• August 31, 2015

High-Tech Cheating Abounds, and Professors Bear Some Blame

High-Tech Cheating on Homework Abounds, and Professors Are Partly to Blame 1

Rick Friedman for The Chronicle

David E. Pritchard, a physics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has studied how students use online tools to cheat. He says students who copy homework do far worse come exam time.

A casual joke on Twitter recently let slip a dirty little secret of large science and engineering courses: Students routinely cheat on their homework, and professors often look the other way.

"Grading homework is so fast when they all cheat and use the illegal solutions manual," quipped Douglas Breault Jr., a teaching assistant in mechanical engineering at Tufts University. After all, if every answer is correct, the grader is left with little to do beyond writing an A at the top of the page and circling it. Mr. Breault, a first-year graduate student, ended his tweet by saying, "The profs tell me to ignore it."

While most students and professors seem to view cheating on examinations as a serious moral lapse, both groups appear more cavalier about dishonesty on homework. And technology has given students more tools than ever to find answers in unauthorized ways—whether downloading online solution manuals or instant-messaging friends for answers. The latest surveys by the Center for Academic Integrity found that 22 percent of students say they have cheated on a test or exam, but about twice as many—43 percent—have engaged in "unauthorized collaboration" on homework.

And cheating on an engineering problem set could be the perfect crime, in that it can be done without leaving a trace. Students in a large lecture course based on a best-selling textbook can often find the answer online, complete with all the math it took to get there.

How can a professor prove that the cheating students didn't work things out on their own?

Enter David E. Pritchard, a physics professor who teaches introductory courses at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (when he's not in his laboratory devising new ways to use lasers to reveal the curious behavior of supercooled atoms).

Mr. Pritchard did detective work on his students worthy of a CSI episode. Because he uses an online homework system in his courses, he realized he could add a detection system to look for unusual behavior patterns. If a student took less than a minute to answer each of several complex questions and got them all right, for instance, the system flagged that as likely cheating. "Since one minute is insufficient time to read the problem and enter the several answers typically required, we infer that the quick-solver group is copying the answer from somewhere," he wrote in a paper last month in the free online journal Physical Review Special Topics—Physics Education Research.

He and his research team found about 50 percent more cheating than students reported in anonymous surveys over a period of four semesters. In the first year he did his hunting, about 11 percent of homework problems appeared to be copied.

Mr. Pritchard has no interest in becoming a homework cop. What he really wants to do is understand the minds of the offenders. The issue, he says, is far more nuanced than a story of "Top Students Caught Cheating." He told me that the dishonesty reveals flaws in the very way science is taught, and indicates an unhelpful spirit of "us versus them" between professors and students.

He believes that the most important part of learning physics comes by doing, and so students who outsource their homework learn little. His studies of his students prove his point. The cheaters generally perform far worse than other students come test time—students who frequently copied their homework scored two letter grades lower on comparable material on the exam.

Why Students Cheat

Here's what surprised me most when talking with people who have tracked college cheaters. Many students simply do not view copying homework answers as wrong—at least not when it is done with technology.

That's what Trevor Harding found. He's a professor of materials engineering at California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo who has researched student cheating in engineering.

In surveys, he asked students if they viewed bringing a cheat sheet to an exam as cheating. Most did. Then he asked the same students whether they would consider it cheating to bring a graphing calculator with equations secretly stored on it. Many said no, that wasn't cheating.

"I call it 'technological detachment phenomenon,'" he told me recently. "As long as there's some technology between me and the action, then I'm not culpable for the action." By that logic, if someone else posted homework solutions online, what's wrong with downloading them?

The popularity of Web sites full of homework answers seems to confirm his finding. One of them, called Course Hero, boasts a free collection of "over 500,000 textbook solutions." The company set up a group on Facebook, where more than 265,000 people have signed up as "fans."

Drew Mondry, a junior at New England College, who recently transferred from Michigan State, is among them. "The feeling about homework is that it's really just busywork," he told me. (He said he does not cheat on his homework and only signed up as a fan of the Course Hero site because some friends did.) "You just call your friend and say, 'Hey, do you know the answer?'"

In the big science courses he has taken, professors didn't put much effort into teaching, so students don't put real effort into learning, he says: "I have yet to meet a professor who really loves teaching an introductory course, and that translates," was how he put it. "If you look bored out of your mind, guess how much I care?"

Some professors seem to believe that since students who cut corners on homework end up bombing exams, students get a kind of built-in punishment for the behavior, says Mr. Pritchard. Poorly performing students might even learn a lesson from their laziness. So the cheating will take care of itself, right? That's the rationalization, anyway.

Certainly, many professors put a lot of effort into their classes. And to them, blatant student cheating can feel like a personal insult. Eric Roberts, a computer-science professor at Stanford University who has studied academic cheating, told me about a student in his course who went to a public computer lab, found some other student's homework assignment saved on a machine there, changed the name to his own name, and turned it in as his own work. Except he left the other student's name on one page by mistake. Busted.

