Thursday, March 12, 2009

On Teaching & Cheating

In case anyone is wondering why I didn't write much about teaching last fall but I am writing a lot about it so far this year, there are 2 reasons:

1 - My teaching load is variable from year to year and term to term. Unlike some other departments/institutions, we have no fixed teaching load. My teaching load varies depending on the needs of the department relative to courses being offered and faculty available to teach them, whether I am team-teaching or not, whether I am on a research leave/sabbatical (or not), whether Mercury is retrograde, and the mood of the department chair. This term, I am teaching more than I did last term.

2 - It's not just the number of courses being taught in any one academic term but also the SIZE of a course that affects the magnitude of its psychic footprint on my soul. (Was that a turgid sentence?). In a small course, professor-student interaction is dominated by discussion of the course material and other interesting things. In a large course, the interactions have a more significant component of discussion of grades and the Complex Lives of the students. This term, I am teaching a large course.

Hence, more posts than usual about Teaching.

My large class has required a lot of emotional energy lately because I have had to deal with some cheaters.

Part of my general philosophy of teaching is that I trust my students until they give me reason not to. I assume that they won't cheat. I believe them if they say that they have been to every class. I believe them when they say a grandparent died the night before an exam. Both of my grandfathers died within 3 weeks of each other; this would have looked very suspicious to a professor who didn't know me.

As happens all too often when teaching a large lecture class, however, some students give me reason not to trust them, and I have to deal with a Cheating Incident. I hate dealing with Cheating Incidents.

I do some routine but fairly unobtrusive things to discourage cheating:

- I discuss scholarly conduct and put something about the honor code on the syllabus.

- I have assistance from at least one TA during exams so that I can hand the test forms out quickly and so that there is one other person helping answer questions during the test. Having one other person roaming the large lecture hall may help discourage some cheating, although that is not my motivation for having an assistant during tests.

I do not make multiple copies of exams and ensure that adjacent students have different versions of the test. I do not make students sit apart; this would be impossible given the seat : student ratio in the lecture hall. I do not have an army of TAs patrolling the lecture hall during tests. I used to have students sign an honor code statement on each test, but didn't find that this made a difference.

In the situation I had to deal with recently, I saw one student glancing repeatedly at another student's exam. I kept the two exams separate when they were handed in, compared the documents, saw the same strange but identical wrong answers on each one, and knew for sure that I had a Cheating Incident. I suppose if cheaters knew the answer to a question well enough to make a stab at it themselves, they wouldn't write down the word-for-word strange wrong answer of the person sitting next to them.

My colleagues who have brought cheating incidents to the attention of the scholarly conduct committee that deals with such things say that it is not worth the effort, especially if the only things you have to go on are (1) observation of a student glancing at another student's test; and (2) similarity of tests. What if the student was gazing into space or finding inspiration in the dance of the dust motes and wasn't actually focusing on someone else's test? What if the two students studied together? Yes, they studied together and somehow this studying together involved their practicing the same bizarre wrong answer to a question they anticipated.

So what are my vigilante-professor options? Accuse the students separately, hope they break down and confess, and give one or both of them a zero on the test? Do nothing and assume that one or both of them will go through life cheating and that's fine because cheaters never win and winners never cheat, or whatever?

This time I decided on the following course of action: I explained to each student why I believed they cheated, asked if they had anything to say to that (neither one did), I let them keep the grades they 'earned' (they each got a D- anyway), and I told them that for every other test they must sit in the front row but not next to any other student. They agreed, seemed relieved, and now everyone is happy.

Fortunately, there is the wonderful concept of Spring Break, which allows us all -- students and professors -- to get recharged and ready to experience the academic adventures that await us in the coming months.


Anonymous said...

I had a cheating ring! Their asses have to go to academic honesty workshops every week for the month.

When I figured it out, I read alot online about cheating and how to stop it/deal with it. Cheaters cheat for 2 reasons: they feel cheating gets them a better grade and the opportunity to cheat is present. So, that meant that I was partially responsible for the "opportunity available" part.

I told a colleague about the cheaters - he said "if you are gonna go forward with the academic affairs office..." and I think I had a confused look since he stopped midsentence. Like I WOULDN'T turn the cheaters in??!!?! Apparently REPORTING cheaters is something "profs don't do 'round here!" Yeah, well - this prof reports cheating. wake up call.

The students have been 'testier' with me, in person and on email, since I threw the gauntlet down about cheating. I give 4 versions of the test, large lecture hall packed full, and have TAs to watch with me. Dealing with cheaters is exhausting and I've become a test nazi.

