Classroom Stories

Classroom Stories: Teaching Interplanetary Distances Using a Human Solar System

By Michael Dunham (State University of New York at Fredonia)

When I first started teaching my Astro 101 course, one of the concepts that I struggled to properly convey to students was the immense change of scale in our Solar System between the spacing of the terrestrial planets and the giant planets. Simply giving the numbers did little to properly convey the spacing to students not used to quantitative thinking. Diagrams also did little to help since, in order to fit a properly scaled Solar System onto it, the terrestrial planets are placed so close together that they are practically indistinguishable. Out of necessity, then, a new idea was born. Here I will describe an activity that I developed to better convey to students the true structure of our Solar System.

When we are just about to start discussing the Solar System, I take the entire class outside for one 50-minute lecture. We first meet in the classroom, where I have an inflatable Solar System consisting of beach ball-sized planets (along with the Sun, Pluto, and the Moon). I ask for 11 volunteers to each take one of the Solar System components, and then we all head outside to an area of the campus that has a straight sidewalk approximately 600-feet long. Before heading out, I do emphasize to students that they should pay careful attention to what they see, as there will be a graded assessment at the end. I have found that it really is necessary to say this, otherwise some students will treat this as a social hour and not pay attention to what they are supposed to be learning.

Once we are outside, I ask the volunteer holding the Sun to stand at the beginning of the sidewalk, and I tell the class that, using a scale where 15 feet is equal to 1 astronomical unit (AU), we are going to place each planet at its proper distance from the Sun. It is worth noting at this point that, while I use an inflatable Solar System that I purchased online, you could just as easily adapt this activity to have students wear planet name tags rather than hold inflatable planets.

Using a 25-foot tape measure that I extend along the ground, I ask the volunteers holding the terrestrial planets to stand at the 6-foot (Mercury), 11-foot (Venus), 15-foot (Earth), and 22.5-foot (Mars) markings on the tape measure. By this point, many students expect that we will place the remaining planets at similar distances and be finished with the activity within the next few minutes. I then announce that, at an average orbital distance of 5.2 AU, Jupiter is located 78 feet from our Sun (or 55.5 feet from Mars). This requires us to move our 25-foot tape measure three times (once to measure the first 25 feet past Mars, once to measure the 50 feet past Mars, and a third time to measure the last 5.5 feet to get to Jupiter).

By the time we place Jupiter, we only have three planets left. However, since Jupiter is at approximately 5 AU from the Sun, whereas Neptune is located at approximately 30 AU from the Sun, we have only traveled one sixth of our total distance. The last three planets end up being placed at 142.5 feet (Saturn), 288 feet (Uranus), and 451.5 feet (Neptune) from the Sun, requiring us to move the tape measure many times. If you decide to place Pluto as well, it ends up being placed at a distance of 592.5 feet from the Sun.

Once we have placed all the planets, I ask the remaining students to spend some time walking back and forth in order to truly take in the differences between the inner and outer planets. The terrestrial planets are so close together that the students can almost reach out and touch each other, whereas Uranus and Neptune are so isolated that the students holding them struggle to hear each other, even when shouting at full volume. I also ask the remaining students to take over for those holding the Solar System objects, especially the Sun and the terrestrial planets, so the volunteers can have a chance to walk down the sidewalk and truly appreciate how far away the giant planets are. Last, I tell all my students to be back in the classroom for the remaining 10 minutes  of class.

Once students have returned to the classroom, I give them the following prompt:

Take out a blank sheet of paper and write your name on it. Then sketch a to-scale diagram of the Solar System, including (at minimum) the Sun and all 8 planets. (You don’t have to label the planets, but you do have to include all 8.) You are not graded on your artistic talent, but you must make a legitimate attempt to show, to the best of your ability, properly scaled distances between the planets. Once you finish, turn in your sketch and you are free to go.

Students absolutely love this activity. It scores very highly in evaluations where I ask students to rank their favorite and least favorite class activities. This activity gets students out of their seats and outside, and it teaches them about the Solar System in a memorable, lecture-free manner. The sketches that students turn in demonstrate that the scale of the Solar System has really sunk in, and high average scores on a nearly identical final exam question 2.5 months later demonstrate that this lesson has not been quickly forgotten. Although class time is very precious and it is always hard to “give up” 50 minutes of lecture, my informal assessments have convinced me that this activity is worth the time it takes.