"This is lazy cheating," Mr. Roberts said. "They're trying to put one over on us. And if they're trying to match wits with us, I'd just as soon win—if that's their game I'll play it."

Policy Change?

It isn't just professors who overlook cheating. Many colleges offer no comprehensive approach to minor academic cheating (the exceptions are institutions with honor codes, though few have them).

That's the view of Tracy Mitrano, Cornell University's director of information-technology policy. She recently attended a panel discussion on the campus where junior professors and students told stories of widespread cheating there—including a course where half the students routinely cheated on homework at least once a term. She started asking around and heard similar stories in several departments and at other institutions.

Now she's calling for universities to focus on the problem, and to devise a more standardized approach to punishing those who cheat on routine assignments. "Let's stop the cover-up of plagiarism," she wrote in an op-ed last month in Cornell's student newspaper. "The current system places too great a burden on individual faculty who would, under the circumstances, appear to have perverse incentives: Pursuing these matters lowers course evaluations, takes their severely limited time away from research for promotion, and unfortunately personalizes the issue when it is not personal at all, but a violation against the university."

Her proposal: Make it easier for professors to handle such cases, and reform academic judicial systems to make clearer distinctions between smaller violations, like homework copying, and larger ones, like cheating on exams. And assign appropriate punishments for each.

I ran that idea by W. Scott Lewis, president of the Association for Student Conduct Administration. "The short answer is she's right," he told me. "The system needs to be consistent. As it is, you might get caught cheating in physics, and that professor might say 'You failed my class.' Then you get caught cheating in an English class, and that professor says, 'You have to retake the final and get one letter grade lower.' That's inequitable." Even worse, the English professor and the physics professor will probably never talk to each other, so the serial cheater will never be reported to the institution's disciplinary system. In that case, the cheater wins.

In the humanities, professors have found technological tools to check for blatant copying on essays, and have caught so many culprits that the practice of running papers through plagiarism-detection services has become routine at many colleges. But that software is not suited to science-class assignments.

Mr. Pritchard, the MIT professor, did find a way to greatly reduce cheating on homework in his classes. He switched to a "studio" model of teaching, in which students sit in small groups working through tutorials on computers while professors and teaching assistants roam the room answering questions, rather than a traditional lecture. With lectures, he detected cheating on about 11 percent of homework problems, but now he detects copying on only about 3 percent.

It probably helps that he shares some crucial findings from his study with his students. Homework cheaters, he showed, are much more likely to get C's and D's on exams than those who work out the assignments on their own.

College 2.0 covers how new technologies are changing colleges. Please send ideas to jeff.young@chronicle.com.


1. willismg - March 29, 2010 at 11:17 am

I also have trouble with copying on homework. Part of the problem in my environment is that without ironclad proof (caught red handed, with three other independent witnesses), administrators are loathe to pursue or enforce any action against any student who merely claims, "I didn't do it, and you can't prove that I did, so there!"

2. 11886649 - March 29, 2010 at 01:40 pm

Prof. Pritchard's findings of a negative correlation between exam performance and cheating on homework assignments confirm the findings we published in this article: D. Kashy, G. Albertelli, W. Bauer, E. Kashy, and M. Thoennessen, "Influence of non-moderated and moderated discussion sites on student success", SLOAN Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks 7, Issue 1 (2003).

Interesting twist: After we conducted our study and pointed this negative correlation out to our students, the use of cheating websites actually went up, not down, as one naively might have expected!

3. ghostlight - March 29, 2010 at 02:54 pm

Ten years ago, before all this technology, I taught an introductory course which I, actually, enjoyed. It wasn't a difficult surbey course at all and I made it entertaining. But, the final consisted of a 200-question exam, eash question worth 1/2 point.
To catch my suspected cheater I gave everyone but the suspect the same test--changing the answer key to the last 25 multiple choice questions on the cheater's exam. Not only were the identical answers copied from the fellow "A" student (believing they had the same exam) but the 2-hr exam was completed in the time it would take to fill-in a 200-question answer sheet. It was known the student in question needed an A on the final to pass and 25 wrong answers would mean an F or at best a D. Those last 25 answers were identical to the cohort in crime sitting akimbo. Interestingly, you would think the student would have (at least) looked/checked to see if some of the possibly known answers were correct; but no, answers were filled-in without any edit. I insisted on proof reading one's exam before handing it in as a question may have been skipped and would change the rest of the circled answers. The student who allowed answers to be copied got all but one of the last 25 answers correct. Guess what? The cheater filled-in that wrong answer also--now, making the two different tests' last 25 answers, identical. The pathetic thing about all this is? The honor code institution looked the other way when the obvious proof was presented. Outcome? No punishment, no confronting the student in question, admin people (Dean) looked the other way. The parents paid tuition in cash. Need I say more? Yes. One more thing: The semester grade, however, stood. "F."

