usually leads to better knowledge gains. However, instructor expectations may be more influential than anything else when a student considers how much effort is needed to be successful in a course. In one study students that expected to earn a grade of “A,” invested up to 50% less study time than when a “C” was the expected grade outcome (Babcock, 2010). Another study revealed that when mastery is expected and communicated by instructors during coursework, students will invest more time in studying than when they believe the investment of time will merely result in a favorable grade (Gordon & Palmon, 2010). In other words, the greater the expectation of instructional rigor, the greater the likelihood students will respond in-kind and devote significant effort toward studying. with permission
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To obtain a better understanding of how effort and rigor were related to actual performance, Bonesrønning and Opstad (2015) manipulated student effort by comparing different sets of students enrolled in several macroeconomics courses at a Scandinavian business school. One course required a mid-semester test to be passed as a pre-requisite to take a final exam (which determined the entire course grade), while the other course had no such mid-term requirement. The results revealed that students who scored higher than expected on the mid-term exam exerted more effort and scored higher on the final exam than those that did worse than expected on the mid-term exam. In addition, the results showed that higher efforts were transformed into better exam performance. Ultimately, when students expect rigor, effort is exerted, when faculty lower expectations, student effort is attenuated.

Although knowledge gains are limited when course requirements are diluted, how students go about the learning process also fluctuates based upon expectations. When it comes to valuing and assessing the merits of educational systems, there is little debate that educators strive toward making knowledge “meaningful.” While definitions of “meaningful” vary among students, educators, and researchers alike, many components of meaningful learning include a heavy dose of critical thinking skills, the capacity to solve novel problems and reason, and the ability to communicate effectively verbally and in writing: precisely the type of skills needed to thrive in the real world. Sadly, many studies reveal that students have far less command of these important proficiencies than they did just 20 years ago (Arum & Roksa, 2011; Pascarella, Blaich, Martin, & Hanson, 2011; Stewart & Kilmartin, 2014). In aggregate, a skill gap has developed based on the use of shallow problem-solving strategies, a higher probability of giving up when tasks become challenging, and being more closed-minded and impulsive than ever before. The problem is so severe that Stewart and Kilmartin reached the conclusion that “faculty reinforce student expectations that they are entitled to low effort academic activities and the belief that surface learning strategies should be sufficient for success at the university level” (p. 58). In other words, students press for lower standards and faculty often acquiesce, leading Benton (2006) to declare, “a student culture of self-indulgence is enabled by the failure of professors to maintain expectations in the classroom” (p. 1).

Finally, many studies show a disturbing positive correlation between declining educational standards and the demonstration of creativity. Arguably, creativity, defined as producing something novel and adaptive, is one of the hallmarks of a developing society. Strong connections exist between measures of creativity and business profitability (Amabile, 1988). Creativity is also of such importance that it is a major component of the most research-based theory of human intelligence in existence (Sternberg, 2016). However, the troublesome trend continues, as data reveals creativity is on a steep decline. Schools place low value on creativity (Berlin, Tavani, & Beasançon, 2016) and not surprisingly there is little relation between creative competence and grades (Shell, Hazley, Soh, Ingraham, & Ramsay, 2013). Considering that creativity is integral to human intelligence, it would seem that creativity would be valued by schools and actively taught, yet, in practice, the data to support a creative emphasis is sparse. Instead, some contend that what really happens in school is that creativity is killed by the intentional practices of educators and administrators, who focus on the regurgitation of knowledge, the kind of intellect needed to be successful on standardized tests (Hennessey, 2003).  The test focus leads us back to the ugly reality discussed in Part One of this series, that tests scores are the primary measure determining school accountability and funding at the state and national level.

If you believe that economic policy and school funding models are a massive problem, you are right, and there are other contributing issues to the systemic educational problems faced today. While the evidence presented portrays a dismal cycle of declining standards, inflated grades, and lack of instructional rigor, the dilemma doesn’t start or end on the desk of your child’s teacher, a school principal, or university faculty. Part three of this series examines how the expectations of parents and guardians contribute to the downward educational and personal accountability spiral. After all, what parent wouldn’t defend their aspiring offspring from evils of a vindictive or unfair teacher? Unfortunately, the best parental defense has become a major contributor to the problems parents are hoping to solve, as we discuss next, in part three of this series.

Check back for Part Three of this series.  For more information on learning, motivation, teaching and performance follow Dr. Hoffman on Twitter @ifoundmo. His latest book "Motivation for Learning and Performance" outlines dozens of researched-based work improvement strategies.

*These views are my own and do not represent my employer. 


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