Classroom Stories: Teaching Climate in Astronomy Class

By Stacy Palen

This year, in particular, feels like a year in which we might be able to move the needle a little bit on the public understanding of climate change. The effects are starting to capture the attention of ordinary citizens who are infinitely distracted by…everything. Between the fires in the West, the extreme heat, and Hurricane Ida, ordinary citizens are starting to wake up to the fact that climate change matters to them.

Climate change is a thread that runs through my astronomy class, with a day devoted to it during my discussion of planetary atmospheres, and a lengthy revisit to it in our astrobiology discussion. But I also mention it when we talk about telescopes and atmospheric opacity (if the IR light can’t get down to the ground, it can’t get out to space, either, which is interesting because it has consequences that we talk about later in class). And I mention it when I talk about molecular bonds. And I also talk about it when we talk about “going to Mars” and whether there are fossil fuels there. In fact, I mention it matter-of-factly every time I see a connection that even remotely makes sense.

I also happen to teach a more advanced course in which we discuss climate and energy issues in gory physical detail, which means that I’m always looking for simulations and interactive sites that I can build activities around for students to use as they develop an intuition for the scope and complexity of the problem. (These activities often don’t make it into my Norton textbooks because they use resources we don’t control, so I can’t rely on them to be available, or to work the same way, for more than a semester at a time.) 

Earlier this year, the Climate Reality Project pulled together six of these interactive tools, with explanations about each. I found the list useful, and it might be useful to you, too!

Additionally, I have used the En-ROADS climate simulator for years, and it keeps getting better and more powerful (although that also means more complicated). I have an activity where students work in groups to negotiate how to adjust the world economy to try to control climate change. Hilarity, and sometimes intense arguments, ensue. Sometimes, they mention that this is one of the most meaningful activities of the whole semester because it reveals how complex these issues are.

I have also used the Climate Time Machine, which makes it easy to run as a demonstration during lecture. You slide the slider to see, for example, the impact of sea-level rise on various geographic areas.

There’s also a very nice Footprint Calculator on the list. There are lots of these around, but this particular one runs by sliders and dials, which makes it simple to use in a classroom situation where you don’t want students to get stuck on the details of one particular issue. The calculator ends by answering two questions: a). “On what day of the year have you used up your share of resources?” and b). “How many Earths would we need if everyone lived like you?” This offers a really great framing of the subject that students intuitively understand. If the answer to a). is before December 31, and the answer to b). is more than one Earth, then we’re in big trouble.

Feel free to check out these interactives and let me know if you end up using any of them in the classroom! I’m always looking for new ideas to help make this issue more concrete for students, and I always hate to leave them feeling helpless and wondering, “Yes, but what can I do?” These interactives help them find a meaningful way forward.


Classroom Stories: Helping Students Interpret Magnetic-Field Images

By Stacy Palen

Over the last year or so, there have been a number of extraordinary images of astronomical objects with an overlay of magnetic fields in the news. One of these, from the Event Horizon Telescope, has caught extra attention, but Sofia’s HAWC+ imager has also been capturing polarization in the far-infrared. And, of course, there are existing famous images, such as the one taken by Planck that maps the magnetic field of the Milky Way.

When I showed these images to my students, I found that I needed to spend some time explaining how to interpret them.

Here are the points that I needed to make explicit to them:

  • Places without magnetic fields shown may just be places with no data. The magnetic field is not necessarily zero in those regions.
  • The “streamlines” are along the direction of the magnetic field; they are not, for example, contour lines connecting places where the magnetic field strength is constant. These streamlines neglect any component of the magnetic field that is towards or away from the observer. This component cannot be measured using polarization studies of this kind. There are several metaphors that you could use here to help students distinguish these directions. For example, you might reference proper motion versus radial motion; or, you might reference radial velocities from the discussion of exoplanets.
  • Places where the streamlines are close together indicate a stronger magnetic field than places where streamlines are farther apart.
  • The colors of streamlines are often meaningless. They are chosen to provide contrast with the background image, and also to look pretty.
  • Magnetic field lines often parallel flows of material, but not always. For example, in a galaxy, the magnetic field tends to be parallel to the bipolar outflows, but, in a star-forming region, they may be perpendicular to the direction that the infalling material is moving. In brief, this is because, sometimes, the magnetic field is directing the material, and, sometimes, the material is dragging the magnetic field. Untangling the interactions between magnetic fields and the movement of material is the main reason that these kinds of images are interesting to astronomers.