4. viermont - March 29, 2010 at 03:43 pm

This article makes me wonder if we aren't looking at homework assignments, regardless of discipline, in the wrong way. Instead of expecting students to work individually and in private, we might want to take the other tack and encourage them to consult one another and as many other available resources as possible; after all, isn't that we do--and are expected to do--as scholars and researchers? Thus, a homework assignment might require students to list at least one "source," if not two, for their answers/responses. The source could be the textbook or it could be a fellow student, who could be thought of as a "colleague." And it could be a website. My own colleagues in English often sniff at the idea of using Wikipedia, which is more subject to manipulation than the publications in Orwell's 1984, but such shaky ground could be a means of teaching students about the constructed nature of our knowledge. With fair and rigorous tests as a back up, as Prof. Pritchard proposes, students would then have to confront the usefulness of sources.

My own teaching experience abroad and in the US suggests that Prof. Pritchard's "studio" model has many benefits. In a literature class I co-taught with Prof. Brian Norman, who is now at Loyola, we asked students working in groups to generate topics and thesis statements based on the texts we were studying; students later were asked to choose one of these to explore in short writing assignments, which formed the basis of their culminating research paper for the course. We found no evidence of plagiarism; instead, students drew on classroom discussion and our on-line forum (WebCT), which, from our point of view, helped the students understand the nature of academic conversations.

Based on my experience overseas working with engineers in several different task-specific domains, such a collaborative approach reflects the work place where most actual engineering design and problem-solving tasks are carried out. Prof. Pritchard's studio model thus strikes me as an effective introduction to the field, as well as a solution, at least in part, to the problem of plagiarism.

5. drfunz - March 29, 2010 at 08:02 pm

Homework is for the students' benefit. If they wish to cheat, they lose out. I do not grade homework anymore. I assign it and post the answers; the students check it. If they wish to consult, they may. They are told that there will be no "consulting" on an exam or quiz. If they do not know the answers or cannot figure them out, they can see me and I will help them. However, if a student gets below C on an exam, that student gets a special set of propblems to work out before he/she is allowed to sit for the final exam- there is no answer key available - except to check back with me on the answers.

Homework... you can lead them to water but you can't make them drink.

6. vesselin - March 29, 2010 at 09:03 pm

The article is very gentle in pointing a serious problem. Starting with the title: "... Professors Bear Some Blame..." which should have been "Professors Must Bear Most of the Blame..." after all they are the one who should know better - if they were actual dedicated educators. The current system is next to blame - as it is often the case in many activities of our society, most people would avoid making a commitment to an honorable cause, so that professors try to pass the buck to administrators ... and now we can start our blaming game ... but the reality is that if a professor wants to cut the head of the dragon - he/she can do it (ghostlight has given us a nice example), but this will make the professor unpopular... and everyone would be pointing to him as the campus monster that is scaring students off, which is not good for the HE industry, isn't it?

Nice marketing 11886649 but did you really expected/intended to reduce the use of cheating websites by advertising them more? I am sure Course Hero web page will get even more attention after this article. For example, I just bookmarked it and plan to use it in my next class; I will probably try to see what answers my students could find there and to try to use this information... but how many professors would try to counterattack by using the resources the students are using?

The article gives nice examples along with the comments that professors can find a way to deal with the problem but is the system and the society encouraging such actions? Are the professors protected? For me the answer is no - actually in most research universities lectures who have no job securities are the one to teaching undergraduate courses.

So the real question is would any of these articles and comments make a difference? Probably not, at least not in the near future, but it was an opportunity to let it out... I am sure if a professor would really like to go the extra mile and combat cheating in his class he can find a way. So the real question we should be asking ourselves individually is: do we what to deal with it?

7. vesselin - March 29, 2010 at 09:13 pm

I agree with drfunz, but sure enough there would be some objections to this method. For example, graduate students are often used as graders and this is how they earn some of their money to pay towards their education...

8. chemmilt - March 30, 2010 at 05:28 am

First, I allow on-line collaboration in learning how to do problems. Second, no two students get the same problem since these are generated randomly for each submission. In other words, I allow students to collaborate on methods but not on specific problems. Of course, the homework is not a make or break item when it comes to grading.

9. lawman11 - March 30, 2010 at 06:55 am

Part of the problem consists of legal standards. Dealing with cheating seems to me to be the closest thing there is to a legal adjudication system in which regular people, that is, non-lawyers, are called on to make what in essence are lawyerly judgements. Businesspeople are also not lawyers, but they use them. In-house counsel could be helpful in all stages.

10. bobfutrelle - March 30, 2010 at 07:01 am

I tell all my (computer science) students the following: In a job in the real world, everyone has a different "assignment". So you will have no opportunity to "cheat". My students at Northeastern understand that better than most, because starting in the second of their five years they have co-op jobs, real jobs as full-time employees for six months at a time. As soon as they've had their first co-op experience they typically become more serious about learning, because they realize that it's knowledge that enables them to succeed.

In order to develop software for a project in industry people use a variety of online material, discussion groups, books and papers of all sorts. But if they don't know the fundamentals, they can't understand and apply what they find. I have students tell me, "Boy, I'm glad I learned such-and-such in your course, because it helped me succeed in my interview or job."

