Archive for the ‘Student Performance’ Category

I haven’t yet gotten ’round to writing about cheating here, but thanks to this article in today’s The National, my fingers are itching.

Exam students face pressure to cheat

The key word here is ‘pressure’, and I agree that it’s one ingredient in the culture of academic dishonesty over here, but I think there’s far more going on than the article puts forth.

(Let me just point out that I have had cheaters in almost every course I’ve ever taught — graduate, undergraduate, community college, tier 1 university, west, east, and so forth.  While the issue of academic dishonesty is a global one, I nevertheless believe that it is more prevalent here than in any other culture I have worked in.)

According to the Zayed U. sociologist interviewed, the greatest pressure seems to be on Emirati women — to perform, to be marketable, to satisfy parents, or to snatch a husband (Swan & el Dasher, 2010).  This last item seems rather hard to take in light of the fact that only 20% of Emirati men actually manage to graduate from high school (Morgan, n.d.), so I’d like to see some real numbers rather than sociological speculation.  But I do agree that the pressure exists, for a reason not mentioned at all in the article:  grades seem to be a heavily weighted, if not sole, criterion, for university admission, scholarships and stipends, and even extracurricular perks like international field trips.  My best students are all too aware of this grade-dependence in the system, and freely admit that given the choice between an easy ‘A’ and actually learning something, they’ll opt for the former (how do I know this?  because I’ve come right out and asked them).  To make matters worse, grade benchmarks are often different for Emirati nationals than for expats (lower for the nationals), creating a sense of unfairness that may facilitate the justification of cheating on the part of otherwise honest students.

There are other ingredients that compound the problem.  The culture of taking care of one’s friends comes to mind, and may be more prevalent in societies where religion plays a major role.  This is, in fact, the first place I’ve worked where students have come into my office for the sole purpose of enquiring about another student’s performance.  Some of them are genuinely concerned — they don’t want to see their ‘brothers’ or ‘sisters’ fail.  And that concern is all too often manifested in an eleventh-hour gift of this week’s assignment answers.  Again, because of the emphasis on grades, and not learning, the fact that such a gift has no real value goes unnoticed.

Swan and el Dasher mention another cultural obstacle to academic honesty — pampering and being accustomed to getting things too easily.  It is unfortunately the case that the UAE is not a meritocracy, but a society in which status can often be inherited or bought.  This, in combination with a spoiled child I-want-therefore-I-deserve mentality, results in an attitude of abject laziness — why work for that A when it can be gotten by other means?

The article also discusses the failure on the part of the educational system to really teach students how to learn.  Incoming freshman are sadly not equipped to take meaningful notes, assimilate information, or think independently.  I blame this on two things:  the primary and secondary academic culture and the religion, both of which I believe emphasise the memorisation and regurgitation of dogma (be it secular or not).  Many of my students have been fearful of questioning me, not because they necessarily believe what I’ve said, but because they have been taught to respect someone in my position unconditionally.  Others ‘learn’ only what they know will be on a final exam (and promptly forget it) because they’ve been taught that learning equals knowledge of facts.  When faced with the novelty of having to work with information instead of simply acquiring information, these students are at a loss.

And finally, there’s the problem of having (unwittingly) set students up to fail by teaching them in Arabic through the primary and secondary levels, and then switching to an all-English curriculum at the tertiary.  Admissions criteria of low TOEFL and IELTS scores doesn’t help.  The sad fact is that I have students who do not have a command spoken or written English at the level necessary to read their textbooks or understand that an assignment is due at a certain date and time.  These unfortunate young people are expected to succeed, but not provided with the basic equipment.  What is their recourse?

So how to solve the problem?  In my mind, to combat cheating out here in the desert, several things need to change.  Emiratisation policies aside, we cannot continue to push students into academic environments that they are not ready for — we simply have to say that dirty word “no” until and unless students are prepared.  We need to shift the focus from the material (grades) to the abstract (learning) beginning at the earliest age possible.  We need to level the playing field and create a merit-based and culture-blind academic environment so that no student feels he is playing a game where the rules are unfairly bent against him. And sometimes we need to toss out the textbooks, put a hold on the lectures, and get young men and women to see the beauty of thinking.

