Adventures in Ethics and Science

In the freshman introduction to engineering class, where I am teaching the ethics module, the students have electronic clickers with which to respond in real time to (multiple choice) questions posed to them in lecture. I took advantage of this handy technology to get their responses to a few questions on cheating. I’m presenting the questions here in poll form so you can play along at home:

(In the event that Quimble is down and the poll is thus inaccessible, you can view the questions in this follow-up post.)

What do you suppose the students said?

On why they don't cheat, the majority of the students selected "I want to find out whether I really understand the material." The next highest response was "It wouldn't be fair to my classmates." Only a handful selected "I don't want to get caught and fail", and a few less than that chose "It's more work to cheat than to learn the material."

On why they might have something at stake if others are cheating, the majority of the students chose "I'll have to work with people who don't know what they ought to." Just slightly fewer students selected "Huh? It's none of my business." I found this interesting -- I guess freshman year can feel a lot like being an isolated individual navigating a strange and sometimes hostile system. Or maybe there's some better explanation for their intuition that someone else's cheating is none of their concern. The other options each got a handful of responses.

Finally, on who ought to be confronting cheating, "Instructor/TA" was the most popular response by a wide margin, with "All of the above" in second place. It would be interesting to know how tightly these response correlate with the responses to the previous question. Did the people who said other people's cheating was none of their business identify the Instructor and TA as the ones who ought to be cracking down on cheaters? On the other hand, were the folks who thought the whole learning community had a responsibility to confront cheaters also the ones who felt the cheating of others would make their lives hard by giving them lab partners who didn't know what they should?

What are your impressions of this glimpse into the minds of a group of frosh? Where would you predict that their responses might fall after 3.5 more years of school, or a few years out in the work force?

Comments

  1. #1 mikeG
    November 28, 2007

    Hmmm… It’s an interesting question. If I try to put myself into my frosh shoes, the response to the third question does change to the instrucror/ta, but the others don’t (I want to know if I “get it”, and I want my degree from this institution to mean something). All of the above was my current choice; maybe that perspective comes with age or something. I don’t know what that means or says about me but maybe that’s a bit more data for your analysis.

    I did have a tough time on the second question, though.The trust of the prof is important in some ways (I would have chosen it if it were geared more toward respect by the prof) and I really hate group projects in which the partners are worthless and dishonest. Too bad that kind of thing doesn’t end at graduation.

    Parenthetically yours,
    Mike

  2. #2 Grad
    November 28, 2007

    I think you first two polls don’t really have a good choice. Particularly the first one, needs a choice “because it’s wrong” or “because it’s dishonest.” And I’d really like a “1-4″ choice on the second one. I’m having trouble compressing my reasoning for those two questions to a single sentence.

    Confronting a cheater is a more complex issue. All of the above, but some more than others depending on context.

    I suspect my answers would have been different seven years ago when I was a freshman. But, I have actually confronted a cheater. During our final exam in Stat II (I was a senior), the gentlemen behind me were working together. Nothing I’ve found gets everyone’s attention in a room of 150 than Telling them to “knock it the f–k off” in a loud clear voice.

    The wuss of an Professor ending up not even doing anything; I felt rather cheated.

  3. #3 Dave Semeniuk
    November 28, 2007

    Years ago, I had an intro english Prof tell me the number one reason for cheating that discouraged students from cheating was, “Because I’d be ashamed if my classmates found out”

  4. #4 Craig
    November 28, 2007

    I think a good way to understand the response to question 2, is that you are not dealing with people who have any concept yet of the fact that they will spend the rest of their life in this discipline, and it’s one were knowing the right answer has life and death consequences. Instead you’re dealing with still growing kids who happen to also be nerdy enough to find math, science, and engineering interesting. Hopefully, they’ll grow out of it, but then again I’m living next to a 40 year teenager right now, so maturity doesn’t always come with age.

    Reminds me of a friend who teaches Physics. Prior to starting a lab on the speed of sound in air he told half the classes that it was 331 m/s (which it is at 0 degrees). Most of the students who that this was true somehow managed to munge their data so that they got that as a result.

  5. #5 Ewan
    November 28, 2007

    Especially after the morality discussion, I agree that Q1 needs an option for one or both of ‘because it’s wrong’ and ‘because I have agreed not to.’

    [A propos of which – I’m also a Sartre/Kantian? Really? Time for some more reading!]

  6. #6 Instructor
    November 28, 2007

    to Grad:
    If you’d gone up to the professor, and quietly mentioned to him that the students behind you were talking quite obviously about the test, he might have done something. When students abruptly make loud statements during a test, it’s not always clear what’s going on, what they’re upset about, or even who they are talking to. Communicating *effectively* with instructors is always the way to go.