So the ultimate final exam is the real world. I tell them that that's the exam to prepare for. Some of them take my advice, others are foolish enough or lazy enough or not smart enough or simply haven't yet figured out how real life works. I had a close friend who went bankrupt in mid-life because he wasn't doing the studying and "homework" needed to keep abreast of computer science and eventually was unable to find a job. Sad.

- Bob from Boston

11. jacquie427 - March 30, 2010 at 08:04 am

Technology becomes a mediated reality. The idea of access to skills based knowledge 24/7 needs to be celebrated. Curriculum based on memorization rather well developed inquiry and application andragogy needs to finally move forward. Cheaters to poorly in proctored settings.

12. unused_user_name_727 - March 30, 2010 at 08:06 am

The idea that students should be working in a shell is so interesting. It never even occurred to me as a student that I shouldn't work with someone else on my homework. How else do you figure it out? I guess that is peer-to-peer teaching. Copying someone else's work and presenting it as your own is clearly wrong (and, as demonstrated above, doesn't do the student any good), but learning from the resources at hand ought to be encouraged. Afterall, struggling through homework problems in intro physics is how you learn in the first place.

13. 22228715 - March 30, 2010 at 08:12 am

I like Bob's ideas. The problem is not whether or not we've figured out ways to outsmart them (although we probably can). The problem is that the whole problem is framed incorrectly.

By positioning college and coursework like a commodity to be purchased, framing their degree like a cheeseburger to be bought, we contribute to them missing the point.

Even this article seems to frame cheating as a sin, like stealing. That's not the point. It's more like 'cheating' on your diet, or on your exercise routine. If you wanted to be on the football team, would you pay some freshman to work out for you? What good would that do, and who would suffer the impact of it when it came time to compete for a spot on the offense? Are there other metaphors that could help students to get it?

I think (most) of our students are smart enough to figure this out, if we help them to understand WHY they should be doing homework. When we play into the small-picture game-playing, it doesn't help them, and it makes us look foolish and irrelevant.

14. nyhist - March 30, 2010 at 08:24 am

as a humanities professor my experience is somewhat different from that of the science/engineering profs who have commented so far. I do try to keep tabs on plagiarism in my classes by tailoring writing assignments carefully. And when a student plagiarizes I do see it as a personal insult, as students I've caught realize (or I hope they do) after I fail them in the course (that's on the syllabus) and report them to the academic integrity hierarchy.

15. lee77 - March 30, 2010 at 08:29 am

LIke #12, I was rather baffled by the notion of 'cheating' on homework - homework for me often meant working with others, or using whatever resources I had at hand (pre-computers). Take home tests were different - there was an expectation of 'do-it-yourself'. For one class, the students had copies of the profs past finals and many of us studied from them - it wasn't until I took the final that I realized the prof didn't even bother to change many of the questions from his past exams. Did I cheat? I didn't think so - I used a common study approach of using past exams as a good predictor of what future exams might look like. (And I was using the material as a study aid, so it did reinforce the class material) However, if this is considered cheating, then the prof is to blame, since simple rewording of the questions could have eliminated memorization as a critical success factor.

16. landrumkelly - March 30, 2010 at 08:35 am

When I have used mandatory homework assignments, I have simply noted with a check material in my gradebook that the material was turned in--not assigned a letter or number grade. There simply is not time to grade homework, much less monitor it for cheating.

The grade for the course is derived overwhelmingly from the regular test grades. Those who might be cheating (and they are no doubt legion) will be "caught" by their inability to do the exams.

My philosophy is that, if students wish to waste their time copying homework, then it is their time to waste. In any case, I am not going to let their own propensity to waste their time by cheating carry over to my wasting my time trying to catch their cheating. They will, after all, be caught in their own web of deceit when exam time comes. Homework ought to be optional, in any case. If they do not do it, they can pay the consequences.

17. nbcglx - March 30, 2010 at 09:18 am

This is the 21st Century where individuals, companies, countries, etc. all collaborate on a very grand scale. Why would we expect anything different for students? And quite frankly, we should demand that students work together on even the most simple of things. After all, in a global society the key to success if collaboration. So, rather than trying to find ways of eliminating "cheating" in its various forms, embrace how students of the 21st Century communicate and learn and tailor the teaching/learning process to it. Education, and higher education in particular, is such a stodgy industry with antiquated practices. It's time to move on and catch up with our clientele (i.e., the students).

18. jab829 - March 30, 2010 at 09:26 am

I guess I need to worry about my own ethical standing, because I'm underwhelmed by the seriousness of this issue. Cheating on tests and papers is a major offense, but homework? I think the problem takes care of itself when said students do poorly on their tests. Whatever grade boost they get from doing the homework (which is often a completion grade anyway) is more than canceled out by poor test scores, right? I'm not losing a lot of sleep over this one.

That said, I'm an English teacher, and what frustrates me is not plagiarism, but stupidity. I've got better things to do than play detective. If I suspect a paper is plagiarized, I run a Google search for a random sentence. If it doesn't turn up, I move on with my life. Sadly, though, it usually does turn up. Students, how lazy can you be? At least plagiarize from a source that I can't easily find with a few keystrokes!