I will say the support staff are absolutely fabulous - they hauled the cheating morons in, grilled them, and threw the book at them. So far, I've had no parents to deal with but all the students came to apologize to me for their behavior. They got the "do not do it again" line from me.

Anonymous said...

FSP, do you think that making an (spectacular) example out of this pair might discourage other students from cheating in your class in the future? I'm thinking that you might get a rep as being "one of those" profs who doesn't look the other way.... I've had limited teaching experience and thankfully never had to deal w/this situation.

Anonymous said...

I feel that all cases of cheating should be reported. Students take courses from several departments throughout the university. If professors are not consistently reporting all cheating incidents, students which repeatedly cheat could skate through with several small slaps on the wrist. This is punishing the students which get their Ds honestly.

Anonymous said...

In giving exams to my moderate sized classes, I make one exam, but make copies with two different colored covers. I then pass out the different covers alternately to students once they are seated.

This won't work forever, but I can create a little uncertainty in the minds of people who might otherwise be tempted to copy from others around them.

A more painful option (for me) is to actually make multiple different versions of an exam. If I became seriously concerned about people cheating in exams then this would become worthwhile.

Anonymous said...

I once had a group of students copy several (wrong) answers word-for-word. (The honor code at that school was rather extreme - professors were not allowed in the exam room during test time. We had to sit in the hallway outside the door and wait for students to come out with questions.)

I did take it to the committee that dealt with such things (with copies of the exams, with identical wording on essay questions underlined in multicolored ink). The students all confessed, and were suspended for a semester.

I don't think my response was too much.

Anonymous said...

My colleagues who have brought cheating incidents to the attention of the scholarly conduct committee that deals with such things say that it is not worth the effort, especially if the only things you have to go on are (1) observation of a student glancing at another student's test; and (2) similarity of tests.

When it comes to cheating, university committees usually fall in one of two categories: the ones who believe that given reasonable evidence the onus is on the student to disprove the case (as in a civil case), and the ones where the onus is on the professor to prove beyond all possible doubt that the cheating took place (as in a criminal case).

Temp Prof said...

FSP- I was just working on my own post in which the same situation occurred. I was looking for suggestions on how to deal with it.. and I really like yours. I did confront the cheater immediately following class (as it was very obvious, and like your situation their "wrong" answers matched the person's paper they were cheating off of) but wasn't sure what to do about the grade. Give them a 0? Give them the bad grade they got? I kind of feel like giving them a grade higher than 0 lets them know they can get away with cheating. But again, I've not 100% wrapped my head around this.

Alyssa said...

...say that it is not worth the effort...

That is a great problem at many universities. Even if there are 10 profs/TAs that witness cheating, it's still a lot of time and effort to put in to deal with it. So, kudos to you for actually doing something about it!

Anonymous said...

That brings back fond memories of one of my intro-level physical geology class. It was in a lecture hall that seated 500 and was nearly full. The professor had a gaggle of 5-10 students cruising the aisles, the exams were color-coded (scantron, of course), and no one was allowed to wear hats.

The thing that got me, aside from the fact that cheating would've been pretty difficult in that environment, was that the prof dropped an exam. But I suppose if you blow the first two, you might feel the need to make up for it later.

Yet every semester, he always found a couple people cheating.

Anonymous said...

Reporting it has always worked out well for me. I can't tell the honesty of students by talking with them - I assume the best like you do. My university gives them a few chances before they fail a course and get a Q on their record for cheating. That way, if it's a one time thing they learn their lesson by going through the process, and if they repeat it in another class the punishment is harsher.

Marciepooh said...

I have to tell you my bizarre wrong answer cheating story.

When I was teaching 7-12th grade science (yes, all of them), I had two copies of the teacher's edition for the Earth Science text. One day, several of the boys (8th graders) took the extra copy off my bookshelf and copied the answers to the chapter review. I couldn't prove they had cheated on the multiple choice (and so I gave them credit for that part) but all of the short answers were exactly as written in the TE with one exception. The last ("discussion") question's answer started with "Student answers may vary." and then went on to answer the question. The guys copied down the "student answers" bit and about half of the next sentence, but not enough to begin to answer the question. They tried to deny that they'd copied it! (I may have actually laughed at that point.) This incident gave me a little concern for their reading comprehension skills. The spoke to the English teacher.

fillyjonk said...

Here's a story that's funny, except it really isn't.

My dad was teaching one of the large-section Intro to Geology courses. He had an army of TAs to help him patrol during exams. One of the TAs came to him and said, "I think this pair of students is cheating, but I don't feel like I have enough clear evidence to yank their tests right now."

