Photo by  velkr0 via Flickr

Photo by velkr0 via Flickr

On test day for my Behavioral Ecology class at UCLA, I walked into the classroom bearing an impossibly difficult exam. Rather than being neatly arranged in alternate rows with pen or pencil in hand, my students sat in one tight group, with notes and books and laptops open and available. They were poised to share each other’s thoughts and to copy the best answers.  As I distributed the tests, the students began to talk and write. All of this would normally be called cheating. But it was completely okay by me.

Below: Peter Nonacs talks to KCRW about letting his class “cheat.”

Who in their right mind would condone and encourage cheating among UCLA juniors and seniors? Perhaps someone with the idea that concepts in animal behavior can be taught by making their students live those concepts.

Animals and their behavior have been my passions since my Kentucky boyhood, and I strive to nurture this love for nature in my students. Who isn’t amazed and entertained by videos of crafty animals, like Betty the tool-making crow, bending wires into hooks to retrieve baskets containing delicious mealworms? (And then hiding her rewards from a lummox of a mate who never works, but is all too good at purloining hard-won rewards of others?)

Nevertheless, I’m a realist. Almost none of my students will go on to be “me” – a university professor who makes a living observing animals. The vast majority take my classes as a prelude to medical, dental, pharmacy, or vet school. Still, I want my students to walk away with something more than, “Animals are cool.” I want them to leave my class thinking like behavioral ecologists.

Much of evolution and natural selection can be summarized in three short words: “Life is games.” In any game, the object is to win—be that defined as leaving the most genes in the next generation, getting the best grade on a midterm, or successfully inculcating critical thinking into your students. An entire field of study, Game Theory, is devoted to mathematically describing the games that nature plays.  Games can determine why ant colonies do what they do, how viruses evolve to exploit hosts, or how human societies organize and function.

So last quarter I had an intriguing thought while preparing my Game Theory lectures. Tests are really just measures of how the Education Game is proceeding. Professors test to measure their success at teaching, and students take tests in order to get a good grade.  Might these goals be maximized simultaneously? What if I let the students write their own rules for the test-taking game?  Allow them to do everything we would normally call cheating?

A week before the test, I told my class that the Game Theory exam would be insanely hard—far harder than any that had established my rep as a hard prof.  But as recompense, for this one time only, students could cheat. They could bring and use anything or anyone they liked, including animal behavior experts. (Richard Dawkins in town? Bring him!) They could surf the Web. They could talk to each other or call friends who’d taken the course before. They could offer me bribes. (I wouldn’t take them, but neither would I report it to the Dean.) Only violations of state or federal criminal law such as kidnapping my dog, blackmail, or threats of violence were out of bounds.

Gasps filled the room. The students sputtered. They fretted. This must be a joke. I couldn’t possibly mean it. What, they asked, is the catch?

“None,” I replied, “You are UCLA students. The brightest of the bright. Let’s see what you can accomplish when you have no restrictions, and the only thing that matters is getting the best answer possible.”

Once the shock wore off, they got sophisticated. In discussion section, they speculated, organized, and plotted. What would be the test’s payoff matrix? Would cooperation be rewarded or counter-productive? Would a large group work better, or smaller subgroups with specified tasks? What about “scroungers” who didn’t study but were planning to parasitize everyone else’s hard work?  How much reciprocity would be demanded in order to share benefits?  Was the test going to play out like a dog-eat-dog “Hunger Games”? In short, the students spent the entire week living Game Theory. It transformed a class where many did not even speak to each other into a coherent whole focused on a single task – beating their crazy professor’s nefarious scheme.

On the day of the hour-long test they faced a single question: “If evolution through natural selection is a game, what are the players, teams, rules, objectives and outcomes?” One student immediately ran to the chalkboard, and she began to organize the outputs for each question section. The class divided tasks. They debated. They worked on hypotheses. Weak ones were rejected, promising ones were developed. Supportive evidence was added. A schedule was established for writing the consensus answers.  (I remained in the room, hoping someone would ask me for my answers, because I had several enigmatic clues to divulge. But nobody thought that far afield!)  As the test progressed, the majority (whom I shall call the “Mob”) decided to share one set of answers. Individuals within the Mob took turns writing paragraphs and they all signed an author sheet to share the common grade.  Three out of the 27 students opted out (I’ll call them the “Lone Wolves”).  Although the Wolves listened and contributed to discussions, they preferred their individual variants over the Mob’s joint answer.

In the end, the students learned what social insects like ants and termites have known for hundreds of millions of years. To win at some games, cooperation is better than competition.  Unity that arises through a diversity of opinion is stronger than any solitary competitor.

But did the students themselves realize this? To see, I presented the class with one last evil wrinkle two days later, after the test was graded but not yet returned. They had a choice, I said. Option A: They could get the test back and have it count toward their final grade. Option B: I would—sight unseen—shred the entire test. Poof, the grade would disappear as if it had never happened.  But Option B meant they would never see their results; they would never know if their answers were correct.

“Oh, my, can we think about this for a couple of days?” they begged. No, I answered. More heated discussion followed. It was soon apparent that everyone had felt good about the process and their overall answers. The students unanimously chose to keep the test. Once again, the unity that arose through a diversity of opinion was right. The shared grade for the Mob was 20 percent higher than the averages on my previous, more normal, midterms. Among the Lone Wolves, one scored higher than the Mob, one about the same, and one scored lower.

Is the take-home message, then, that cheating is good? Well…no. Although by conventional test-taking rules, the students were cheating, they actually weren’t in this case. Instead, they were changing their goal in the Education Game from “Get a higher grade than my classmates” to “Get to the best answer.” This also required them to make new rules for test taking. Obviously, when you make the rules there is no reason to cheat. Furthermore, being the rule-makers let students behave in a way that makes us a quintessentially unique species. We recognize when we are in a game, and more so than just playing along, we always try to bend the rules to our advantage.