19. eserfeliz - March 30, 2010 at 09:46 am

I'm a junior undergrad at Florida Atlantic University; I've only one class where my homework is checked and graded -- my computer application development class. The other professors assign homework, but don't mandate that we complete it and they don't grade it. Why? Honestly, the concepts tested on our examinations mirror the homework that we're given very closely. Those students that don't do the homework quite often receive failing grades until the light bulb goes off and they start doing homework.

I think worrying about students copying homework -- even putting students in a position where they feel that copying homework is a good idea -- is utterly silly. I mean, if our system of education cannot get students that are properly motivated to do simple assignments for their own edification, then perhaps the issue is larger than some kids cheating on homework.

20. seraphpendragon - March 30, 2010 at 09:49 am

Of course they look the other way. How else can we keep the athletes in school so they can play? College seems to be less about learning and more about sports. That's just my view of it, but it'll be hard to dissuade me from that one.

21. rrowlett - March 30, 2010 at 09:50 am

Many posters here are confused about the purpose of graded assignments. It's not about getting the right answers, it's about evaluation of an individual's academic progress and mastery of the subject matter. Sure, in a real world setting, individuals might be expected to collaborate to find a common solution, and the purpose of the excercise is to find an answer, not to find out who knows the subject area best. However, in an educational institution, an important responsibility is to evaluate learning outcomes for each individual student. The answer itself is not terribly relevant (it is already known for homework problems) except to demonstrate that the student may have accrued some subject area knowledge. For some courses and assignments, it makes sense to encourage students to collaborate, and in that case all collaborating students should be assigned the same evaluation for submitted material. But for assignments intended to evaluate individual student mastery, collaboration defeats one of the principal purposes of the assignment, and is unethical. Ultimately, this is a matter of ethics.

Personally, I do not grade homework assignments in introductory courses, but rather rely on exams where collaboration is not possible. Students are expected to do homework in order to perform adequately on exams. In upper level classes I do assign extended take-home assignments, and make it very clear that these are to represent the work of each individual student so that I can properly and fairly evaluate their mastery of the subject matter. Some collaboration occurs even here, but the in-class quizzes ferret out those who did not do their own work. In the end, those students who did not make the effort to learn the material themselves only cheat themselve out of an education in the subject area.

22. mikelutz - March 30, 2010 at 10:05 am

Part of the confusion I see in the comments so far reflects the fact that "homework" covers all work done outside of class. In engineering, math, and science courses homework often consists of "problem sets;" exercises designed to reinforce concepts presented in class. Thus students who fail to do this work get their comeuppance during exams, as the necessary knowledge is not deeply imprinted.

In the humanities and social sciences, however, homework is more likely to be a research paper. The goal is the same - deeper understanding of the discipline - but the mechanism is radically different. When I was in school (back when dinosaurs roamed the earth) it was always the case that term papers were weighted much more heavily than problem sets; thus the legitimate concern about plagiarism on such assignments.

I teach courses in software engineering, where "homework" often combines both approaches. In such cases, the term paper component is worth much more than the problem set component, and I am correspondingly more upset by group work on the former than the latter.

23. eacowan - March 30, 2010 at 10:11 am

nbcglx has it right: "... we should demand that students work together on even the most simple of things." I find the verb "demand" perhaps a bit strong, but I support it. After I had completed my graduate studies, I saw the TV show "The Paper Chase," in which the law students were shown working things out in study groups. Now why didn't I think of that? So I began merely suggesting to my undergraduates that they could do so much better if they hacked out everything in study groups to nail down the subject matter and do very well indeed. Unfortunately, hardly any of them took me up on the suggestion, and their grades reflected it. More unfortunately, however, the administrative fixation on "retention rates" and "graduation rates," both largly phony numbers, and not upon real learning, undermines the academic process and tends to support cheating even at some universities where the faculty are seriously advised by administrators not to fail any students. (Yes, such "universities" do exist.)

24. zuotang_zhang - March 30, 2010 at 10:38 am

High-tech-enabled cheating is everywhere and there is no sufficient way to stop it. However, cheating as an academic misconduct can be eliminated in many ways, the problem is it is time consuming to do the "research" work on the students research assignments. What I have found so far is that, as an instructor, I sometimes feel so frustrated when I see a flawless piece of writing from my student, which is always certain that it is from authors whose names were different from that of your student. I am teaching an academic reading and writing class of international students and writing assignments are given on weekly bases. Each week I spend at least one and half hours on copying and pasting sentences or fragments from my students' writing to Yahoo or Google to see whether there are matches. Then I copy the url and past it onto the students' paper and remind them to honor the original authors when they cite or quote, otherwise the action will be considered plagiarizing. But sometimes they talk back, saying they are NOT cheating! This is one of them--
I just read your comments, The information about the
author is from the book and wikipedia, but i changed
the words and the order of the words so i do not find
it as plagiarizing.
So now the question is: Is it still considered cheating or plagiarizing if a student "change(d) the words and the order of the word"?