Even physicists have difficulty imagining what magnetic fields look like and how they are distributed, so it is helpful to have these extraordinary images with the magnetic fields in overlay. If we remember to slow down and explain how to interpret these invaluable images in class, we can help our students understand what they are seeing so much better.


Classroom Stories: Teaching Parallax—A Map

By Stacy Palen

You may have noticed that, by now, we have acquired quite an enormous catalog of materials for teaching astronomy. There are so many different pieces, in fact, that even I sometimes find them overwhelming or forget that I did something! I find it useful, then, to pick a couple of topics to focus on each semester. For each one, I put together a series of materials that aims to touch on all the bases for students as they approach the topic. These materials must be intentional, transparent, flexible, coherent, and equitable. In other words, they have to meet the needs of students where they arenot where I wish they wereand help bring students towards mastery, no matter what background they may have.

This semester, I was thinking about parallax. When I meet with students in the classroom environment, I often revisit this concept several times during the semester, giving them a nudge to remember how we measure distance, so that when we arrive at the distance ladder later, they haven’t forgotten this fundamental rung. But in the online environment, I find this sort of “callback” to be much more difficult to arrange. So from the very large catalog of items relating to parallax, I have pulled together six pieces that introduce and teach the concept, assess and refine student understanding, and then ask students to take their knowledge further.

First, in my introductory video for the chapter about stellar properties (Chapter 10 in Understanding Our Universe), I ask students to do the same classroom demo that I ordinarily do: sticking their thumb in front of their face, moving it forward and back, and blinking one eye and then the other. This gives them an intuition for how parallax works and also gives them a way to test their comprehension later; if their answers imply that the object will appear to move more when it is farther away, I can ask them to remember “the thing with your thumb.” My kinesthetic learners really appreciate this.

Next, I ask students to read the chapter, paying close attention to the parallax figure. I do this in my introductory video, and then I have SmartWork questions attached to this concept in their homework to give them a further nudge to do the necessary work of reading the chapter. Some students learn really well in the traditional format of reading and answering questions.

The “Astronomy in Action” video is also in SmartWorkwith questionsand shows this concept from a different perspective. Students who learn best by watching demonstrations find this video really helpful. It also helps them with a course-long project of learning how to switch perspectives from the “inside looking out” to the “outside looking in.”

At the end of the week, students do the Learning Astronomy by Doing Astronomy exercise about parallax (Activity 19 in the Second Edition). I have a very short (3 minute) video for each activity, which some students watch. In this video, I recall the thumb exercise and remind them to think about whether more distant objects move more or less. The activity itself also ties back to the demonstration that asks students to use their thumbs and also reminds them of the figure from either Understanding Our Universe or 21st Century Astronomy.

The following week, I have a follow-up question about the image of Alpha Centauri in Chapter 10. I ask students whether this distance could be measured by parallax and how they would know. There are a couple of ways to answer this question, depending on how well they understand the concept. I’m always impressed by the students who explain that since this is the closest star, and we can measure the parallax for many stars, then of course we can measure the parallax for Alpha Centauri. Other students calculate the parallax angle and compare it to the smallest measurable parallax, while others look it up on the Internet. In any case, I get a sense of how they are thinking about the topic.

Finally, each week, we have a discussion question in Canvas, which is open-ended and speculative. I call them “What If?” questions. The parallax-related discussion question is about measuring the distance to stars that appear to be associated with one another in the sky. I’m asking students to take the concept just a little further by having them think about how knowing the distance helps us figure out how stars are distributed in three dimensions. For some students, this speculative discussion is the best thing that happens to them all week, and they get super into it. Others, naturally, post a sort-of-related answer that they didn’t think hard about. That’s fine, because one of the other things that I’ve asked them to do might be more their “thing.”

Surprisingly, even though there are already six different pieces to this instructional map, I have left out some other things that I could have done—for example, I have a news article about parallax that I could have asked students to read. But I don’t feel compelled to have them do every single thing they could do. Instead, I try to pull together a set of materials that gives them different ways to attack the concept, test their understanding, and then further refine and extend their knowledge.

Do I think this hard about how I assemble the teaching materials for every topic? Not yet...but I’m getting there. I find it really fun to think about how to put different pieces together to build a module that has maximum impact; it’s kind of like playing with Legos, but for teachers!


Classroom Stories: Endings...and Planning for Beginnings!