Morally, of course, games can be tricky. Theory predicts that outcomes are often not to the betterment of the group or society.  Nevertheless, this case had an interesting result. When the students got carte blanche to set the rules, altruism and cooperation won the day. How unlike a “normal” test where all students are solitary competitors and teachers guard against any cheating! What my class showed was a very “human” trait: the ability to align what is “good for me” with what is “good for all” within the evolutionary games of our choosing.

In the end, the students achieved their goal – they earned an excellent grade.  I also achieved my goal – I got them to spend a week thinking like behavioral ecologists. As a group they learned Game Theory better than any of my previous classes.  In educational lingo, there’s a new phrase, “flipping the classroom,” meaning students are expected to prepare to come to class not for a lecture, but for a question-and-answer discussion.  What I did was “flip the test.”  Students were given all the intellectual tools beforehand and then, for an hour, they had to use them to generate well-reasoned answers to difficult questions.

The best tests will not only find out what students know but also stimulate thinking in novel ways. This is much more than regurgitating memorized facts. The test itself becomes a learning experience – where the very act of taking it leads to a deeper understanding of the subject.

Peter Nonacs is a Professor in the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department at UCLA. He studies the evolution of social behavior across species, ranging from viruses, to insects, to mammals and even occasionally humans. He wrote this for Zócalo Public Square.

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  • RKP

    Excellent piece! Brilliant professor.

    • http://www.buyukcekmecetemizliksirketi.com/buyukcekmece-temizlik/ BüyükçekmeceTemizlik

      I would suggest that where those external stakeholders' needs diverge from the students' best inter

    • http://www.bakirkoytemizliksirketi.com/bakirkoy-temizlik/ Bakırköy Temizlik

      As a student on Economics, this is the only reason I fell in love with game theory; it has nothing to do with economics or it's assumptions. It is much more intrinsic.

  • int21h

    To behave like this, you don't really have to be a game theory student/expert.
    Any mob with avg intelligence will behave like that.

    • Daniel W

      That's the point – he got them to behave just like a colony of ants or flock of geese. The take-home point is that they then can think about what they did themselves instead of reading some more abstract studies about how other animals did the same thing. There's significant value in actually doing what you're learning instead of just reading about it.

      • Terez

        Unless the Mob behavior seen here is a normal way of doing things for these students, which in my experience seems likely.

  • Mr. Cheater

    This will kill the art and skill of 'cheating'… :P

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      And no, we don't know where it will lead. We just know there's something much bigger than any of us here.

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  • Bharath

    Does this prove socialism / communism when practised in true spirit is better than capitalism?

  • Bibaswan Chatterjee

    What this essentially proves is that you don't need to know game theory to apply it. Game theory or the system of strategic behaviour is inbuilt in us. That is why fields use game theory, not the other way 'round. As a student on Economics, this is the only reason I fell in love with game theory; it has nothing to do with economics or it's assumptions. It is much more intrinsic.

    Brilliant work Prof.

    • Ce L

      Agree! I do want to add that while 'you don't need to know game theory to apply it', I believe you need to know game theory to predict the outcome, with how much certainty, and understand why.

    • shahzaib

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  • Mohit

    In India,400 years ago this was the way of 'evaluating ' students,there was no tests but a final group project work.Actually,there were "maha vidyalayas" where there a "guru" and few students under him,those students would teach their juniors and the chain goes on!!! :D
    WHAT A SYSTEM THAT WAS…. :(

    • Ali

      Please elaborate on this. I am interested in knowing what you are talking about.

      • http://twitter.com/anonymoussum1 @anonymoussum1

        Please google 'Gurukul system', you'll know :-)

    • http://twitter.com/Neilquan @Neilquan

      Very interesting!

  • Rightwingprofessor

    Except the professor has now given identical grades to 24/27 of the students and he has no way to differentiate which of those students have truly mastered the subject matter. Isn't that part of his job?

    • http://twitter.com/qykuah @qykuah

      What exactly is the goal of education again? To obtain good grades or to learn? If you believe it is the former, the professor has failed. If the latter, this has provided a more impactful learning experience for the students.

      • EqualOpportuntyCynic

        Rightwingprofessor brings up an issue that deserves discussion, even if we probably disagree. Future employers, grad schools, etc. are stakeholders in higher education, and their needs may not be best served by having 24 of 27 get the same grade. At present they can pawn off the very very expensive job of figuring out who's going to make a good employee (grad student, etc.) on the undergrad institution. It's not perfect, but the idea is you can't get through the long slog of a bachelor's without some mix of persistence and intellectual ability.

        Now, I would suggest that where those external stakeholders' needs diverge from the students' best interest, that not really the students' or the faculty's problem. But my point is, those external stakeholders do have an interest in seeing a more Darwinian assessment scheme that weeds out the unpromising future employees (grad students, etc.) either through low grades or by making life unpleasant.

        • Jordan Silver

          We're talking about one grade on one test that counts towards their overall course grade. Over the rest of the class period (semester, year, whathaveyou), the totals will shake out more or less how they should. At most, a few students who would otherwise have had a lower grade on this one test will raise their final score by a few points. If the entire curriculum was done in this fashion, there might be a complaint to be raised on behalf of the "future employers, grad schools, etc.", but not for a single test

          • IAmNotANumber

            I have a funny feeling that if the entire class were organized this way, the students would end up better educated by the end of the class, and would have developed the very teamwork, research, critical thinking, and innovation skills that would make them among the best employees a company could hire.

            For grading the students in such an environment, the teacher could focus on qualitative information about each student – their participation level, the depth of thinking exhibited by their participation, etc. It would be a much better preparation for the real world than a letter grade indicating their relative ability to regurgitate factoids on paper.

          • guest

            In theory, but UC Santa Cruz did this a while ago and eventually had to switch to letter grades. Graduate schools need quantifiable way of evaluating applicants and a qualitative evaluation is not that. "Contributes to class learning" is great but what is that, A, B?

