In this post I'd like to write about a problem that is somewhat larger than plagiarism; plagiarism is a big part of it, but not the only part of it. This term for the first time I had a higher level class of about 14 that was almost entirely made up of students from the kingdom; there were also two Japanese, one Korean, and perhaps an Iraqi who in some ways matched the others but in some ways didn't. The problem was briefly that with such an overwhelming majority from one culture certain cultural traits were pronounced and encouraged, literally run rampant, while the advice we gave more or less fell upon deaf ears. Then, compounding that, was the effect over time; they had come up through the program; they had got where they were based on what they were doing; they had every reason to believe that it would work again, and, to some degree, it did.
First is a kind of slavish obsession with points. These guys will dispute with you one late mark that amounts to maybe .03 of an attendance grade, so that you end up talking about whether they were four minutes late or six minutes late. One element of it is that it just isn't that important to me
, so it's entirely possible, I marked them with a 1 when in fact they deserved a 2. Okay. But as I thought this over, I realized that this obsession surely has been carried up from the lower levels, and has not been eased by our tendency, which is to focus on the learning and just give the points as a byproduct. These are very nice students: polite, hard working (in their own kind of way), willing to take our guidance and willing to do whatever we require. So why can't they read yet? Why is their writing so abysmal? Why do they have absolutely NO grammar?
In the writing sphere, we see plagiarism left and right. Sometimes it is from other sources on the web. So, for example, they write about an article concerning Assad, open up another article about Assad, and copy a sentence from that, and call it an opinion about Assad. It IS a sentence. It IS about Assad. But it's copied directly. Why would they NOT want to just write and improve their writing? Here they are, flunking the Writing Assessment, flunking the TOEFL, but getting 85, 90 as their grade. What's missing in this picture?
Now I was a speaking-listening teacher, basically, and when they talked about Assad, for example, they all did well. They understand main ideas. They can state opinions and back them up. They are polite and have perfect listening, so they know when it's a good time to jump in with their own opinions. I'm making vast generalizations, of course; out of ten, one or two are actually a little shy. One or two don't really have opinions or think to put them in sentences. But, overall, we have people who can get the main part of what I want and get a good grade overall. I don't feel bad giving them 85's or 90's.
But in their main Core and Writing classes, I'm sure it's a different story. And what happened below? Down at the intermediate levels, they need to have the pressure ratcheted up a little: be able to read the questions of a listening exercise. Be able to read 14 sentences in a vocabulary exercise in less than 20 minutes. They can't do this kind of thing. Somehow, we need to attach points to skills. How did they get the points, without getting the skills?
My main observation about the points is this: If their obsession will not wane; if we cannot teach them to focus on the skills and not the points, then we have no choice, but to tailor our teaching toward encouraging them to learn through points
...no more just giving them points for producing something, or for doing the homework. They "do" the homework, but you don't see them learning skills from it, because they are basically copying the homework, or shortcutting the homework, or whatever they have to do mindlessly to get the points. I think in this case a more effective strategy would be to make all points contingent on having the skills with them, in class, to be produced on demand
Our job is to engineer what they do in their free time as well as what they do in class. If, in their free time, they can copy each other's work, and get away with it, then obviously, they will, and they won't learn the skills. If, in their free time, they discuss what they have to do in order to succeed, and they do, and this is something we want them to do
, then we win. Or rather, they win, because they have the skills.
I basically see it as human nature that they are where they are, at a high level, unable to read (getting 40 on the reading subskill paper-based TOEFL), unable to recognize grammatical errors in spite of perfect listening, unable to write a grammatical sentence. They are polite; they are well-meaning; they are hard-working, in their own way (though they would rather work to copy successfully than work to write successfully) - even in their faults, they are nice people, good students. Perhaps too nice, too good: we tend to try to help them, and say, we think they should move up a level. Then, they are at a spot where they can't
do it any other way. What we get is entirely a product of our own desire to please them
, and hope that they will somehow just pick it up. They won't. They are, as a class, pretty much unable to write.