By Stacy Palen

I love the moment when my attention turns from the current semester to the next one. I love the feeling that I’ve turned the page and that the new course will start fresh, with no mistakes in it. And I love looking back at the semester, as though it were a research project, as I ponder future work.

One of the most important practices in my teaching is to take a few minutes at the end of the semester to actually reflect and then write down what I think worked and what I think didn’t work. I compare this to what I had written down in previous semesters and see how the course has either improved or gone off the rails. Then I take a few more minutes to think about what experiment I would like to try in the next semester to improve the course in some way. And then I build that in when I plan out the next semester.

I do this before the student evaluations come in, because it’s useful for me to have my own thoughts first. It’s sort of the professor’s equivalent of “think” in “think-pair-share.” Sometimes I remember to compare my thoughts to the students’ thoughts and then write them down. More often, I just add their thoughts to my own. The students’ view tends to be very prescriptive; “more homework,” “less homework,” “make homework due on Saturday, not Friday,” or “I couldn’t ever find the Zoom link.”

My own thoughts tend more to, “This time around, they understood the expanding universe but confounded it with inflation and are still not specifically understanding that the two things have very different time scales,” or “The discussions did not accomplish what I wanted them to; next time, I need to make the grading out of more points so it can be more clear and fine-grained that I expect thoughtful responses.”

This entire exercise has a selfish purpose, as well as a selfless one; it gives me a powerful narrative for my tenure and promotion portfolios. I never had to worry if one of my experiments didn’t work out, because I always had a narrative that something wasn’t working, so I tried this experiment, and then this one, and then a third one, which was the most successful. That made me bold about trying new things.

This semester has been extraordinary, and I imagine that a lot of junior faculty, in particular, are feeling vulnerable and uncertain about how to handle their successes and failures this semester. I encourage everyone to take a few minutes to reflect on what worked and what didn’t, and on what you might try next semester to hold on to the successes and improve upon the failures. I’ll be doing it, too.


Classroom Stories: Missing the "Aha!" Moments during Online Teaching

By Stacy Palen

I’ve been talking to a lot of people about the transition to online instruction. Most of these conversations have been with people who are not academics and who seem to have the idea that I sit around eating bonbons and drinking bourbon in the afternoon now that I don’t have to “actually” work. Once I take a deep breath, I find myself saying, “I hate it,” which gives me the opportunity to reflect about why I hate it.

I had not taught an all-online course before, so there was an enormous learning curve. This problem was magnified because I was moving five distinct courses online between the spring and the fall. So I didn’t have a whole lot of time to think hard about what I was doing in any one of them. Just keeping track of what I had finished and what I had just thought about took multiple “to-do” spreadsheets. So that’s part of it: feeling like it’s the first time I’ve ever taught, and it’s all too much.

But there’s something else, too, something more fundamental. I’m missing the “Aha!” moments. When I teach in person, much of the time is spent moving around the room, listening to conversations, and nudging students to think differently or ask different questions. Most of the “lecture” time is spent answering questions and having wide-ranging discussions sparked by the material. At least once in every class period, some student would say, “Ooooohhhh!” or “Aha! I get it now!” as we finally figured out where they had gone off track, or what misconception they held without knowing it.

I miss that. It turns out that those “Aha!” moments were a primary motivator for me, as a teacher. That’s where I found joy. More than once, I’ve told friends, “If this is what teaching was when I started, I never would have done it at all. I would’ve been an engineer, instead.”

Well, so...enough complaining. Nobody would have asked for a giant global pandemic. What can I do about it? I’ve poked around a little bit, looking at “best practices” for student engagement in online courses and haven’t found my own “Aha!” yet about how to find what I’m seeking. I’ve had a couple of thoughts, but Im still mulling over the direction I want to go.

I have discussions open in Canvas every week and have managed to mostly respond to comments posted in those discussions, but students generally don’t respond to my responses. These are “graded,” but I set them up to be, fundamentally, a participation grade. In Astro101, I’m using open-ended “What If?” questions to spark discussion, and students do occasionally talk to one another there. In other classes, I’ve made them prompts about their struggles with assignments; however, students rarely comment on those. Going forward, I can modify these discussion prompts and grading practices for the upcoming semester to see if I can make them more useful but not onerous.

I’ve been available for students in my Zoom-room 15 hours a week, and I often have students drop in for a minute or two to ask a specific question (or I have students from the Physics with Calculus lab who stay signed in for three hours while they work through the lab and occasionally ask me questions). But much of the time, I’m doing other things—like grading, or chasing down why my Kaltura links are broken—while the box in the corner of my computer screen stays empty. I could make some of those times into synchronous instruction, or make it required for students to drop in and talk to me. But I hesitate because some of my students are already so stretched…so I’m not sure about it.