          • Bevan Bottom

            Then the tertiary institutions need only to be exclusive in who gets in. Pretend problem solved. If a certain institution is producing graduates that are better equipped to work in a team striving towards a common goal, then surely prospective employers would not be interested in a grade that such an institution gives those students. Employers would simply try to recruit people that graduated from that institution over others if they need people that can work together.
            If there were a lot of slackers in the class, then the ones that would get the good grades in a more traditional system would be far more likely to be lone wolfing it, which would mean the mob would be getting lower grades anyway.

          • Paul

            Graduate schools require either GRE or SAT scores from applicants who would like to be considered for acceptance. There are your "quantifiable" data. If the grades assigned by the professors were sufficient to allow graduate schools to make a decision about which candidates to take on, then the GREs and SATs would not be required.

          • IamNumbe7

            One good way of testing Game Theory is to make the students rate themselves and their peers based on their efforts and contributions in the exams. The rating they will give will be strictly confidential, meaning only the rater knows what he has given to himself and his peers.

            Final grade would be an average of the summation of the student's self-rating, the aggregated average of the ratings he got from his peers, and the rating of the exams itself.

            The professor then can have a better sense of how things are if the ratings are confidential. That's how I will do it. :)

          • FakeKraid

            Your funny feeling is correct; that's remarkably similar to how all of the coursework at St. John's College (in Annapolis, MD and Santa Fe, NM) works, and both campuses are ranked among the top colleges in the nation for academic rigor. The colleges do give grades for purposes of grad school applications and employment, but they encourage the students not to look at them and they are not given out with the reviews, which are far more personalized and based heavily on the so-called 'Don Rags' used at Oxford, where all of the student's professors speak to each other about him in the third-person – right in front of him. It's intimidating, but quite informative.

        • Guest

          I disagree, I think this experience is more telling than most tests if I were an employer. What actually matters in a work place? I don't know about other fields, but I know in the medical field our standardized tests have NEVER correlated with who people consider to be respected clinicians later on. The skills needed to be effective in most workplaces have no correlation with what can be tested on paper. However, this experience and test shows a little more of those basic skills of working well with others, following others, or even NOT following others. It shows more about how someone functions in a group environment than a test does, and I think that's equally if not more valuable than a random test.

          • Guest

            The point of the post is to say, sure this can be very telling, but what if you were an employer who only needs 2 employees and only has the resources to interview 10 people. What then?

        • Guest

          I believe it had also mentioned that he had given many "typical" tests earlier or later in the course that had given him a "hard prof" reputation. Bravo to you, Prof, for breaking beyond the pervasive lecture/test cycle!

        • http://twitter.com/anonymoussum1 @anonymoussum1

          They may well rely on their own personal acumen of judging talent and the performance of each candidate in an interview. I doubt I'd take anyone in just because he/she is from a reputed college.

      • a;sldkj

        It depends on how many of the 27 were free-riders. Did everyone in the group of 27 participate in formulating the answers? Based on my (limited) knowledge of game theory, it seems that each individual's best response to everyone else studying is to "defect" to not studying and take the group grade (maybe except for the person in the class who expected to get the highest grade). Given these individual incentives you would expect all students to study less than they would if the tests were taken individually. I wonder if they had some sort of enforcement mechanism to kick people out of the group who didn't participate on test day.

        • Bibaswan Chatterjee

          Imagine the group working like you said. Everybody free-rides, sits with their pens in hand, staring blankly at the wall and encouragingly and disapprovingly at others. The test has started. 5 min, 15 mins, nothing changes. 30 mins. Now some are nervous. they start thinking. 35 mins, people start working separately. 40 mins, the workers realise that they need to brainstorm, as more and more people start working. Around 50 mins, everybody has started co-operating, and the process continues as the prof envisioned.

          Now, given all this is common knowledge, everyone knows this will happen. So no one wastes the 30 minutes in the beginning.

          If there is free-riding, it might come at the fag end of the discussion period. By that time, the magnitude of free-riding should be low.

          By the way, the numbers were purely arbitrary. :)

          • Rohan

            I think you fail to note that the students have very different payoffs, say there are a few people in the group who are high distinction average students, and a few more who are distinction, credit, pass and 'fail' students in the class. The high distinction students desperately want to maintain their grade so study hard, the pass students study a little, kind of understand parts as they do for most exams. In the exam itself the better students immediately understand the question better and lead the discussion, the pass students simply do simple tasks that they are told. In the end, they all get the same mark even though their understandings were very different.

          • Bibaswan Chatterjee

            I agree with you. I was just disagreeing with the comment before mine, merely that the process described would end up in the same path as the Prof. envisioned. You agree with me, through a different pathway. :)

        • Halley

          I think humans are a bit unique in this case. We love to help others even when we get no obvious return for it. For example, you posted a critique of this test here. Why? What do you get out of imparting your thoughts to the rest of us? You're benefitting the rest of us for no gain to yourself.

          I think, at the end of the day, we have a strong drive to be altruistic and to be looked up to because sexual selection, in humans, favors the glorious and the honorable. Maybe your comment earns you nothing in this scenario—you're anonymous, so you don't even gain reputation for it—but applying this instinct in a different scenario could secure your genes for future generations.

          • Antony

            The latter half of your post contradicts the hypothesis that we humans are more altruistic. We sure appear to be so but plenty of research has shown we more often than not perform seemingly altruistic acts for what can be best described as ulterior (selfish) motives, .e.g advertising oneself and/or establishing a certain reputation. Posting on discussion boards can be viewed in a similar fashion – we self-promote through expressing opinions on subjects of interest. Even universally known cooperative species, e.g. the social insects (known as eusocial = true social) exhibit inherently selfish behaviours at the social level: queen-worker conflict, and at the individual level: worker policing (both do with reproduction). Baring in mind social insect societies comprise individuals that share approx. 75% genetic similarity and are still subject to inter-individual conflict, it is hardly surprising we humans and all other social mammals where the most genetic similarity would be 50% (bet. true siblings and parents-offspring) the level of conflict (which defection-selfishness in the game-theoretical 'Prisoner's Dilemma' model exemplifies) would be higher. Still ultimately cooperation appears to be the more profitable strategy for human societies. Language and its facilitation of information exchange may have something to do with it. I do wonder however if we should be looking at cooperation and selfishness in terms of ESS for different evolutionary/ecological contexts.