    On the other hand, at some universities I’ve taught at, there have to be at least 2 instructors, including a professor (i.e. grad student TAs didn’t count for both) witness the cheating personally. This was a problem for us, because being at a very large university, we had evening exams, split into 2 or sometimes 3 different classrooms (to give students room to sit without neighbors). If cheating was observed in one room, we’d have to get on cell phones and call the professor to come observe it. In addition, the faculty frequently didn’t even attend the exams, leaving it to the grad student TAs to proctor. This meant that anyone that was caught cheating didn’t really matter. We could refer the situation to the Dean of Students, but the reality was that if lawyers got involved in any way, the case was simply dropped, no notation on the transcript, no problem at all for the student (except that the word would get out amongst the faculty and TAs to keep an eye on the student). It’s amazing how many student’s parents will sue the university when their child is a cheater, and has admitted it – they think their child has a right to get an education free of consequences of cheating despite refusing to follow basic rules of conduct.

  7. #7 speedwell
    November 28, 2007

    I don’t know whether to laugh or feel insulted. As someone who will be a freshman engineering student hopefully before I die (I’m, um, twice the age of your average college freshman), this is how I would answer your questions:

    I don’t cheat because: I don’t cheat. I’m just not the kind of person who does that sort of thing. It’s a matter of personal pride and integrity. Fine sort of machines we’d build if engineers cheated, eh? The laws of physics don’t give you too damn many second chances. (Good luck with that quantum woo, cheaters.)

    If my classmates cheat, it’s my business because: Those goddamn cheaters are injuring the reputation of my profession and making me look bad by association. No telling what would happen if they cheated on a project, and their apparatus killed somebody. (I’m not paranoid. I know of actual cases where it happened.)

    Who’s responsible for confronting a cheater: Nobody in particular. It’ll catch up to them someday. Their shoddy workmanship will break. Their boss will notice. They won’t get that promotion. They’ll be stuck in the mud someday while the people who bothered to do it right the first time sail on by.

  8. #8 qetzal
    November 28, 2007

    I wonder how honestly the students answered, esp. to Q1. I doubt most students would pick E, even if it was true, and even if they were confident the clickers were anonymous. If the prof. learns there are cheaters in class, even if she doesn’t know who they are, she may be more vigilant. The cheaters may be more likely to get caught, or it may become harder for them to cheat. Either way, it lowers their payoff for cheating.

    I also think students might avoid A, even if it was the best answer. Many people would be embarassed to admit the main reason they don’t cheat is for fear of being caught. It implies they would cheat if they thought they’d get away with it. I.e., they’re not fundamentally honest, just afraid of punishment.

    Thus, students might not pick A out of embarassment, even if they’re confident that their choice will be anonymous.

  9. #9 pelf
    November 29, 2007

    I graduated in 2004, and during my 3-year-study, I have had cheaters who openly cheated during tests and exams and flet proud about it. When confronted, they’d normally say that the lecturer was impossible, and the lecture notes were incomplete and that it didn’t hurt anybody if they cheated.

    I did not report any of the cheating cases because I knew, even if they graduated, they wouldn’t know what they were doing.

  10. #10 outeast
    November 29, 2007

    The first question is certainly biased. Like qetzal, I’m dubious as to the honesty of the answers – that’s such a model ‘what’s the “right” answer here’ response that it immediately rang my scepticism alert. I’m not convinced that avoidance of the ‘of course I cheat’ option was to prevent increased vigilance on the part of the instructor, though!

    The ‘of course I cheat’ option is too limited, as well. There needs to be a full range – options like ‘I want to find out what I know, but I sometimes cheat because I am afraid of being humiliated for what I don’t’, or ‘I don’t cheat, but I try to compare my answers with those of other students’, or ‘It’s not always cheating to copy someone’s answer – it’s not my fault if there’s something that I missed in class.’ If there are no options that fit people’s moral flexibility on the issue of cheating then the poll is bound to force the responses.

  11. #11 Cathy W
    November 29, 2007

    I didn’t like any of the answers for “Why is other people’s cheating my business?”

    The closest I can come to articulating my actual beliefs on the matter is “Because if people succeed by cheating, other people are, in effect, punished for being honest, and that’s just not fair.” It’s not just “the curve might be wrecked and my own personal grade will be lowered”, but more a concern about the integrity of the system as a whole. Thinking back to my twenty-years-ago Engineering Freshman self, that’s pretty much the attitude I had towards cheating at the time.

