Adventures in Ethics and Science

Once again, I’m teaching the relatively new ethics module in “Introduction to Engineering”. Today was the discussion of what kinds of ethics might reasonably govern an engineering student’s behavior, and how these might be important on the road to becoming a competent grown-up engineer.

So of course, we talked about cheating.

The students in the course all have i-Clickers, which means I can ask them questions and have them indicate one of up to five multiple-choice answers, then look at the results immediately and discuss them. In one of the sections I taught today, a majority of the students indicated via their i-Clickers that they think it’s none of their business if their classmates cheat.

So, I asked for some of the students who chose that response to give their reasons for this opinion. (Many of the students looked startled that I would ask about reasons.) One student said, “If you involve yourself in someone else’s cheating, you could ruin their whole life! You don’t want to do that to someone else.” In response to this, a few other students started applauding loudly.

Snitches are not well loved in learning communities, obviously.

Still, there are some things about this answer that probably bear closer examination. (Sadly, we couldn’t get too deeply into it in class — there was more material to get through.) Among other things, what strikes me here is:

  • The assumption that something being your business requires that you intervene in it.
  • The assumption that intervening if a classmate is cheating requires turning them in to an instructor or administrative type.
  • The assumption that being turned in for cheating has a high probability of ruining your life.
  • The assumption that fellow students who make choices that have a high probability of ruining their lives deserve your protection.

OK, first off, a first offense cheating charge (here, at least) doesn’t get you kicked out of school. You might have to repeat a course, but seeing as how the point of taking the course is to learn the material, it’s not a life-wrecking punishment.

Also, I think you can have identifiable interests that don’t necessarily commit you to specific action. I mean, you can certainly care if one of your classmates cheats, since it has the potential to affect you in various ways. If grading is on a curve, non-cheaters can have their grades pushed downward by cheaters. If you need to work with your classmates on lab projects, possibly it will be a problem that they don’t know the material they’ll need to know — stuff they might know if they had learned it rather than cheating. If your instructors catch your classmates cheating, they might suspect the whole lot of you are cheating — which makes life harder for the non-cheaters who deserve their teachers’ trust.

To the extent that you might care about the effects someone else’s cheating could have on you — but still feel a kinship with your classmates — I don’t understand why confronting the cheater directly wouldn’t be an option. A direct “Dude, that is not cool!” seems like it could address the situation — at least communicating your disapproval — without getting the authorities involved. It might even make the cheater think a little about who all is affected by his cheating.

Finally, what I don’t get is, if students see cheating as an act which, if detected, has the potential to RUIN THEIR LIVES, why is it an act so many of them manage to do? With much less risk of destroying everything, couldn’t they just expend a little extra effort to study and learn the material? What kind of cost-benefit analysis are these kids using?


  1. #1 Hank Roberts
    May 2, 2008

    As a consumer of engineered products, may I venture to say that this response scares the bejebus out of me?

    How about the lives of the people in or around or under the buildings, bridges, aircraft ….

    I long ago knew someone who was the chair of an Architecture department. He taught the Structural Engineering course that was required for graduation with a degree from his department.

    He gave only 2 grades — A, or F.

    I like that approach in life critical design. And what that these students intend to be doing deserves less than that?

    And they don’t plan to tell someone if a peer is _cheating_?

  2. #2 Janne
    May 2, 2008

    They’re engineering students. Many of them will spend their career designing or maintaining equipment that can kill people if done improperly. And yet, these students risk bringing this “anti-snitch” view into their workplace where the consequences can be rather more disastrous than a slight shift in the grading curve.

    Ask them if it’s still wrong to snitch if their classmate isn’t cheating on a test, but cheating on the building code for a railway bridge, or ignoring the requirements for a failsafe for a hospital breathing apparatus? And ask them, would they be happy to see people that apparently have no compunction about skirting rules in this manner as colleagues?

  3. #3 Citronella
    May 2, 2008

    I think the main reason why no student is going to say “wow, dude, that isn’t cool” to someone who is cheating is that saying it makes the student who spoke uncool. Not the cheater. Cheaters are not all geeky/nerdy. They’re cool.

    I can clearly picture the conversation:
    – Man, cheating is so not cool!
    – What do you care?
    – Well, the fact that you cheat affects the class as a whole (etc…)
    – And so what are you going to do about it? Turn me in?

    Oh, and the cost-benefit analysis is probably the same as for most offenders: they don’t expect to be caught… because they are so smart.

  4. #4 nanoAl
    May 2, 2008

    You might want to emphasize to them that they can’t cheat in the real world. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere near a building designed by an engineer who cheated through all of their structural classes. This matters after the tests, they teach this so that you KNOW it. I don’t see how anyone wanting to be in a position of such societal trust could stand themselves as a cheater.

  5. #5 PhysioProf
    May 2, 2008

    The students in the course all have i-Clickers, which means I can ask them questions and have them indicate one of up to five multiple-choice answers, then look at the results immediately and discuss them.

    That sounds kind of spooky. Do you have buttons that you can use to shock them in the ass if they get a wrong answer?

    What kind of cost-benefit analysis are these kids using?

    They’re using a form of analysis they’ve learned by watching teevee “reality” shows such as Survivor and Big Brother, in which lying and scheming is enshrined as the highest ideal of sportsmanship and in which “victory” is the only concern. They have also learned from seeing things like the Scooter Libby commutation and the hiring of convicted felons such as Elliot Abrams that lying, cheating, and fraud are not impediments to service at the highest levels of the Federal Government and enshrinement as “heroes”. They have learned from seeing the President and Vice-President of the United States flat-out fucking lie to the American people day after day after day after day that lying in the service of some “cause” is perfectly fine.