    • PerpetualStudent

      Actually, his job is not to differentiate which students are better than others, but to teach ALL the students the concepts of game theory. And he pretty much nailed it, huh?

      THAT is the true job of a Professor. If only more professors knew it.

      • Corey

        Interesting. But the setup made altruistic collaboration the best approach. If he announced that it would be graded on a bell curve, then the result would have looked more like cheating, and could have gotten nasty.

        • Ce L

          Agree.. adding a competitive element to this task would have made it much more representative of (zero-sum) Game Theory.

    • Whatzizname

      "In the end, the students achieved their goal – they earned an excellent grade." When I took exams in school — all the way up to my PhD in physics — my goal was to calibrate my own progress against the standard expectations of the relevant professional discipine. Only the "lone wolves" accomplished that.

      "I also achieved my goal – I got them to spend a week thinking like behavioral ecologists." It seems to me Professor Nonacs got them to behave like subjects to be studied by behavioral ecologists.

      "As a group they learned Game Theory better than any of my previous classes." Maybe so — alas.

    • Paul

      Assuming your name is reflective of your position, it is somewhat shocking that you lack the ability to do simple math. As is clearly explicated in the article, there was at least one other test that did not follow this format. Thus, the class average would be boosted as a result of this practice, and you would observe between-class differences in differentiation, but the relative grades within the class would stay the same (except, of course, for the so-called 'lone wolves').

      With respect to the between-class differences, I would assume that the professor would claim that the utility of his method outweighed the cost of the relatively inflated grades. However, if other professors were to follow his lead (where possible), this between-class inflation would disappear, the within-class differentiation would remain, and people would gain far more insight.

    • Lon

      Are students preparing for Jobs or are they searching for personal understanding and integration into their culture? Or are they right wing, motivated only by conformance for benefits of herd protection. I had no respect for professors who were themselves confined by their herd mentality. They were grey people with no insights into how to stimulate deep thinking that provides contribution to the herd, one's culture. Rightwing professors produce right wing conformists; not to say liberal professors are never slaves to conformity for conformity's sake.

    • Mike

      What you're talking about is signalling. Do high grades signal competence? Up to you to decide.

  • Matthew C

    Can you publish the test questions and the group answers. I would be curious to see how my own answers would line up, with the groups after scouring the internet.

    • Read before posting!

      Did you read the article? The test consisted of just "a single question: 'If evolution through natural selection is a game, what are the players, teams, rules, objectives and outcomes?'”

      • egh

        He wanted the answer!

  • Matt

    I know an economics professor who would do a similar thing for the final test for a unit on cartels: He would present the class with the following dilemma prior to the test: If the entire class contrived to have the same score on the final (including 0) – everyone would be awarded an A. If the scores were not all identical, the test would be graded on the standard curve.

  • James T. Kirk

    Was I the only one hoping a student would "Kobayashi Maru" this by, for example, hacking into the professors computer to get an advanced copy of the test, or contriving with the person who photocopied the tests to replace it with a simple test and the same cover page?

    • Someone

      Hacking is off limits because it breaks the law (invasion of privacy).

      • Guest

        Dunno about privacy (could be, not sure) but they'd definitely have some problems with Cal. Penal Code § 502.

        Interesting read though, as a graduate of UCLA and soon to be graduate of law school. Esp. since it tangentially touches on some of the major problems UCLA, and I'm sure many other universities, have with their grading systems/educational approaches, esp. in the sciences.

        Might want to get in touch with Prof. Groseclose in Poli Sci – he teaches a legislative bodies/parliamentary procedure that involves an exercise at the end with a bill which, if it passes raises everyone's grade 2 points, iirc. The catch is, if you vote against it, and it passes, you get three points instead of 2. Something like that, the particulars might vary, but that's the gist of it.

    • Jodi

      VERY FIRST thing which came to my mind.

    • albany

      It would be far simpler to arrange for everyone to get every item wrong.

      • Ben

        Isn’t that the prisoner’s dilemma?

  • Alex

    I'm a fan of the experiment, but the results of questionable significance. How does the grader grade without bias? There is surely (and understandably) a desire to see the game theory experiment "work". With only four submissions, understanding relative quality of response presents a statistical problem. Lastly no exam question so hard had ever been given before, so there is no control group.

    I only wish as a math teacher that I could try something similar. In most cases, there would be too many leeches. The good responses to questions in my area are too often objective, and in a room of 27 students, someone knows with certainty that they have it right and the rest would be willing to believe.

    • Curi

      perhaps it would have to be a really difficult question that challenge students to evaluate a math proof

    • kapuppy

      he has been a professor for a long time and has given many previous tests to this same group of students, plus many many similar tests to previous groups of students, and thus I don't think the results are of "questionable significance" at all. If a person who is an expert in this field and who has an enormous amount of experience evaluating students of this subject says it taught his students more effectively, I would be inclined to believe that aspect. You could question other things, like about his own credentials or grading bias etc, but to say that there's not enough data available about the actual results (compared to non-group results) is just ridiculous.

      As you said, with a test which has fully objective answers (like math, especially the most basic sort, or other "fact-based" class types) this would sadly not be as useful a method of teaching, but I think it could still have application for you. For one thing, as a teacher candidate, one of the things you learn is that teaching is, in itself, an awesome way to learn and very effective both at helping you really understand the things you're memorizing (like math fomulas) and also at remembering those things better. So, one useful technique is to have students discuss problems and do them in small groups — not as a measure of "are they getting it" (that's what the test is for, later) but as part of the actual teaching method. Who cares if Bob the underachiever gets the answer on the practice question right only because he had help or copied someone who did understand? HE GOT IT. He MIGHT remember some of that stuff he copied later. It's much better for him as a student to have discussed it out loud with real words and other humans than if he'd simply been left to his own studying devices until the test. The social aspect of group problem-solving might even engage students who otherwise aren't interested in the subject.