My dad told her to keep watching, and that he'd watch the pair as well. He agreed - it might have been cheating, or it might not.

So he told the TA he'd take care of it.

The next lecture section, he announced: "During the test, we observed a couple of students cheating. If you come and turn yourselves in and accept the 0, there will be no other penalties. If no one steps forward we may be required to get in touch with Academic Affairs (the student group that "tried" cheating cases)."

He said that the next day, **12** separate students showed up to admit that they had cheated.

I don't know. I think I've reached the point where it's an "it's THEIR souls" feeling - I keep an eye out but I've never yanked a suspected cheater's paper (I do use Form A and Form B tests). But cheating is one of those things that bugs me a lot.

Anonymous said...

I think addressing cheating, in whatever active way you feel appropriate and on whatever scale it occurs, is absolutely necessary - not just for you, not just for them, not just for your current and future students, but for the entire university. I imagine many of you can remember the large scale cheating discovered and prosecuted at such places as UNC-CH and UVA in the last 20 or so years. Could that have been nipped in the bud if more professors had felt enabled to deal with smaller scale cheating when it was presented to them? Maybe, maybe not. But it impacted many lives when those instances occurred, like any widely publicized infraction - academic, administrative, athletic, or social - will for a university, especially one with a recognizable name and sufficient population. It tars everyone with a reputation that most of them don't deserve.

This dislike of confrontation at one of the basic tenets of academic work is extremely disappointing, as is the frequent attitude of 'Well, what can you do?' I'm glad to see people standing up for what's right.

Anonymous said...

I caught students plagarising off the internet all the time. Somehow they seemed to think I wouldn't notice if they copied and inserted entire pages of glowing, eloquent text in the middle of their own barely comprehensible stuff. Sighs. I'd usually dock them 10% for first-time "minor" offenses, accompanied by a stern lecture.
Once two identical reports were turned in. I marked one, split the grade in two, made a note on the reports WHY the grade was split, and handed it back without a word. It took about thirty seconds for the red-faced guilty party to 'fess up and admit that he'd copied a classmate's report and then offered to take a grade of 0, and another 30 seconds for the tearful innocent party to ask me why she was being penalized for someone else's mistake...she was quite releived to know the truth had come out and that she'd receive full credit for doing the work.
My favourite Cheat was when someone turned in a cery nicely-written report...for a lab that we were going to do next term.

Unknown said...

i was in a class where there were a handful of students who cheated. the prof knew, and had proof. (this was a genetics class)...

but rather than call the students out, she made the entire class write a 3 page essay on the ethics of cheating, based off of the researcher in japan who claimed he had cloned a human (or something similar... you get the idea).

her preface to the assignment was that one or two cheaters in a class can destroy it for everyone.

it really upped the "self-patrol" in the class. of course, it was 2 sections of 30 students... i can see how it wouldn't always be feasible in larger classes.

Anonymous said...

I guess the problem I have with this approach (allowing the cheater and the one cheated off of) to both receive the same, low grade, is that it's clear it wouldn't be fair to have the same policy if the cheater happened to copy off someone who got an A or a B. This leads to an inconsistency that I have trouble reconciling. Where's the cutoff? If they both got C-? B-? Yet I'm not sure what a better policy would be. Is it possible to be rigorous about punishing cheaters and yet be consistent?

megan said...

hah- at this very moment i am grading quizzes for a small lab, and two students who sit beside each other share 1.5 wildly incorrect answers. they sit at two long tables, but there's not really enough room to cure wandering eyes ... asking them to spread out from the first quiz is definitely something i wish i'd done. making two quizzes wouldn't be that bad. were i to confront them, though, i'm not sure what i'd say ...

Cloud said...

When I was in college, several students in my organic chem class got caught stealing other people's homework out of the boxes where we were told to hand them in, erasing the name on the paper and putting their own names on them.

I don't know what happened to the cheaters.

But those of us whose homework had been stolen for most of the quarter "got" to redo our homework for the quarter. We were all chemistry/biochemistry majors who actually liked the subject. The cheaters were all pre-meds. I try very hard not to think about this incident and others from college when I go to my doctor.

Wanna Be Mother said...

What I don't get, is why do they bother copying off of someone who doesn't even do well on the exam? That just makes them look even more stupid. Is a degree full of D's better than no degree at all? I thought you at least had to be a C student to become president...maybe they can pull C's once all the homeworks are included in their grade.

Anonymous said...