I’m still thinking about this problem, and I welcome ideas from professors who’ve taught online before. What practices are you using to help stay connected to the things that bring you joy in your teaching? I’d love to hear about them in the “Comments” section below!


Classroom Stories: How to Handle Cheating in Online Courses: Part 3

By Ana Larson

Ana Larson, co-author of the Learning Astronomy by Doing Astronomy workbook, gives us one last post about how to reduce cheating in online courses. 

To discourage academic cheating at the start of each quarter of my online courses at Seattle Central College, I started with an assignment where students had to complete a graded quiz (multiple takes permitted) on the content of the course syllabus and the policies and procedures of the college. Extra emphasis was given on the college's honor code and what, exactly, cheating included. My syllabus included explicit examples of what constitutes plagiarism and the consequences when unreferenced direct sources are used. In the last 5 years or so, students could use up to 3 outside sources, but those outside sources needed to be properly referenced using correct MLA or APA format. Students were given examples and helpful web links to show them how to do this.

Every quarter, there were at least 3-4 students in my course who lacked even the basic study skills. I envisioned them reaching a conceptually difficult concept, and rather than taking the time needed in a quiet, dedicated study area, immersing themselves in social media, texting, playing games, and cheating to find the answers. How are we supposed to teach study skills as well as astronomy? What if our departments require a definite amount of material that we are required to cover each term? Holy macaroni! We have families, other responsibilities, places we need to be, and people we must meet! It was frustrating to me that I spent a lot more time with some students and disproportionately less with the rest.

Unfortunately, over the 20-plus years I taught at the college, I did not keep records of the number of students who cheated, how they cheated, or whether (if any) a change in my policies or procedures made a difference. The course enrollment was limited to 30 students. Out of the number enrolled on the first day of class, usually 20-24 students completed the course. Those students included late registrations to replace students who dropped, complicating what would already be small-number statistics.

Fortunately, there are formal studies on academic cheating to which we can refer. I've mentioned the book Cheating Lessons: Learning from Academic Dishonesty by James M. Lang (Harvard University Press, 2013), which is an informative source covering various aspects of how students cheat and case studies of instructors who were able to reduce cheating and improve overall student performance. I recommend this book as he also brings in research from many instructors noted for their expertise and excellence in teaching.

The 4 features of a learning environment that may pressure students to resort to cheating are [1]: 

  1. An emphasis on performance
  2. High stakes riding on the outcome
  3. An extrinsic motivation for success
  4. A low expectation of success

With an emphasis on performance, students just need to demonstrate that they know the right answer at a certain time. A common example of high-stakes pressure is an exam or assessment that determines a major fraction of a student's grade. When an extrinsic motivation for success came from parents who placed a much higher priority on good grades than students, those students were more likely to cheat [2]. Most, if not all, of us have had students who believe that they cannot "do" math or science. They have not been successful in the past and thus carry a low expectation of success in astronomy. If students need a natural world or quantitative analysis course for their majors, they might just do everything possible to pass.

These considerations would seem to involve modifying our course content while simultaneously trying to survive the transfer of our in-person courses to online settings! During my two decades of teaching online courses, I had two main goals for making changes each quarter: 1) reduce cheating and improve learning through increased intrinsic student motivation, and 2) keep myself from becoming bored or complacent with the syllabus.

Let's start with increasing the intrinsic motivation for learning astronomy. Bring in a graded discussion forum for each lesson that has students comment on something current and related to the lesson. For example, news about potentially hazardous asteroids can cover telescopes, orbits, life on Earth, and so much more. How do we use Kepler's and Newton's laws to track these objects? I have also used the web-research topics given in Stacy's textbooks. If students can see the connection between astronomy and how it relates to what they already know or have read about, their personal motivation to learn should increase [3].

How might we move from grading a student's performance in a class versus assessing their mastery of the concepts? We don't keep what we want them to learn a secret. What are the learning goals for the lesson? For which learning goals will students need to have advance preparation for the assignment? How do we give them that preparation? We make sure that the assignment teaches to those learning objectives, whether they are broad or narrow in scope. Our quizzes and exams then bring in questions that directly assess their learning. At the start of each term, give students examples of how a learning goal leads to assessing their learning. I have had students request study guides for midterms and finals. My response: You already have that in the learning goals for each lesson. "You mean we need to study only that material?" (Well, yes, and the topics we've covered related to those goals.)