  • http://mitar.tnode.com Mitar

    Hm. But some students probably also learned that just by sitting there and wait until the mob got the answer, writing it down and handing it in with others, is really a nice energy conserving tactic. There was no social pressure/correction for those who would piggy-back on others. This would probably not work in the long term. If you repeat this next year, some students will try that. And then other students will have to come up with ways how to address those. Rules and laws will be created, judges, policeman… :-)

    • Anon

      Am I wrong or would that not be an absolutely fascinating evolution to watch!? The classroom would become their own mini-society.

      • http://twitter.com/anonymoussum1 @anonymoussum1

        ^ And that exactly was the motive, to live Game theory as we've done all along the evolution!

    • dolanp

      You didn't read the article, did you? The students did in fact address exactly the questions you bring up:

      "What would be the test’s payoff matrix? Would cooperation be rewarded or counter-productive? Would a large group work better, or smaller subgroups with specified tasks? What about “scroungers” who didn’t study but were planning to parasitize everyone else’s hard work? How much reciprocity would be demanded in order to share benefits? Was the test going to play out like a dog-eat-dog “Hunger Games”?"

      • http://mitar.tnode.com Mitarmi

        I read the article. But at that point they could just speculate. They were missing necessary information though. What will the professor do. Next year they will know and this is my argument: next year such game would be quite a bit different.

  • Mark

    There is a fundamental flaw in this game; the point of education is not to get "good grades," but it is to learn. Tests are simply a way to measure one's learning. The question I then have is, did the students actually learn the material? Did the shirkers (those who did not study or contribute but joined the mob) learn less than they would have with a more regular test AND get rewarded with a higher grade (while learning less)? Did all students subsequently learn less for the test because they knew they could help others? Did any students learn more?

    And anyone who has studied repeated games knows that results like this are not always in equilibrium and may break down if the educational system actually worked this way with repeated play (e.g., students who contributed might eventually be upset and unwilling to cooperate because their grades were the exact same as those who were shirking).

    • int21h

      Exactly ! You speak of my mind @Mark
      I raised the same issue in my comments above @int21h

      Did the shirkers (those who did not study or contribute but joined the mob) learn less than they would have with a more regular test AND get rewarded with a higher grade (while learning less)? Did all students subsequently learn less for the test because they knew they could help others?

    • nebulospectrum

      The real world does not favour those who memorise well; on the contrary resources are constantly available and I think this is a far better reflection of the conditions of the working world than testing ever can be–and both manage to challenge the students' effectiveness of performance all the same.

    • http://twitter.com/PaceMediaNick @PaceMediaNick

      they don't have to learn the material, they have to study and understand it. I'm sure there are a lot of details left out of this short report. If, as he says, the students spent a week really reading about the subject and learning as much as they could then he succeded. I don't think he's advocating it as a new way of teaching all subjects all of the time, just that as a tool in this instance doing something outside the norm worked. Similarly if the point of the exercise was to show that often times working as a group is the best option for the largest number of participants then it worked.

    • Coach Bronco

      In real life, everyone needs to "balance" by studying the school courses with restrictions and w/o restrictions. It is like giving your learning skills the different type of brain workouts. And you need to decide which one that fits into your learning style. That's why lone wolf opts out the group test as it may not match to their learning style.

      In order to prevent some students who are quite too "lazy" to study within the group test, then I would encourage any professors use a group test just once per semester (and the grade is worth about 20 percent for a group test ..no more than 20 percent). This professor already had said that he gave only 20 percent for the group test, tho.

  • albany

    The point is that the test was not a test, it was an experiment which is a much better way of learning than taking a test.

    • Learned

      One does not take a test 'to learn' but to assess what one has learned, surely?

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  • http://ieltswithjonathan.com Jonathan

    Wow, I should try this with some of my language classes!

  • Ivan

    I really want to know what they wrote for the answers

  • Aniket

    That was really unique and simple..! What is a better way to learn than experience the lesson..

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  • Simon

    It would be interesting to see how their behaviour evolves if this was a sequential game, i.e. next test in same format. Will there be more slackers? Survival of the fittest?

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  • Andrew Liao

    "best of the best" my ass

    • Anonymous Annie

      i agree. Such self aggrandizing bullshit from a school that matriculates kids who transfer from JC and graduate by the skin of their teeth .

    • http://pusatvitamin.com ibu hamil

      I could not agree anymore, best article of a game

  • WGn

    "What I did was 'flip the test.' Students were given all the intellectual tools beforehand and then, for an hour, they had to use them to generate well-reasoned answers to difficult questions."

    This definition of flipping the test seems off to me. In every exam course, the students are supposed to be given all the intellectual tools beforehand, and then for an hour, use them to generate well-reasoned answers to difficult questions. The point of teaching half of a semester is give students the intellectual tools, and then, to the prepare for the test, they develop these tools to be ready for difficult and deep questions. I know what he meant kind of, but this definition is incorrect. It describes the general case and not how his case is a twist of the general case.

    • kapuppy

      I think he meant that he physically allowed them to have the things that, in a regular course, they would have had to memorize. (books, other students, sources, the internet, etc.) Normally you are NOT allowed access to these "tools" at the time of the test. To me it's no worse than asking your students to come in and write the same essay they would have written as a "final paper" (using any resource they wanted, of course) and handed in, which is the situation in any number of classes; the main twist here is that they had to do it together, and within a prescribed time period (like a classroom test).

      • Ben

        Exactly

  • Prithvideep

    The underlying concept of this experiment was to showcase that broad questions excite people and that those questions are best learnt through collaborative research.

    A huge pioneer into this field is Mr. Sugata Mirta who has been testing this theory of learning in schools all over the world and he showcases the same in an incredibly eye-opening TED talk
    http://www.ted.com/talks/sugata_mitra_build_a_sch

    Please do see it. It will really interest all the readers who like this article and want to see an expanded version of the same.