Anon at 7:55 -- good point. And as in the criminal/civil justice systems, the people living under the rules need to decide what kind of approach best serves their interests. When it comes to criminal law, we all do better with an "innocent till proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt" system. University students often don't realize this, but they all benefit from a system in which faculty receive good administrative support for reporting cheating, and proving that cheating occurred is not too onerous. The model of civil law works best for regulating cheating.

I'm very lucky to be at a school with a good honor system, where I feel fully supported when I report cheating. For my classes, the most common form of cheating is plagiarizing from the internet. Fortunately, it's easy to spot and easy to prove. I turn everything over to the honor system, they assign an XF to the student (a failing grade for the class, plus an X to mark cheating), and the student has to take an integrity class to get the X removed from their transcript. I do this for every case of internet cheating on papers; anything less seems too soft.

Doctor Pion said...

Nicely handled.

I had a similar instance (in a smaller class) with identically idiosyncratic answers on an exam from students sitting adjacent to each otherr. I had good reason to suspect one of cheating (past performance) but also good reason to suspect complicity (good student who stayed longer than necessary, not really working on the exam). My solution was also to warn them and split them up.

Interestingly, in my case the apparent cheater arrived late to the next exam and went to sit next to the apparent cheatee. No, I said, you need to sit in that seat down there, like I told you when I returned your previous exam. Epic fail on that test.

But is there a cheating phase to the moon? Just last month I nabbed a kid with a crib sheet hidden under the instruction panel for his calculator. My ancestors must have been really good hunters, given the way I spotted his use of it. Ironically, it wasn't even a very good crib sheet.

Doctor Pion said...

Anonymous at 6:19 AM -

One amusing strategy is to have two versions of the exam that look identical but differ at some point on question order or detail. Same color paper, etc, but with some superficial change (different font for the test name or the line for the student name) that makes sorting easy. A colleague uses that to great effect on multiple choice exams where the answers are on a hand-graded sheet. The result is sub-random scores for cheaters.

Anonymous said...

One of my professors makes copies of exams before he returns them to students...
He realized students were changing their answers after he had graded the exams and then asking him for additional credit (for his grading 'mistake')!

Anonymous said...

One of the best things about sites like for catching plagiarism is that it adds each submission to the database to check against in the future. A friend of mine caught a student who turned in a student's paper from the previous academic year using this method.

Anonymous said...

I served on a sort of "Academic Affairs" committee as an undergrad- when a case of cheating was suspected, students would go through the evidence, interview the people involved, and vote on a decision.

Having seen my share of cheaters, and the punishments they received, I came to appreciate the system. Because of our honor code, professors were *required* to turn in suspected cheaters to us, rather than take matters into their own hands. This kept any sort of uncertainty out of the process- professors didn't have to wonder if it was worth it to confront someone, and students had a chance to make/appeal their cases. The strong honor code also allowed for the almost exclusive use of take-home exams.

One advantage of this system was that repeat offenders were easily dealt with. Since each conviction stays in students' records, prior cases have a large bearing on what decision is handed out.

I saw a wide variety of cases of suspected cheating, from the relatively mundane (deciding whether similar homework answers were from overcollaboration, copying, or just working in groups), to the outrageous (students who confess to having cheated on every exam in their college careers). Each case, even those in which the student confessed immediately, was examined thoroughly, with the average case taking somewhere around 5-10 hours to decide. It was a time-consuming process, and probably not one that would work at a large university; on the other hand, I think we were able to do a much more thorough consideration than a busy professor would reasonably be expected to do.

Anonymous said...

Cheating/plagiarism etc is easy to deal with.

You award a mark of 0 and report them to The Powers That Be. They have the chance to appeal and if they genuinely didn't cheat, they'll be fine.

muddled postdoc said...

As an undergrad student I saw enough cheating go unpunished to make me quite angry. What was worse was that sometimes it was so obvious - like a sheet of paper with the answers being passed around or projects being completely ripped off. The worst thing was I am sure the TAs knew (I mean how hard is that to miss). Even when some of us students complained about what was going on - nothing seemed to be done. The sad case was that some of the more horrific cheaters were some of the A students who would cheat to get more perfect scores. And these would potentially be those who go into more important roles when they graduate.
The only time the honour code was followed was during the final exams but it was a complete free for all at other times. What is the point of self policing or anything if the students know they are going to get away with it.

Professor Staff said...

In my ten years as as prof, I've had 6 cheating incidents. Four fit your category of "strange bizarre identical answers." So bizarre that no amount of studying together could explain that kind of misunderstanding.
The others 2 cases were just stupid (e.g. inserting a graph that had another students' name in the title of the graph!)