Consider lowering the weight of exams in order to reduce students' inherent stress in taking them. How often have we heard: "I don't test well”? Some instructors lower the stakes by giving multiple quizzes in order to drop one or more low scores. Another instructor might make a final exam optional or one that would only count if it increased a student's grade. This works if students have had a number of assignments over each term. In my online course, students had multiple assignments each week: a discussion post, a web-research assignment, a pre-activity quiz, an activity (from Learning Astronomy by Doing Astronomy), and a post-activity quiz. The discussions and web-research assignments were easy to grade because the guidelines given were clearly stated. The quizzes were multiple-choice, leaving the weekly activity for "line-item" grading. Since each lesson was structured the same, students (especially those new to online learning) gained practice in transferring learned skills to the increasing complexity of topics in a typical astronomy textbook.

From the research, Lang summarized: "The more times we test students in their recall of our course material, the more we are helping them learn it." [4] (The Lowering Stakes chapter pushes against a lot of preconceptions we might have on how students learn.)

Lang brings in research that states we should use formative assessment during our teaching. This involves brief, low-stakes activities that students do so that they and their instructors get feedback about levels of understanding. For in-class courses, these involve think-pair-share activities, minute papers, and clicker questions [5]. For online courses, these could be incorporated by using student groups or a dedicated discussion forum. The Learning Astronomy by Doing Astronomy workbook has associated pre- and post-activity quizzes for each activity. My solution, in addition to the multiple assignments and structured lessons, was to spend a lot more time in emails with these students and in answering specific questions they had about parts of an activity before they submitted it. There were cases where deadlines were extended and students resubmitted assignments. This was possible because the classes had less than 30 students. I have no answers for those online classes that have more than 50 students and welcome all suggestions and stories!

[1] Lang, James. Cheating Lessons: Learning from Academic Dishonesty. Harvard University Press, 2013. Print, p. 35

[2] Ibid., p. 46

[3] Ibid., p. 63

[4] Ibid., p. 114

[5] Ibid., p. 131


Classroom Stories: How to Handle Cheating in Online Courses: Part 2

By Ana Larson

Ana Larson, co-author of the Learning Astronomy by Doing Astronomy workbook, returns this week to discuss cheating in online courses. 

Those of us who have taught introductory astronomy in a classroom are quite aware of the number of ways students can cheat (a one-word catch-all for "academic dishonesty"). None of us should be surprised that teaching courses either partially or totally online brings in even more ways. The easiest to catch were those that were not in the student's own words. A quick search on the Internet using part or all of the question text would reveal the source. Here I cover one of the Internet sources (there are multiple similar sources online) for student plagiarism that I discovered in my Seattle Central College (SCC) introductory astronomy course, and the actions I took to deter students from cheating.

Under my policies, the first time a student's cheating was discovered, they got a 0 for that question. If they did it again, for even just 1 question without a citation, they got a 0 for the whole assignment. Since I wanted them to learn the material, which required doing the activity correctly on their own, I allowed these students to resubmit the assignment for at least partial credit. Students attending open enrollment colleges and universities can face personal, family, work, insufficient academic preparedness, and other challenges that interfere with assignment deadlines. With a few exceptions, students appreciated this additional opportunity to do well in the course, a two-way dialog was started, and their motivation for learning and doing well in the course seemed to increase.

Being a co-author of the Learning Astronomy by Doing Astronomy lecture workbook, I had the opportunity to use some of the activities starting in ~2017. By autumn quarter, 2019, I had put together a curriculum that successfully had these online students using all of the features of 10 activities found in the 2nd edition workbook.

By better preparing students for the activity, I felt that students would be less inclined to cheat. (Small number statistics precludes any conclusion, however.) I include a partial autumn quarter 2019 syllabus at the end of this blog.

Most of the students submitted multiple-page images for each activity through Canvas. Over the ~2 years of using the 2nd ed. activities, there were at least 2-4 students (out of an average of 22 students per quarter) who cheated by plagiarizing Internet sources. For me, the most distressing examples of plagiarizing involved students sending in images of complete pages of the workbook to Chegg.com and asking for "help." There were at least 3 "experts" who answered every question for students who submitted pages. Students would then use those answers verbatim.