  • http://www.clairedoran.com Claire

    Pedagogy at its best – when the lessons are relevant, challenge and stretch students, and help the rest of us, too!

  • Bookcat

    What do the assessment folks do to this?

  • Paul

    Game Rev. 2.0. Everybody tries to get into the class on hearing of this. How does he test the next group?
    How can he still use gaming if they know the game?

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  • http://twitter.com/Bonifer @Bonifer

    What's brilliant about this is that you replace game theory with game play. Play teaches what standardized tests cannot–ways of cooperating and adapting in a world filled with unexpected tests and questions we've never had to answer before. Well done!

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  • SMeznaric

    I wonder what would happen if the students could distribute the marks at the end.

  • samos2248

    Pass this concept on to Congress! They'll fail!

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  • Alberto

    This is an interesting instructional device for your learning objectives, but really a failure as an assessment tool.

    • Gordon

      I agree. This seems more like a good learning exercise rather than an actual test. A test should assess prior learning, in my mind. (The question asked seems more like an IQ test than a test of course content.)

  • http://cerup.blogspot.com Suprabhat B

    Brilliant! Proves again how experience is the best teacher.

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  • Mary Ellen Oloughlin

    Bravo.

  • Uma

    May not work in all classes, some need individual study and committing to memory – like formulas – you cannot collaborate on learning what you need as a tool to be used in a setting where you cannot keep looking up the formula to be used for a problem to be solved – in Mathematics. Or learning a language – you need to remember the correct word that means what you intend to convey in that language. No amount of collaboration is going to help you when the time comes for you to use a language – like a spy engaged in learning secrets – you can't be of use if you can't understand what the enemy is saying – if you can't remember that language syntax.

  • Uma

    But collaboration, group study, discussion, brain storming, using notes, wikepedia, analysing a problem together to think aloud possible solutions – these are required in making decisions, formulating plans, creating designs to solve problems or build something new – cannot do that alone – many heads are better than one. So this experiment in class is brilliant and I am sure every class can and should have one group project done together and the rest standard tests without opportunity to get any other help than what is inside the student's mind as proof of having absorbed and understood the material he or she has been exposed to in the classroom and will probably make those who paid the tuition fees happier – that their child or even if its the student's own money – that it was put to good use. Those who cheat even on such a project will cheat anywhere they go – will get caught one place or the other.

  • Uma

    This cheating thing has become a big issue especially with computing solutions where lots of solutions are already out there in templates or frameworks and we usually follow the same code. While Java for example is called reusable and is aimed at reducing the need to rediscover solutions – some feel those indulged in writing that code are doing copy paste. Its a famous Xerox thing especially for those who are not happy that you get some money paid for that work.

    We need to make it clear to those kind of suspicious minds that there is a style that coding dictates and one can see that appear even in the situations where most of us are doing identical work. Also if we go that route, we can say anything we do except for EInstein and Ford and Watt and the Wright brothers and whoever built the first boat and ancient medicine men who learnt about herbs from discovering them in the jungles and experimenting with them to cure diseases – we are all cheating.

  • DoNotFoldSpindle

    If tried again the single top students might try to disrupt the cooperation between other students by playing very loud noises on a portable stereo. If a friend were taking this test I would be willing to go into the exam and disrupt, offer bad answers to competing students, or repeatedly erase the blackboard to prevent common answers from being distributed.

    I would very much like to see the answers, or sample answers, to the test question.

  • ollyyt

    I wonder if you could flip the test in another way – have the students come up with questions for you – as their final exam? You could then grade their questions or have the Mob list them in order of relevance/importance/other factor…

    Interesting experiment!!

  • guyharvey

    How is this considered cheating then? It's unconventional… But if there weren't any rules, then they aren't cheating… It was basically a massive discussion about one question.

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  • Bill Stewart

    My computer simulation class at Cornell in the late 70s had us work in groups of 4-5. We had to work out how to work together, split up parts of the problem, assign tasks, do stuff cooperatively, resolve the ego problems that occur with a bunch of bright students, all the kinds of things we’d have to do in the Real World. One of the best courses I had, and the only computer course that taught it (and not enough other engineering classes had us work cooperatively either.) I think Professor Clemens is still at Wharton.

  • http://www.georgealozano.com George A. Lozano

    I did something similar a few years ago. I was also teaching animal behaviour, game theory, prisoner's dilemma. ONE of my questions, a rather difficult one, worth about 10% of the entire test (maybe 5% of the final grade, I forget), had the following preamble:

    "You may choose not to answer this question. If NOBODY in the class answers it, then EVERYONE will get the total number of points for it. However, if at least ONE person answers it, then the question will be counted for everyone, and those individuals who did not answer will get a grade of ZERO for that question" .

    Amazingly, about one quarter of the class chose not to answer, and got ZERO for their troubles.

    I was crucified by the chair and the dean, who said during tests students are already under enough stress, and the test was NOT a place to teach.

    I guess that is one of the benefits of working at UCLA !!!

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  • http://edspiration.net Corinne Hyde

    This is brilliant. It exemplifies everything I’m trying to teach my education grad students about assessment!

  • Stefan Lopuszanski

    This is a comment in regards to those complaining that there might have been "leeches" in the group that benefited more than they contributed.

    Part of the agreement that the students "who knew more than others" entered into when they decided to work with the group was that some may benefit more than others. Sometimes, as a society, you accept the responsibility of helping the less fortunate in hopes that they might contribute a small amount to bettering everyone. For example, say 2 of those 24 students that worked in a group knew a significant amount more and could score a 95%. However, when they start to expand their network they increase their potential score. Let's say that one of those 24 students would have only gotten a 30% grade, but contributed a key point in the discussion that the 95% students missed and thus increased their final score to 96%. Was it worth including someone who would have scored 30% to increase their own grade by 1%? Yes, in this case it was. There is a trade off that other people in the group, those who might only get 50%, end up getting a significantly higher grade, but this isn't a zero-sum problem. Just because one person scores 98% doesn't mean it hurts the others. If the grade was then curved on a scale, I think the experiment would have had very different results, but when one person's success or failure isn't tied to another, then people will work together.

