A professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology devised a clever way to detect student cheating on homework in his introductory physics course—and found about 50 percent more cheating than students reported in anonymous surveys. And he discovered that frequent cheaters ended up bombing their exams.
The professor, David E. Pritchard, led a research team that analyzed student performance in an online homework system called MasteringPhysics.com during four different semesters. The researchers were able to measure the time spent on each question and look for suspicious work patterns. If a student took less than a minute each answering 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,” said the researchers in a paper due out today in the free online journal Physical Review Special Topics–Physics Education Research.
Based on later surveys of the same students, researchers found that the culprits typically copied answers from friends, by logging onto a friend’s account on the system to copy work or by getting answers via e-mail or instant message.
The goal of the research was to see how homework copiers did on later exams, where presumably fewer were able to cheat, and to try to understand when and why students cheat on their homework.
Not surprisingly, the cheaters performed far worse than other students come test time. But the degree of impact surprised Mr. Pritchard—students who frequently copied their homework scored two letter grades lower on comparable material on the exam. More students cheated later in the semester than in the beginning, and many students surveyed said that time pressures led them to copy a friend’s work.
“If you look at the self-reported data, over half the kids think receiving unfair help is either not a big deal or trivial,” Mr. Pritchard said in an interview. Among other reasons students gave for cheating: “I knew this pretty well from my high-school physics course so it was only review,” and “not motivated to learn physics because I don’t enjoy it and it’s not needed for my major.”
Mr. Pritchard said that many professors turn a blind eye when students cheat on homework. “A lot of people are willing to forgive copying because they think those students are weaker— that they work as hard but just aren’t as able to get them,” he said. But he said their research showed that cheaters were most often those who waited until the last minute to start the work and that they copy answers before even trying the problems.
The professor said he did find a way to greatly reduce cheating on homework in his class. 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 of them.
It might help that he shares findings from his study to his students, showing them that cheaters are much more likely to get C’s and D’s on exams than those who work out homework problems on their own.