25. unclejim - March 30, 2010 at 11:06 am

A story from the pre-Internet days that connects with the "consistent system" and "talking to each other" themes: In the late seventies I was TA'ing freshman writing in the English department of a certain Big Ten university which shall remain nameless here. When I detected my first plagiarism case, it was by virtue of noticing disturbing similarities between the paper in question and another student paper written for another TA which was submitted as an example in a required training seminar for first-year TAs (how many institutions do this?) In attempting to decide on an appropriate penalty (F for the assignment? F for the course) I tried to discover whether this was the studen's first offense, second, fifth, or whatever, and was astounded to discover that--at an institution which was then rumored to have the highest administrator-to-student ratio in the Big Ten--*no one was keeping track.* Given the academic-integrity values I had absorbed at my undergraduate school (Kenyon), this felt something like meeting an alleged surgeon who didn't know what a scalpel was. Sounds like things haven't improved.

26. jbarman - March 30, 2010 at 12:06 pm

Echoing the points made by poster #23, I taught graduate finance courses online for a university where giving an "F" for plagiarism was vehemently discouraged by the administration. Instead, I was instructed to keep working with offending students until their papers passed muster.

Effectively, 10%-15% of my students every term would turn in plagiarised papers knowing that a) I would either not catch the plagiarism (unlikely, I checked every paper), b) if I caught the plagiarism, students would be given limitless chances to make corrections, or c) I might cave under the weight of having to check both plagiarism and the actual content of the paper (imagine that).

I stopped teaching for the institution after a couple of years because I was there to teach finance - and instead I was teaching correct attribution (heck, I would have taken "any" attribution).

I was fortunate that I was an adjunct and could afford to simply stop teaching. I can just imagine the frustration of full-time faculty who don't have that choice (as well as adjuncts who can't afford to just stop).

27. johntoradze - March 30, 2010 at 12:24 pm

The measure of a man is taken when decisions are made that are not easy to make.

28. commserver - March 30, 2010 at 12:39 pm

I want tell of an experience from several years ago:

I was teaching a Business Statistics class as an adjunct. I usually give a take home final. I told my students that if anyone got at least 90% on the final I would give A for the course.

A student was so desparate to get an A he went online to a particular "service". He send me his answers. Unfortunately, he provided the wrong values. In an effort to give partial credit for his work I noticed a water mark. I examined it and saw that it was for the service.

The moral of the story is that the student wasn't smart enough to know how to copy and paste the results.

29. pchem - March 30, 2010 at 12:42 pm

I think it was Shaw who said "Ethics is what you do when nobody's looking."

If we care about our students, we care enough to help them become professionally ethical in their outlook and behavior.

30. anichka5 - March 30, 2010 at 12:56 pm

@22228715 - cheating IS a sin, just like stealing. Who raises their kids telling them that cheating is just a little bit bad?

31. jsgabin - March 30, 2010 at 12:57 pm

Bottom line: I do not want to drive over a bridge designed by someone who cheated in engineeering school. It's a shame that valuable time that could otherwise be devoted to teaching and research has to be given by professors to outwitting the cheaters. But it has to be done.

32. jab829 - March 30, 2010 at 01:02 pm


Anytime a student uses information from an uncredited source or sources, whether he/she changes the wording or not, it is plagiarism. In other words, if it didn't come entirely out of the student's own head, and he/she didn't cite the source(s), it's plagiarism.

To be fair, this is a common misunderstanding. If the student made efforts to change the wording (thereby, in his/her mind, avoiding plagiarism), as opposed to wholesale copying-and-pasting big blocks of text (passing them off as his own writing), I would probably explain the issue, give him/her a 0, but offer a chance to resubmit. But I'm also a pushover, so. . . Good luck!

33. deanthayer - March 30, 2010 at 03:19 pm

I think there's something important to remember when evaluating the behavior of these young adults: they're still developing into responsible adults. Students enter into college with a variety of life experiences and psychological afflictions that come along with them, and these make for complexity in unravelling why students cheat. I found these statements resonated with me as I read the article and comments.

"the dishonesty reveals flaws in the very way science is taught, and indicates an unhelpful spirit of "us versus them" between professors and students."" -author's account of Pritchard's statement

"Who raises their kids telling them that cheating is just a little bit bad?" -anichka5

"If we care about our students, we care enough to help them become professionally ethical in their outlook and behavior." -pchem

Students are likely to map their prior experiences with their parents and other authority figures into their past onto the professors and administration of their college or university. I certainly think we should be concerned with whether or not the students have a sound ethical framework, but also whether they believe collegiate authority figures to be allies or adversaries. Perhaps cheating could be viewed as a symptom of a disorder that needs treatment. Uniformly imposing harsh punishment could serve to reinforce a student's outdated map that all authority figures are intent on his destruction and not to be trusted, while institutional apathy could reinforce the misguided notion that ethical compromise is an effective way to get ahead. It's a tricky issue for sure.