Something you might consider: I ended up subscribing to Chegg.com over a few quarters in order to have access to all answers. There was a fee, but access saved me time overall, and I was better informed during discussions with students about how problematic this use of the Internet was. Plus, students recognized their instructor was Internet savvy! I then allowed students to resubmit their assignments.

While conducting some independent research, I found a question posed on Quora.com and particularly liked this answer to "Is Chegg cheating?" by Jiří Lebl:

Mostly, yes (it is cheating and you shouldn’t do it). It is also the worst way to study. At least in mathematics (I teach mathematics), homework assignments are exactly that. Exercises. Using Chegg is like going to the gym to watch other people exercise. Actually worse, you are paying other people to exercise in front of you and then telling other people you have exercised.

What drove my efforts to combat this behavior over all quarters was the possibility that students would encourage others to sign up for my online course because they were able to cheat without getting caught. Maybe saying, "I got a good grade and didn't even have to try!" Fortunately, no student ever implied anything close to this based on teaching evaluations.

There is action being taken to reduce this cheating at some of the very-top-needed levels! Reading these documents gave me hope, and I strongly recommend them to you as well.

In order to deter students from cheating in my own course, I use the syllabus as a contract for learning and include language that emphasizes the risks that come with cheating. Here’s a partial sample of my online course syllabus at SCC for Winter, 2020:

Astronomy 100 0L - Syllabus -Winter 2020 QUARTER

You should consider the syllabus for this course as your contract for learning. I will uphold my end and I expect each of you to adhere to course policies and procedures in addition to those set forth by Seattle Central College.

Academic Integrity
By participating in this course, you have agreed to the following: "Academic integrity is a basic guiding principle for all academic activity at Seattle Central Community College, allowing the pursuit of scholarly activity in an open, honest, and responsible manner. In accordance with the College's Code of Conduct, I will practice integrity in regard to all academic assignments. I will not engage in or tolerate acts of falsification, misrepresentation or deception because such acts of dishonesty violate the fundamental ethical principles of the College community and compromise the worth of work completed by others."

PLUS: It is expressly forbidden under the honor code of Seattle Central College for students to extract information from the Internet without proper referencing, claiming it as their own.  When a student plagiarizes, I give a 0 for that assignment.  I will be reporting the dishonesty to the eLearning office unless the student can give me a good reason why I should not.  I will be examining that student's answers very carefully in all future assignments and it is quite likely that that student will simply fail the course if he or she does not actually answer questions with their own words.

Mon Feb 24, 2020 Assignment Lesson 07: Discussion - A cross-section of humans versus a cluster or birth of stars due by 11:59pm

Wed Feb 26, 2020 Assignment Lesson 07: Web Research - Planetary Nebulae and White Dwarfs in the News due by 11:59pm

Thu Feb 27, 2020 Assignment Lesson 07: Activity - Preparation and Math Review Quiz 7 due by 11:59pm

Fri Feb 28, 2020 Assignment Lesson 07: Activity - Determining the Ages of Star Clusters due by 11:59pm

With each assignment, students also had to agree to the following: "The answers provided here are mine alone unless otherwise referenced." Combined with the language in the syllabus, this served as a successful deterrent for the most part, but a few students would still take the chance each quarter.

The assignments listed here for Lesson 7 were typical for each lesson. Spacing the assignments over the course of a few days each week helped me identify which students were procrastinating and needed nudges. The preparation and math review quizzes were the pre-activity questions from the 2nd edition of the workbook. The questions were multiple choice, and students could take each quiz twice. Students were given a 3-day grace period for turning in assignments, without penalty.

We can't overemphasize the importance of making it clear to students (and checking that each student understands) what our policies are when the school's honor code is broken. Find out what the policies for cheating are in your department and college. Hopefully you are not left to make policies on your own and are also free to add personal requirements.


Classroom Stories: How to Handle Cheating in Online Courses

By Ana Larson

This week, we have a guest post by Ana Larson, co-author of the Learning Astronomy by Doing Astronomy workbook, from the University of Washington. 

First, an introduction: twenty-two years ago (1998), as adjunct faculty, I developed an online course for Seattle Central College (SCC), which was Seattle Central Community College (SCCC) at the time. Online courses were just starting to become more available, and the learning management systems (LMS) were quite rudimentary compared to what we have today. I taught the online Astronomy 101 every quarter, every year, up until the 2020 Spring quarter, which is when enrollment at the college dropped.