    Also thinking back to Freshman Me, I think I might have answered differently on the confrontation question at the time. If I’d known about cheating going on, I might have gone to the instructor or the Honor Council (U of Michigan’s engineering school had a student-administered system for handling cheating) if I could have been promised confidentiality, but I was socially awkward enough that I would not have wanted to risk picking up a reputation as a tattler.

  12. #12 djinn
    November 29, 2007

    Science geeks? Question 1 should have had as a possible answer “Because I trust my knowledge of the material better than my classmates knowledge;” plus a shout-out for answer “it’s wrong,” too.

  13. #13 Ian
    November 29, 2007

    When I was an eng. frosh I would have answered
    1. It’s more work to cheat than to learn the material (the halls where we had our first year exams were crawling with procters so one would have needed to be especially clever/sneaky)
    2. It would wreck the curve.
    3. all of the above.

    I think the “it’s wrong” arguement doesn’t hold much water with most students – lots of things are wrong (ie. drugs, double parking, etc.) but it doesn’t stop people from doing them. I also think your students were trying to please you.

    In my experience the best reason not to cheat has always been the minimal long term gain one derives from it. Sure you might get all A’s but you won’t actually know anything and when you get that interview you will invariably come off sounding like an idiot and not get the job. Lack of knowledge ultimately shows through.

  14. #14 Nick
    November 29, 2007

    Like many other posters here, I didn’t like the range of responses available for the first two questions. For question 1, I’d say that I don’t cheat (or didn’t cheat; it’s been a long time since I’ve been in a classroom) because I don’t need to, and because I’d feel like a fraud and a liar if I did. That response might be seen as an elaboration of option 2, but I think there’s really more to it than your option allows. For question 2, my response is that it’s my business because I don’t want to live in the sort of society where deceptive and fraudulent behavior is considered acceptable. Again, that may fit partially under response 4, but the distinction is important; it’s not just that I don’t want to be surrounded with incompetents at work, I also don’t want to be surrounded by brazen liars and frauds in every aspect of life.

    Maybe I’d want to summarize my answers as, “I don’t cheat, and I don’t want anyone else to cheat, because society as a whole is the worse for it.”

  15. #15 Joshua
    November 29, 2007

    Or maybe there’s some better explanation for their intuition that someone else’s cheating is none of their concern.

    I think the reasoning is something along the lines of “They’re only cheating themselves.” I.e., I don’t really care if another student gets caught or fails to learn or experience whatever consequences I believe cheating to have.

  16. #16 greg laden
    November 29, 2007

    I think that engineering students understand that you are able to tell which students push which buttons. So they strive to give the answer the Ethical Professor would want to see.

    They’re all creationists too, I’d wager…

  17. #17 Amy
    November 30, 2007

    I don’t cheat because I don’t need to, because I trust my answers more than my classmates’, and because it’s wrong. Additionally, I find it problematic if people are cheating. It’s just like when I was in freshman physics. I was disturbed about how much difficulty people had with the material, given that someday a lot of them would be building things that need to be safe. Same thing with cheaters — if you’re not smart enough to get this stuff, it’s important that employers know that and don’t give you responsibilities you can’t handle.

  18. #18 Matt
    December 5, 2007

    The only time I ever cheated in class was actually due to an inverse of Q1.3. Our teacher had decided that the right course of action (this was in high school), was to make everyone in the class retake the quiz on a table of function values again every day, until there was a quiz that everyone passed.

    As this dragged on into the second week, and I realized that I was one of only a few people, or maybe even the only one holding the class back, that I of no rote memorization skills perhaps ought to start consulting a cheat sheet.

    Although some people will always cheat because they think it’s a way to get along without work, I suspect we exacerbate the problem by promoting competition in education when we don’t need to. In most situations, helping someone else figure out something they’re stuck on is considered teamwork, not cheating.

    Also, IMHO, “Because it’s wrong” would not be a good answer to the first question, because this quiz is from an ethics course, and in ethics “it’s wrong” is a question, not an answer.

  19. #19 Benjamin Franz
    December 6, 2007

    Bad poll. You’ve set up a bias in your questions that will definitely skew the answers towards ‘non-cheating’. Confirming that opinion, studies have put the rate of college cheating at multiples of the rate you got.

    You in essence asked a question like

    “Why are you a virgin?”

    Because God will punish me.

    Because I’m afraid of getting a disease.

    Because I’m afraid of a pregnancy.

    Because its immoral.

    I’m not a virgin.

    which established a social expectation that a ‘right’ answer will justify that bias of being a virgin and only as an afterthought ‘oh, yeah, it might be possible’ added “I’m not a virgin” answer.

    Unsurprisingly, polls set up like that don’t give any useful information.

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