It makes me wonder - if this is what I'm catching, what am I not catching?

Anonymous said...

When I was a TA, I did have one case of cheating. Some computer forensics made a very good case. The slightly interesting twist to the case was that they were international students, and one made fairly strong claims about shaming the family and suicide, etc. The prof wasn't too interested in dealing with the admin in pursuing it, so they ended up getting some mild grade penalty.

At a later point when our CS department first tried automated cheat checkers, there were rumors that around 20% of some undergrad class was cheating. They weren't used to inter-section checking being done, so the automation caught a lot.

There were also a lot of difficulties in proving active involvement in cheating. People could easily say they stole some code printout or looked at a screen while someone got a drink, so only the weaker student got punished.

Anonymous said...

Here's why I think you should forward the case to your Academic Affairs office... At my university, the first offense is a warning, and the second involves punishment. Therefore, if your cheating students cheat again in my class and I go to the bother of turning them in, they won't be punished unless you have turned them in too.

Anonymous said...

We had a prof who turned a couple of cheaters in - only to be harassed by those students and end up having to get a restraining order out against both of them. Thank goodness the administration backed her up.

Anonymous said...

What happened to my comment? May be I used a bad word. Once. Moderating is annoting.

I think it's important to emphasize what too few have even mentioned on this thread.

Cheating is not new, and it's not all about the profs. It's about the morale of the vast majority of honest students who deeply resent it when profs let cheaters get away with it.

Also assume there are going to be a few students who will cheat, so just don't give them any opportunities. It's a pain, but do it for the other students. The hand wringing is all about you.

Also FSP, if you gave them different tests how did they copy?

Anonymous said...

"I believe them when they say a grandparent died the night before an exam."

When I took a organic chemistry in my undergrad, my professor stated up front that the his course was often "hard" on grandparents, and thus no exceptions were ever granted.

Anonymous said...

Exactly the right approach under the circumstances, especially when the cheaters did not prosper (they seldom do so). It scared the dickens out of the students (these are inept rather than sociopathic cheaters), saved you endless paperwork that would have likely ended in them being "exonerated".

PS Loved the idea of different color covers for the same exam==brilliant

Mark P

Anonymous said...

One reason to go through reporting the incident, even if nothing is done is to leave a paper trail for your colleagues for the *next* time that student cheats. You may not be able to really prove anything, but after a while it looks like a track record.

So help your colleagues and deal with it publicly, not privately.

Kevin said...

Our engineering faculty voted a few years ago to prosecute every case of cheating. We also agreed that the minimum penalty was a 0 on the assignment. More common is failing the course. One 'academic integrity violation' prevents them from earning honors on their degree and two gets them kicked out of any engineering major. (They can still graduate with degrees in other fields, where cheating is not regarded as a serious ethical problem.)

The result of this vote is that the majority of cheating cases to the provosts come from the school of engineering, but that cheating is actually lower among the engineers than in other fields.

Anonymous said...

oh man, this topic gets me riled up. At my R1 where I'm finishing my dissertation, I have only caught one pair of obvious cheaters and I know there must be more. But when I did catch this pair, who were supposed to write a paper together and rang my alarm bells by turning in a paper written in the first person "I" tense, I decided that since I only had my suspicion to go on, I would just give them D's for the paper. Naturally, they complained about their final grades, to which I responded that I know they cheated and if they wanted to complain about grades then I would go over the paper with a fine tooth comb to find evidence, which I did, and then reported this to our undergrad chair. What I found most galling was that they swore up and down that they had worked so hard on this paper and they didn't deserve to get C's in the class and so on. My god. What a sense of bloody entitlement, to think that your cheating asses don't deserve low grades? I was doing you a favor to just give you D's for the assignment. (whew). anyway, it's a big problem and I don't think that we truly know how big it is...

flit said...

I once had 7 students all turn in the exact same database.... same colours, fonts, errors, everything.... not a chance in a billion that it could have happened any way but cheating.

Apparently they missed the first rule of cheating though ... find a smart person! The database didn't even meet the criteria required to pass once, never mind when the mark was divided by 7.

Anonymous said...

In my department the students chesat with the help of my faculty colleagues. I told my colleagues to stop "helping" my students with the homework and they refused to do so. Because one of them is the chair and another one was the former chair. I wrote something speciffically in the syllabus to deter the cheating and the chair recommended me in my evaluation letter to not prevent students from collaborating with other people in the department. Absolutely sick.

Taldan said...

In the end it is the environment that determines whether or not students will cheat.