Sunday, July 18, 2004


Let me tell you more about cheating. (Joanne Jacobs, the education news consolidation powerhouse, shares recently reported data on cheating by college students.) My students cheat. I've asked them about it, and I've caught them at it.

In an ideal world, students would come to college driven to become life-long learners and well-rounded, well-informed citizens. Many of my students are in college because a bachelors degree is required for most forms of meaningful employment. They are enthusiastic about courses that advance their career plans or that they find inherently interesting (or relevent to their lives). Their other courses are merely hoops to be jumped through. I have not yet learned how to make logarithms (or similar topics) interesting and relevant (this is my failing, and I'm working on it), so the introductory courses which I tend to teach are often given lower priority by my students.

Due to the nature of their collection, the following data are suspect: Last year, in a unit on statistics, my class discussed how much you should trust statistics reported in the media, and we talked about the difficulty of collecting accurate data (especially about sensitive topics). One task I had my students do was to find out what fraction of their classmates had cheated on a test or assignment in our class that semester. The consensus was about 10%.

It's routine for students to turn in homeworks with the answer copied word-for-word (and symbol-for-symbol) from the solutions manual. I don't know whether that counts as cheating. Not so long ago I caught one of my students cheating in a very obvious and objectively provable way. I'm pleased to report that the administration at my school stood by my decision to penalize the student. Dealing with cheaters is not always so easy.

During my first year teaching I gave a take-home exam in a course usually taken by sophomore math and science majors. The responses to questions were strikingly similar among a group of students who routinely worked together, but they were not exactly the same. It would be extremely difficult to convince a dean (or anyone without a math/science background) that these responses were a result of collaboration on the test and not due to having similar understanding of the material being tested. The rest of the semester I gave in-class exams (reducing by 1 week what we could have covered).

When I was in graduate school, I was a TA for a course for senior majors (second semester), and two of them cheated on one question on a take-home midterm. Failing the course would have prevented their graduation and ruined all the plans they had made. The professor decided to give them Fs for the test but not for the course. Was this the right thing to do? I'm not sure. They did have a reasonable knowledge of the material (aside from this one stupid act), so a grade of F in the course would not be accurate. Failing the course would have cost them many thousands of dollars. But for someone with post-graduation plans already set up, a low grade in one course doesn't matter much. There didn't seem to be a good middle ground.

Another time in grad school, we had a suspicion that one student had cheated on the midterm in a large, multi-section, introductory course. Again, proving this would have been difficult. Fortunately, one of us recognized him by sight, so at the remaining exams he was invited to sit in the front row of the lecture hall. He managed to fail the remaining exams (and the course).

At a conference a colleague told me about his experiences. There was a clear case of cheating on an exam. Even the dean could see it, and could tell who cheated from whom. Yet, my colleague told me that his dean told him not to pursue it. I don't remember if I was told the dean's rationale for this decision. My colleague stopped looking for cheating.

All the honor codes and honesty pledges in the world won't stop cheating. My own solution is to make it clear to my students that cheating is not tolerated, to give examples that illustrate what is and is not allowed, and to explain to them the very real penalties that will be imposed upon cheaters. (And not give take-home exams.) I'm lucky to have an administration which respects the faculty's judgement in dealing with these matters. As a further preventative, I'm hoping to improve my teaching so that my students want to do the work and learn the material, eliminating a (perceived) need for cheating to get the grades they want.