Academic Dishonesty

I had a somewhat drama-filled day yesterday. First, two students had isomorphic take-home exam solutions. I emailed them to ask what happened, and both replied briefly by email. Student A later came to my office to explain: he had taken the other student’s \LaTeX code and simply changed some of the variables. They had worked together on the solution, but Student B knew about the “align” environment. Student B gave the code to Student A, and Student A absent-mindedly neglected to include his wording, rather just keeping Student B’s wording.

I asked Student A what he thought would be a fair resolution. He said that he should not be allowed a redo for half points (edit for clarification: I give my students a second chance on midterms. They can resubmit with a chance to regain half of the points they miss. In other words, they get to do the exam twice, and I average their two scores This student forfeited his second attempt.), and he would write a letter of apology to Student B for stealing the solution. I found this to be reasonable.

Here was my part in this event:

  1. I emailed both students letting them know their solutions were a little too similar.
  2. After a couple of response emails from them, I emailed back the exact problem that I saw—it appeared one had just copied the \LaTeX code from the other.
  3. I listened to the student’s suggested fix, and agreed to it.

I am sad that this happened at all, but the rest of the process went smoothly. I have found that students do unethical things like this, but they are pretty quick to own up to it. Your mileage may vary in these situations, but I think that there are two key things kept this bad situation from being terrible: I have students who are truly interested in “doing the right thing” (they fail sometimes, but don’t we all?) and I make a conscious effort to treat them like adults. I wonder what would have happened if I had threatened the students with a poor grade on my initial email; it may have turned out the same, but I doubt it.

My second bit of drama involved a homework assignment. A significant number of students (probably more than half) had clearly copied a solution from Yahoo! Answers. This was obvious to me because there were aspects of the solutions that were common among many students, but were extremely bizarre. A quick Google search led me to find where they had gotten the answer (I was actually relieved, since I was truly hoping that my students were not creating the weirdness on their own). A couple of students understood the notion of plagiarism and cited the Yahoo! Answers page, further supporting the result of my Google search.

So I had the unpleasant task of lecturing my students on honesty, integrity, the purpose of homework, and the value of good sources (Yahoo! Answers is not a good source for mathematical solutions). As I said before, my students genuinely want to do the right thing, but I fear that they are not very good at it; I have had to give this lecture once every semester I have been here. This makes me sad, but it is a good reminder that my students are only 18-23 years old and still have a lot to learn.



4 Responses to “Academic Dishonesty”

  1. Matthew Leingang Says:

    Nice idea to write up this case study. A question about wording. You say student A though “he should not be allowed a redo for half points.” Did you mean that he said he should?

    Of the colleagues I’ve talked to about this kind of thing, the most successful tactic seems to be to put the cards on the table. I would not usually allow students to choose their own punishment; rather I’d have a policy from the beginning that would be implemented uniformly.

    Another thing to keep in mind is that cheating can be a symptom rather than a disease itself. Sometimes a good student is undergoing so much stress that they take this way out. Not at all to say that the behavior is excusable, only that there might be something else to deal with besides the cheating.

    I’ll tell you some of my favorite cheating stories offline sometime. 🙂

    • bretbenesh Says:

      Hi Matt,

      I tried to clarify your first question in the post. As for having a policy in place, I have a concern that this might end up as a self-fulfilling prophesy: if you treat students like cheaters, then they will act as cheaters. Of course, I have not been having a lot of luck with what I have been doing, so I might give your method a shot next semester.

      Question: have you ever let the students decide the cheating policy at the beginning of the semester?

      Finally, I really appreciate your comment on cheating being a system. At the very least, it gives me an excuse for a mini-rant on grades. After all, we have created a system of grades where actually rational to cheat. The values of our education system are of “achievement” rather than “learning.” If we went to a system that de-emphasized (better yet, eliminated) grades, cheating would almost necessarily decline.

      We’ll chat offline.

  2. Matthew Leingang Says:

    Good point about the self-fulfilling prophesy. I have a policy but I don’t put it on the syllabus. Also, I have a lot of students (about 270 this term), and I can’t appeal to all their better angels.

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