In addition to required textbook reading, this online course consisted of three assignments each week: posting to a graded discussion board (and responding to other posts), a web research essay, and a lab-like assignment. As the years passed and the LMS became more sophisticated and included many more options for instructors and students, I added tutorials and short quizzes to prepare students for these assignments. 

This past decade has seen greater numbers of students enrolling in online courses, becoming better at self-motivation, and getting assignments in on time. However, there have always been those students, roughly 10-20 percent of the class, who just did not want to do the steps needed to learn the material. 

At first, this took the form of plagiarizing content from the Internet, primarily Wikipedia, but other sources were used as well. These instances were fairly easy to catch because the wording of the answers was obviously not in the student's voice. In these early days, some students copied and pasted material directly, including the links to other websites! Over the past few years, however, cheating has been harder and harder to catch, due mainly to websites like CourseHero and Chegg.

In an effort to help you discourage cheating in your own online/hybrid classrooms, I've listed my three best practices to discourage cheating in my online course below:

1) Give explicit information: The very first assignment that students had to submit was a graded quiz on the content of the course syllabus and the policies and procedures of the college. Extra emphasis was given on the college's honor code and on what, exactly, cheating included. My syllabi included explicit examples of what constituted plagiarism and the consequences when unreferenced direct sources were used. In the last five years or so, students could use up to three outside sources, but those outside sources needed to be properly referenced using correct MLA or APA format. Students were given examples and helpful web links.

2) State consequences: Students were told that they could get a 0 on an entire assignment even if only one answer involved plagiarism, which was the most common way of cheating in the course. I also outlined what was acceptable when students worked together, which I encouraged. In practice, if students were working on an early assignment and only a few of their answers involved cheating, I gave 0s for only those answers, with the caveat that any future instances would result in a 0 for the entire assignment. 

3) Immediately follow up: I interacted directly with students via course email and discussed why they got the grade they did. Most of the time, students were allowed to resubmit the assignment. I can think of only one or two examples where students did not respond to an email and continued plagiarizing. Those students failed the course.

Cheating is always upsetting, in any course, but in Astronomy 101, we have a unique opportunity to redirect students who cheat "by accident" by giving them the benefit of learning these important lessons without suffering from long-term consequences.


Classroom Stories: T-5...

By Stacy Palen

This fall feels weird. Really, really weird. Watching the pandemic erupt at higher-education institutions all around the country has filled me with anxiety: for my students, for my colleagues, and for myself. I feel very lucky that my University is primarily a commuter campus, so we are insulated from at least some of the pressures that are occurring at other places.

These are emergency times, and so I try to remember to be a little kind to myself. I’ve learned at least eight new kinds of software and picked up rudimentary skills in half a dozen fields that I never expected to need, like music editing and network maintenance. I don’t feel competent at any of it, but it’s unreasonable to expect that of myself. I’ve had just a few months of self-directed learning…in the middle of a global pandemic and civil unrest.

In times like these, it can be really hard to pick up your head and look forward to the “after-time.” But there will be a time after COVID. And I’m already finding things that I want to pull through into that time. Zoom office hours, for example. Would I have ever bothered to learn how to do that if not for the pandemic? Now that I’m setting up office hours for my students, it strikes me as an obvious thing that I will want to do for all my non-traditional, commuter students in the “after-time.” An introductory video to post to Canvas before class begins every semester is also a good idea, even for a face-to-face class! And weekly discussions, where students can ask and answer questions about the topics of the week—these don’t have to be confined to class time. I’m embarrassed that I never thought about these things before…but I was busy. Teaching.

This week, I am polishing up my “prep” on six courses to teach online for the first time in my life. (SIX! Yikes! Our enrollment is through the roof…we are all teaching overload…) I anticipate that next week, there will be some “fires.” Lots of things will not go as planned. Lots of things that seem like great ideas now will seem incredibly naïve later. It’s important for me to recognize that there are a whole lot of things that I have no control over at all.

We’ll see how all of this goes. I have been telling our students (in the introductory videos) that we are having ADVENTURES. As I write this, I am five days out from the first day of the semester. It feels very much like waiting for a rocket launch, with the same kind of hopeful uncertainty. I’ve done as much preparing as I possibly can. Now I just have to push the button and see what happens.

Best of luck to all of you. I hope you find some time to reflect, as you go along, about things that you will want to keep doing in the “after-time.” I’m sure there will be lots of great papers to write, about online teaching and learning, after the emergency is over. I look forward to reading all of them, and writing some of them.