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I'm wondering how can a professor encourage students to complete their problem sets on their own in undergraduate classes. I'm not saying that every student cheats off of other students; rather, I'm saying that some, if not most, students free ride and copy the solutions from their peers (or from the Internet). In addition from my experience, I feel as if this problem is more pervasive among the non-science majors/students (at least science majors are given assignments; the number and quality of them and the level of studens' interest to get on with them are spectate issues). I've even heard a professor remark: "since I know most of the uninterested students in the class are going to simply copy off solutions, I won't be giving assignments; the serious students amongst you (who'll go to graduate school) can do assignments over there." Frankly, I was appalled upon hearing this statement.

I come from a college/place where the local cultural norms are such that students don't like to sit down and devote week in and week out on problem sets, and the professors (for the most part) don't make a serious attempt to give problem sets that really consume a student's week or so. I'm sure the professor who'll dare to give a problem set every 3 lectures (as is the norm in most U.S colleges) will be frowned upon by most students.

Given such a context, I am interested to know how can professors, in the larger scheme of things, encourage their students to independently solve problem sets on their own? Also, are there any good strategies that professors can use to make problem sets which the students would eagerly wait to solve week in and week out. I know one can only change the mind set of students from the ground up. But how can professors teaching at the tertiary level cope with such (deeply rooted) problems?

Thanks.

  • Do the faculty and administration generally care how well students are actually educated, or do they have other priorities? – Alexander Woo Feb 8 '17 at 21:47
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    Among the faculty: some of them actually care. But even among them, I feel as if they have gotten demotivated with time; it seems as if they know that the students aren't going to work that much, and this inevitably results in giving them less work. Ideally, I'd want to see professors do the opposite: make the classes harder, give more sets, and encourage the students. The question is: is that possible/manageable or am I being too optimistic? Honestly, I at times don't like the academic environment of my college. – Junaid Aftab Feb 8 '17 at 21:55
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    My question is higher order. Let's say a bunch of professors started demanding more of their students and enforced these standards. Naturally, fewer students will pass, and some of these students will complain. Will the end result be that the students are told that university should be hard, or will the end result be that the professors are told to make their classes easier? (Note I don't know - and it doesn't matter for this question - whom the students complain to or how this final result is determined.) – Alexander Woo Feb 8 '17 at 22:18
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A few (by no means exhaustive) suggestions:

  • Use extended-response or open-answer style questions. What such a question would look like is completely field-specific, but it's definitely doable in every field (yes, even the technical ones). In theory at least, this makes it harder for several students to copy off of another student without commiting actual plagiarism.

  • Avoid assigning problems directly from a textbook. This requires more effort on your end, but it prevents students from being able to just copy out of a solution manual.

  • Make the students propose the problems. Similar to my first suggestion -- if the problem is that students are uninterested, give them the chance to do something that is interesting for them. Obviously you need to put bounds on this, but even within the confines of a single problem set this is doable. For example, in a course on Data Structures in CS, you could ask something akin to "write a simple program that uses data structure X and methods A, B, and C." What they do is up to them, but you still test their comprehension.

  • Use a flipped classroom model. This is probably the most involved suggestion, but if done properly it means the students are working on homework right in front of you. Makes it a lot harder to just copy answers when the instructor is walking around the room.

  • Here's the horror story (which does happen) I'm worried about: 1) Professor uses flipped classroom model. 2) Students show up to class without any signs of having prepared, either because they are lazy or illiterate. 3) Students do no work in class unless professor is standing next to them and telling them word-by-word what to write down to do the problem. 4) Students complain to administration that professor is not teaching them, since, in their view, teaching is equal to giving step-by-step instructions for everything so students don't have to do any thinking. (cont) – Alexander Woo Feb 9 '17 at 2:44
  • 5) Administration, desperate to retain students due to financial troubles, fires professor. – Alexander Woo Feb 9 '17 at 2:45
  • @AlexanderWoo: Funny enough, (1) and (2) are almost exactly what happened with the only flipped classroom I was a student in. The professor posted videos online for us to watch, and few of us did (I'll admit, I did not). However, (3) and onward did not happen, as once the professor realized what was happening, we started getting daily quizzes on the material (before working on the homework). – tonysdg Feb 9 '17 at 2:54
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As an undergraduate student, here are some things that motivate me to complete problem sets that are regularly given out:

  • Have the problems be interesting to think about, and lean towards difficult problem sets due less often rather than easy busywork due every class.
  • Encourage collaboration, while having harsh penalties for copying. The students should be discussing your problems, if they're interesting and enjoyable. This isn't always a bad thing!
  • If you're really worried about cheating, have a problem set that they are not allowed to discuss or do interview grading - 10 minutes talking with the students will allow you to tell if they understand the material.
  • Use problems that would come up in the real world, that are related to what students may want to do in the future.

These are a few things that I've had professors do that I liked, that encouraged me to work hard on the problem sets. Of course, there will be cheating, but if students are interested in your subject, these are ways to encourage that interest.

(Note: I am studying computer science, so these answers may not apply to your subject.)

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  1. Customization

make the parameters of the problem specific to each student. Customization is the only way that keeps students from being able to just copy and paste the solution from each other. It also still keeps them engaged as they have to tailor the solution they might find available to them.

  1. Flip the Classroom

Make them create some questions and answers, and then other students have to solve it. This way, they can not come up with some questions or answers. randomize the allocation every week. grading can also be allocated the same way, but normalization of grades might be an issue depending on difficulty of questions.

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