    Ultimately, it was only a single test and I doubt it impacted the grade heavily enough to make those who were failing actually pass. The fact that they learned a valuable lesson that will probably stick with them for the rest of their lives is invaluable to memorizing some statistics that they will likely forget in a few years. I've had a few professors do weird experiments like this and the things I learned from them are still with me. Having the memorize all the names of the Supreme Court Justices are not.

    Tell me from an employer's point of view what is more valuable? Memorizing small details better or being able to think outside the box better? As technology becomes more and more ingrained into our society memorization will become less valuable as data can be more easily found. Schools need to adapt and learn that critical thinking and problem solving skills are what need to be focused on — things like what this professor did teach that and the students are much better for it.

  • Guest

    Why only 20% improvement in average grade? Did the students designed a system in which the best answer cannot surface? If so, does it not mean that the students could not play the game well after all? Then shouldn't these students fail the course? On the one hand this prof said application is more important than content knowledge. On the other hand, this prof still marked the test based on content knowledge rather than the application. He contradicted himself.

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  • Baek

    wow~ this changed my definition of cheating. Hopefully, students learned something through the exam.

  • Sam I am

    It was not actually a test. This was an exercise designed to teach,

    A test is for measuring

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  • Zach

    These kinds of scenarios are great every once in a while. Because the successful students who are used to studying will just continue to successful in life. Unless we all start practicing forced Socialism and Communism then we will all eventually loose because the number of leeches will continue to grow because there will be no incentive to succeed.

  • commenter1234

    If you wanted to be a behavioural ecologist you should have included the concept of scarce resources and seen how your mob turned out.

  • Anonymous

    You mean the students can cheat and yet they cannot get full marks? What amateurs. This shows the limit of their so-called UCLA intelligence and mastery of game design. Should fail the whole class.

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  • Misleading 20%

    Brilliant idea and brilliant in general, but I think people should understand that in saying that the average was 20% higher than before is quite a bit misleading for two reasons. One is the innate bias of the professor who wants to see his own experiment succeed and so might mark more leniently. But even if that were not true just based on simple math the average will rise:
    Of the 24 students the average will be somewhere in the middle (the average of their marks). The 24 students will use the best answers they can come up with. Even if they used no cooperation to their advantage, at the very least they can "come up with" the answer that the top student in that group uses. Which naturally gets a grade higher than the average. Point is the grade increase is misleading as an indicator of the success of cooperation, because it could have just been the result of this simple logic.

    • Peter Nonacs

      I've gotten this comment in various forms so I'll toss in my response here. The bias issue is real. If this were intended as a real experiment in education, there is no way that someone invested in the outcome also ought to be grading the outcome. In my defense, this is something I thought would be interesting to "try". It was never intended to be an article, and would not have been if not for the encouragement of an excellent editor from Zocalo to whom I told this story at a dinner party. Before the actual test, I was unsure and nervous about how my scheme would play out. It seemed like it could have been an utter disaster, with students yelling at each other and the end result being set of horrible answers (and I would never try anything that foolish again!). What surprised even me was the tremendous amount of collaboration that spontaneously arose. It was not that everyone just copied the smartest guy's answer. The class quickly divided into work groups, each tasked with answering one part of the question. If there were "smart guys" in the class they must have quickly realized that their solitarily-derived answers could not compete against smart groups with a division of labor. So everybody really almost immediately pitched in and helped out. Now within any group, it is likely that some contributed more intellectually than others, but the end result WAS a product of many authors and not just one poor parasitized smart student. In my opinion (with all the bias therein acknowledged), this entire answer was generally logical, well reasoned and supported, and addressed every issue the question demanded. It was a 'class project' and it was a very good product they produced. One could say that the real test here was not measured in the answer, per se, but in how the class planned and organized how they would get to an answer.

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  • Jacksonmc

    The professor's objective for student learning was successful and relevant to the topic. In college and in the work force, students will likely have to at least cooperate and more likely collaborate with others toward some purpose – whether to "out game" a professor or pitch a marketing campaign to a client.

    While many people might prefer a neatly packaged traditional grade to represent student learning, my guess is that this activity – this educational experience – was more engaging way than any lecture or study group.

  • ran1ye

    very nice! beautify writing.
    The concept of this experiment does teach as a lot about how thing work.
    another eye-opning idea that i found you can see in this ted talk http://www.ted.com/talks/ernesto_sirolli_want_to_http://alab7.com/

  • G Dan Mitchell

    But how, in the end, does the individual grade for student A correlate to the differences between student A's abilities at the end of the course and student B's abilities?

    The process you describe seems like an excellent learning tool, but not such a useful assessment tool.

  • eMarv

    Why aren't all tests like this?

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  • Rohini

    If the grading pattern is relative and not absolute then given the option of cheating, wouldnt they want to not cheat and be more clandestine. wanting to get best inputs and hide answers from others? form secret associations? And please do say what you concluded about the lone wolves!

  • kateflaherty

    Isn't this just an open book test? I took plenty of these in college. They are more difficult, in part because you have to be more prepared since you're having to distill a lot of information in a short period of time. You can't just hope to wing it in the hour you're allotted. It's hardly cheating, though I appreciate his approach to incorporate behavior that simply makes sense–more often than not, we work with others to solve most problems we encounter in the work place. Why not do that in college too.

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  • Rina

    Somehow this made me think of the book Ender's Game…

  • rangerdon

    In our Adult Ed Master's program at SFSU — the best in the country then, and not easy — our final consisted of one page with a list of terms. Took about 30 minutes. Best test I ever took — and, of course, it was more for us than the professors. I've used that with students since to find it works very well. Instead of cramming for a test, they relax and learn.