34. studycommittee - March 30, 2010 at 03:42 pm

History proves that the counter-intelligence is always a step ahead of the intelligence. (Your students WILL be able to trick you and cheat) It's a simple matter of the number of individuals committed to the respective cause. If you care, change the way your assignments are structured, if not, good for you - I think it's obvious who loses in the end when they don't grasp concepts.

35. eacowan - March 30, 2010 at 06:07 pm

When I was in graduate school at one of the Big Ten, one of my professors would hand out an exam (blue books) and leave the room, though he also laid a few rolls of Life Savers on the big table just to keep us going.

I tried that in an advanced undergraduate class at "my" university, and the papers came in with a note attached to one complaining about cheating. It seems that, when the best student had completed the exam and left the classrom, a group of students picked it up and circulated it around the room. The tests I got back showed that many students had 1) crossed out their own writing and 2) copied the student's answers verbatim. This led to the offenders' receiving a grade of zero on the exam. I eventually photocopied the exams and took them to the VP for Student Affairs for some disciplinary action. I placed one offending exam on top so the VP could not fail to see it: It was written by his own daughter...

36. hurricane - March 30, 2010 at 08:45 pm

eserfeliz is exactly correct.

In other than software development classes, I assign problems from the text and lab manual, different ones every term, but sufficient to see that the student understands the concepts. I let the students know that I expect them to develop their own answers, but that I also expect them to discuss the questions in their study teams. Four students on one team wound up with an F for the course and were reported for a judicial hearing (and subsequent punishment) during the first year I taught at one University. When they each came looking for a reference from me I carefully explained that their behavior in that first class meant that the only thing I would say in the letter was that each student earned an F in the only class he/she took with me. The jungle drums took care of removing the likelihood of cheating in subsequent years.

In software development classes, I've developed about two dozen profiles of companies and assign the development project based on the profiles. Companies are recycled at most every four years and the same project never assigned to a company where the software has been developed previously.

The students know I expect them to ask questions about the theory in class and we will frequently have lengthy discussions based on the content of their questions. But, they're remarkably good about developing their own writing styles and styles of organizing and thinking about things.

As for teaching introductory courses, the two courses where I had the most fun with the students were remedial where they all struggled, but realized that they needed to do their own work so they could get on with their degrees. Teaching them (a) fun things to think about with numbers in their everyday life and (b) ways to apply their growing numeracy skills in teaching their own little kids about numbers, which was possibly the most effective thing I've ever done in teaching.

37. mdernaika - March 30, 2010 at 10:16 pm

I teach in humanities, so I have to check every paper for plagarism. I get around some of this by useing software that detects cheating, but I also make the students write in stages, checking each stage. They then have to turn in all stages with their final projects. This isn't just to catch cheating, although that is a great side effect. It helps students know if they are on the right track in stages so they don't get stressed at the last minute.

I don't check their homework assignments, but I also tell them that if they learn the materials, it will help them on quizzes and projects. If they cheat, they lose. Those that listen do well. Those that don't take me seriously end up failing. If they can't be bothered to learn for themselves, I won't waste my time worrying about them.

38. morungos - March 31, 2010 at 12:11 pm

If you can't immediately tell who is cheating and who isn't, then it's best to re-think the assessment. I used to teach web development, and in the early days of web development, *everyone* used to take portions from other people. That was how we all learnt. it only becomes plagiarism when you pass it off as your own work.

My solution to this was to rethink the task. I made it a scenario where the student had to put together a portfolio of work that demonstrated their unique skills, with the pretend aim of competitively securing a contract. Now I had the small problem of consistency in grading, but it actually turned out fairly easy, as the criteria could easily be established against professional skills. And the element of competition meant that assessments which were identical would (a) stand out, and (b) be diluted by comparison to others.

We had a pretty strong approach to plagiarism, and I was once involved in an appeal hearing at the top of the institution, as an independent panel member. It was treated with great respect and fairness to all sides. Many appeals were upheld because it was not clear that students had actually understood what plagiarism is. And given a large proportion of students from cultures with different approaches to learning, I completely understood that.

But, hey, if you want to be sure students know what plagiarism is, you better teach it, and even assess the teaching. Then, if students pass that, they cannot really claim that they didn't know what they were doing, and risk of appeals drops immediately. For this reason, we implemented a professional studies component, which covered ethics, professional standards, and it was mandatory.

I don't buy the technological detachment argument. Students are basically going to try to achieve tasks as quickly and easily as they can. If the task is defined in a way that makes that possible, it's more the fault of the task than technology that makes achieving it easy. If a faculty member set a task that involved adding 100 numbers and people used a spreadsheet program, would it be the program to blame, or a stupid task.

Instead, try to get students engaged in the task. Give them control over the task. Don't bore them and then blame the technology.

39. johntoradze - March 31, 2010 at 12:26 pm

#38 - And sitting in an alcove in a hallway one day I overheard one student say to another around the corner, "Just put on your thickest accent and say you didn't know it was wrong. They always %$@% !$%%." Laughter. (Two middle eastern looking students.)