It can be done, but it’ll be a long row to hoe.


Swan, M. & N. el Dasher. (14 June 2010). Exam students face pressure to cheat. The National. Retrieved (14 June 2010) from http://www.thenational.ae/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20100614/NATIONAL/706149890/1040

Morgan, B. (n.d.). Research in the UAE: An opportunity for UK universities? The British Council. Retrieved (5 May 2010) from http://www.britishcouncil.org/research_in_the_uae.ppt

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No, that wasn’t a typo, but a response to today’s headline (courtesy of The National):

Students entering university still stuck on remedial treadmill

(as if this is news to anyone involved in education over here)

What it IS, is yet another article in the paper’s education section talking to us about how poorly prepared students are for university curricula,  how the “goverment efforts [what efforts?] to end the need for remedial English and maths courses…have had a minimal effect so far” (Lewis, 2010), and how more school reforms are needed because students still can’t write a sentence or add simple fractions after 12 years of school (and no, that is not an exaggeration of the facts).

Let me tell you what I think is needed.

Hire real teachers and give them two things:  autonomy and protection.  Trust them to teach what needs to be taught without oodles of oversight from the M of Ed (who evidently isn’t doing such a hot job of overseeing).  Then shield them from irate parents and students who are willing to go on a mission to deport the poor teacher if Johnny doesn’t get the grade he thinks he deserves (and believe me, in most cases, he’ll always think he deserves an A).  Assess faculty on the basis of how well they teach, not how many students like them, and not how many students pass.

Because here in the desert, it’s not unusual for F to stand for ‘Fired’.


Lewis, K. 25 May 2010.  Students entering university still stuck on remedial treadmill.  The National.  Retrieved (25 May 2010) from http://www.thenational.ae/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20100525/NATIONAL/705249818/1019

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I saw a shocking story in yesterday’s The National about the substandard learning experience of high school students:

RAK students grateful for second chance

Note, in particular, the following statements from one of the young women interviewed:

“I will tell you about English class,” Ms Mohamed said. “I still laugh about it. They would give us 12 paragraphs and tell us ‘You will have an exam with three, so memorise them’. So I memorised 12 paragraphs and understood nothing.

“We told our teacher, ‘We don’t understand’. She said, ‘It’s usual not to understand’.”

I just don’t know what to say about this.

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From The National, 6 April 2010:

‘Students who fail should pay for college’

Although this piece focusses on the high number of females, and particularly Emirati females, who are denied a seat at federal universities here in the UAE (UAEU, Zayed U, and HCT, for instance), it seems to me that the problem extends to males and non-nationals, as well as to students in non-federal institutions.

Sure, these federal institutions were established with the mission to educate Emiratis and prepare them for employment.  I have no problem with that as long as there’s a healthy dose of merit-based consideration in who gets accepted in the first place and who subsequently advances.  The fact is, the current go-to-school-for-free-regardless-of-your-performance system really doesn’t benefit anyone:

  • excellent students are either prevented from studying at a given institution or intellectually hobbled when the curriculum is dumbed-down to meet the needs of the lowest performing students
  • faculty time that should be devoted to teaching necessary content (or doing valuable research) is instead spent delivering remedial sessions and engineering clever grading schemes so that abominably low GPAs on the part of local students don’t raise too many eyebrows at senior management meetings;
  • university reputations are (despite self-aggrandizing press releases) marred;
  • poor-performing students are sent the message that motivation and hard work are not linked to success.

In my mind, this news piece really misses the point, particularly given the ability to pay on the part of (in some cases) the worst performing students.  In a land that enjoys one of the highest per capita GDP incomes in the world, it doesn’t necessarily follow that forcing failing students to pay university tuition is going to ramp up motivation or even induce them to drop out and free up space for students who merit it.  If I were to re-write this article, this would be the new headline:

‘Students who fail should, after a period of probation, be dismissed from college’

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