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  • Go Blue Social Psych

    As a social psych grad student at a major research university, i have to say: this. is. awesome! my own personal interests, however, would have liked to see this as more of an experiment. I think the requirement for students to submit their own answer sheet could be an interesting way to collect more useful data to this end, and attempt to differentiate characteristics and/or habits of the group leader vs. free-rider vs. lone wolf and when it is most beneficial or one is most likely to adopt one of these roles. then again, i'm a psych phd candidate… so yeah. very interesting to think of in context of jigsaw classrooms, etc.

    cool stuff.

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  • Alex Conner

    In the UK (where I run a research group and teach medicine), we have standard lectures but more time is spent facilitating group work. They have access to the internet, books, each other and me to answer a series of difficult questions related to the week's learning. We don't even check their results. This happens almost every day.

    It influences their final grade AND their behaviour in a future surgical team. I like it very much.

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  • mollybpicardi

    So refreshing as an elementary educator to see real "teaching" happening on a college level. Truly great professors find ways to assess meaningfully as well as educate through assessment.

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  • Pavel

    A better example of game theory would have been to give an exam where students who scored at the average would get an 85%. Those who score above would get 100%, and those below would fail. Thus, if nobody takes the exam, everyone gets a 0 which translates to an 85%.

    Now make this a take-home exam with the first question being easy, and the rest mediocre-to-hard. See if students can agree on an 85% and risk having NOBODY submit that first easy answer (allowing them to get 100% and failing the rest of the class). That is the true example of game theory (and prisoner’s dilemma)

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  • Harry Coverston

    Excellent experiment and article. Thank you! I have not read all four pages of responses but I wonder if anyone notices the analogy here to the Original Position of John Rawls' "justice as fairness" experiment.

  • derek zoolander

    What grades would the professor had given them if the students had decided NOT to accept the group grades? Average previous midterms? Would they had made the same final choice had they known what was the alternative assessment for the final grade?

  • Baris

    This is motivating, I appreciate your vision professor

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  • Brandon

    Working together toward a common goal for the better of the group and not individual merit…sounds like socialism to me :) and I like it

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  • Nate Whilk

    It's very important to note that this single informal experiment was done with a highly selected group of people who were already known to be high achievers and so it was guaranteed that all had something to contribute. In your average public high school (or group of elected representatives) there'd be a lot more parasites and cheats.

    So we have one instance of a select group of intelligent, committed, hardworking, responsible people cooperating in an academic setting. And the Sun rises in the east. And a college professor thinks is somehow significant?

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  • compy

    I wouldn't call this altruism. They students were still working for their individual interests.

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  • Nadim

    Great way to teach a group, poor way to teach an individual.

    People will always rely on someone with the better knowledge to do the thinking for them, and take the credit for it. True the grade is a whole, but is it fair for a probable genius who put more input then let's say the student to get the same credit as the one who has just signed up for the 'mob' but gave 0 input. Is the opposite also fair?

    No doubt the professor did a tremendous job in making the class practice game theory, but did he really give that specific person what he/she deserves

    In my opinion, the real test wasn't the day of the test, the real test was during the build up of the test. As soon as the students assembled as a whole and placed a well balanced plan to get the best possible outcome, they were already A+ in terms of Game Theory.

  • http://doggedlywriting.blogspot.com/ Erica

    Clever strategy, as it got them to do something most of us despair of as teachers–make the students actually spend a lot of time outside of class preparing for the test. Though as an undergrad who was pretty lone wolf in my study habits (not out of a competitive desire to do better than the other students, just due to my temperament), this would have bugged me. Whether I would have been able to connect with my other classmates to benefit from the group or not, I can't say.

    I think this approach could really well sometimes, especially for upper division courses when the emphasis is on integrating and communicating knowledge. A freshman level class, where the emphasis is more on getting stuff into the brain), might have a lot more trouble with this kind of exercise and not take the same benefits away.

  • Carenna

    I appreciate this new way of approaching teaching!

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  • http://www.blakedawsonphotos.com Dawson

    Yes, very interesting, and as you say, it underlines what nature constantly shows us, that the challenges offered in the complexity inherant in cooperation give a greater survival edge than the more simplistic relationship of competition. But, as I see it, your results have very clearly underlined how the ego of the lone wolves can either get in the way and cause an individual to be left behind, or it can allow one to stand above the crowd, offering a model to copy, and thus provide a higher vision, as society experiences with that of artists and true creators and inventors, Now, within the ant group, your test/game surely got the worker ants to boogie their little abdomens, but you did not address the issue of the parasites who would choose to go along for the ride and recuperate the fuits of others' labors. All they have managed to do is feed off the fruits of the others without making the efforts necessary to advance in the survival initiative. At least with your crow example, he gets good at subtrifuge and ruse to steel the food of others. The student parasites receive nothing except a good grade. I that truely "winning," in survival terms, is it merely the illusion of a survival quality, a socially reinforced chimere, It sounds like a very good pedagogic exercise, ready for a good debrief, but it does not necessarily respond the demands of what is implied by a TEST; you have no measure of the quality of your teaching, and a certain portion of the population is left behind, having merely reinforced a previous tendency toward dependence and not autonomy.

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  • Troy Willis

    This was pretty stupid.

  • Alicia

    Thank you for sharing your idea. I wish I had more professors that did this kind of thing in college.
    I use this process in my math classes with some variation. My students separate themselves into groups and take a test together (yes a group test). They can use each other, thier notes, and the book. The conversations that happen are amazing – I love it when students talk about math! I have found that very few of my students "cheat" and just copy. I make sure that they understand that I do it so that students have an experience in which they can learn. I believe that every moment of my class should be a learning experience and this is one structure I use with topics that traditionally are harder for my students. I do not use it for all tests. One thing to watch though is time. I will use more challenging questions – thought provoking questions – on these tests but have fewer items. If my objective is to get my students to talk about the math and share their knowledge, then I have to make sure they have time. Before I learned that they needed the time, I found more students did just copy and didn't use it as a learning experience.

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  • Mike

    Interesting idea, but I think it would have been more interesting to offer the opportunity to cheat/collaborate but have the class graded on a curve. Obviously in that case where everyone gets the same grade, everyone receives a C. That would be realistic example of an extensive-form game.

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