Naive multi-culturalist ideas about students from other cultures not knowing are just that. Those students know. But they also know that you are a pushover who has no clue that their culture is far more draconian. Word gets around that they can get away with it and just tell lies if they get caught. That makes cheating into a "must do".

40. rpoulin - March 31, 2010 at 05:53 pm

WCET - WICHE's Cooperative on Educational Technologies has been studying this issue in an on-going manner. You might find this resource helpful: "Best Practice Strategies to Promote Academic Integrity in Online Education" http://wiche.edu/attachment_library/Student_Authentication/BestPractices.pdf

This was produced as a cooperative work by WCET, the UT TeleCampus, and the Instructional Technology Council. While the focus is on online education, the document includes a number of strategies that are equally relevant to promoting a culture of academic integrity within the classroom. It provides suggestions relative to institutional policies, fostering a community of academic integrity, faculty and student support, and, as has been noted in several comments, testing and assessment strategies that may make it more difficult for students to cheat.

41. davi2665 - April 01, 2010 at 08:52 am

It is disheartening to read the lame excuses offered by some of the commenters, above, for why cheating on homework is not such a serious problem, because it is only homework. A lack of honesty and integrity in one sphere of activity is not just an isolated problem in that arena, but suggests a lack of honesty and integrity in other arenas.

42. applefitch - April 01, 2010 at 02:03 pm

After years of banging one's head against the wall in the futile game of preventing students from cheating themselves out of an education, from compromising the integrity of your courses and by extension the education system itself, you begin to realize the foolhardiness of such heroic devotion, of expending so much time and energy to students for whom cheating and lying is second only to breathing, to students who have absolutely no intention of learning let alone the desire, and to battling administrations that have absolutely no intention of safeguarding the educational integrity of the institution over which they've been given charge.

Yes, it's somewhat elitist to frame education today as an exercise in critical thinking, intellectual exploration, and all that old fashion nonsense. But then why do we continue to polish the façade? Why not just hand students their degrees at freshman orientation and inform they have to wait four years before they can use it? I suppose the more efficient, more revenue oriented, solution would be to grant degrees when students have made their payments in full. Honestly, is anyone naive enough to believe that university and college administrators across the country care one iota about anything other than the financial bottom line?

It's one thing to police your students in the hopes that they'll realize actions have real-world consequences. It's quite another when they know full well that such actions in fact do not. I prefer to devote my time and energy to those students who actually want to learn something from my courses and get the full value of their undergraduate education. Unfortunately, they're becoming few and far between as many of them are finally realizing what everyone else seems to already know - the folly of honestly participating in a system that rewards and safeguards those who work so hard at cheating the system but whose checks never bounce. So when in Rome....

43. davi2665 - April 01, 2010 at 02:28 pm

Applefitch has experienced the same lack of integrity from students "for whom cheating and lying is second only to breathing" as many of us have over the past years. It is easy to become bitterly cynical with the entitled students who come to expect a degree as a birthright, completely independent of accomplishment and integrity. One way to deal with this is the way medical education deals with it. The students have a LONG and ARDUOUS apprenticeship component where they are put on the firing line again and again in unremitting fashion. They must demonstrate excellent care of, and interactions with, their patients, and cannot fake it, lie their way through it, pretend that they know it when they don't, show up stoned or indifferent, or cheat their way through patient care. They are observed and evaluated at a high level of scrutiny by course directors, attending physicians, residents, nurses, and other health care workers. If they even try any of the above diversionary tactics and excuses, they are out the door. Our educational system has become too complacent, giving students mindless pap and pablum in a massive group setting, where individual responsibility and personal performance and achievement mean little or nothing. That needs to change, and to resemble an employment environment, where the employee's achievements, outcomes, contributions, and work ethic actually are important and are closely scrutinized and evaluated. The university, unfortunately, often resembles an elementary school environment, where showing up (or at least faking it) is what counts. Both the educators and their students need to have their feet held to the fire at a level that is an order of magnitude greater than the present, and actually be held accountable for real results on a personal level.

44. jnbarnes - April 02, 2010 at 08:40 am

Many of these comments (but not all) have an "us vs them" adversarial tone regarding teaching and learning. While I can understand it from some perspective, it seems rather immature to me. How do the students know that "it" (what ever it is on your assignment) is cheating in your mind if you don't tell them? When is collaboration allowed? Do you teach them to collaborate? Collaboration is a requisite skill for most industries. In some ways cheating on homework teaches collaboration; not necessarily what you intended as a faculty member but, it happens all the same. Is honesty and morality what your goal is? Then design a homework that will require it and test it (easier said than done, but better than complaining when you don't get something that you did not design for).

We need to rethink homework, exams and grades in general. I am not saying get rid of them, but at least have a real purpose when you give the assignment -- if it is busy work, neither the student nor the faculty will benefit and both will complain..

rant over....

Add Your Comment

Commenting is closed.

  • 1255 Twenty-Third St., N.W.
  • Washington, D.C. 20037
subscribe today

Get the insight you need for success in academe.