    Almost every aspect of the pop cultural and political life of this nation revolves around glorifying lying, cheating, fraud, and scheming. Is it really any wonder that your students have incorporated this shit into their moral calculus?

  6. #6 Andrew
    May 2, 2008

    I believe it’s the one where effort is a huge cost.
    These are students after all. 🙂

    Seriously though, it would be interesting to see how many of those who voted like that would point out case of cheating if that case was genuinely going to effect themselves. I suspect there will be a big gap between what people are saying and what they are actually doing – there usually is.

  7. #7 Anonymoustache
    May 2, 2008

    Anecdotal, but FWIW: In my experiences/conversations with young adults, at least one part of the problem stems from, for the lack of a term, the ‘baseball’ mentality, which involves the perceptions that 1) Sure, you may profit a bit, but you are not really hurting anyone, 2) You never rat on a colleague/peer (locker room code), and 3) (And this is underestimated, but huge) If you’re not cheating, you’re not trying hard enough. I’ve seen this last one taught, by commission or by omission, repeatedly in team sports—over time the mentality gains traction as ‘accepted practice’ in many kids who part-take in organized sport and even in many students who do not participate in team sports. It is, at times, even glorified mistakenly as a desire for excellence, the desire to gain an edge, the killer instinct etc.
    I am not saying this is THE basis of the problem —just that I have seen this to be prevalent enough to believe that it is an issue. Like it or not, organized sport influences millions of kids every day, whether personally or via TV/radio/intartubes.

  8. #8 Old male geek
    May 2, 2008

    As an engineer by training and a former engineering student I am familiar with the cheating problem. Of course, I doubt that the cheating situation is much different for say, Russian literature students. The fact of the matter is that most undergrads are still adolescents and very much guided by peer pressure. Their peers are fellow students, not the faulty, and it takes courage to realize that, yes, our fellow students can be hurt by the cheaters and then to speak or take action concerning that. Unfortunately many of us human beings follow the survival instinct of “follow the herd,” instead of exercising leadership skills to counter the problem.

    I will admit that as a 19 year old, over burdened, mechanical engineering student (in our day 18 to 20 semster hours of coursework was not uncommon) I fell to the temptation of some forms of cheating to get through the snoozefest electronics course. Of course, yes, as an adult I realize that I was only cheating myself. I do hope that something rubbed off on your students, but cheating in class is probably as old as universities themselves!

  9. #9 bob koepp
    May 2, 2008

    (Many of the students looked startled that I would ask about reasons.)

    Well, maybe you need to take a short pedagogical step back and impress on your students that ethics is about the _reasons_ we adduce for our actions/inactions. Unless they grasp that point, they’ll probably go through life unable to distinguish between morality and jerking knees.

  10. #10 Sean Walker
    May 2, 2008

    I wonder what would happen if you talked to them without their peers present.

    The social costs of being a ‘snitch’ are quite high and students would not want to be perceived that way. In a sense it’s like a prisoners dilema where everyone knows if you defect.

    I’ve had conversations with students where they talk about how much they don’t like cheating but these sorts of conversations never happen inside a classroom with lots of other students.

  11. #11 David C. Brayton
    May 2, 2008

    When I was in school, there were shades to cheating. For example, in Calc III there were lists of formulas that you needed to memorize for things like a hyperbola in polar coordinates. In the real world, if one needed that, she’d go look it up. And the chance that she ever used that formula for anything other than that test is remote at best.

    Then there was the real cheating–plagiarism, cribbing other student’s work and the “buying term papers from the internet”. This type of stuff meant that student did not train their brain.

    So, cheating is a bit more than black or white. Consequently, the responses are a different. (That is not to mean they should be, but they are.)

  12. #12 lonelyShoes
    May 2, 2008

    David brings up a good point. I remember back in high school that some students would program formulae into their TI-82 memory banks during Physics and Calculus classes. They simply didn’t consider it to be wrong. These same students had varied reactions to two other students who were attempting to look over each other’s shoulder during exams, ranging from nonplussed to outright disgusted. Perhaps the definition of cheating varies depending on who you ask 😉

    Also, it seems like there are at least two types of cheaters: the desperation cheater, who does it as a last resort and never (hopefully) does it again, and the habitual cheater, who considers cheating just another tool in the toolbox. At least, that’s what I’ve observed in the wild.

  13. #13 Matt
    May 2, 2008

    I disagree. One episode of cheating could very well ruin your academic career.

    I think the major motivator of cheating is procrastination.

  14. #14 Robert Bird
    May 2, 2008

    It’s not a very reasoned response, but I have the same response to these jerks as I would to the ex-gang memebers who promulgate this steaming pile of feces: I’ll stop snitching when you stop stealing (or killing, dealing, etc.).

    I think that the “stop snitching” ethos occurs where the violations are not easily detected by the people responsible for enforcement and where the cost of the violation to others is not easily determined. Also, I think that since the winners generally get to set the ethics (or rather, lots of people care little for anything other than success), the benefit to winning by any means to the person engaged in cheating is significant, and if something bad happens later (a bridge collapse, for example, because you didn’t know what you were doing), the hope is that other winners of like mind will lump everyone in the process together to avoid blame. Everyone wins…except the honest people and the people you (supposedly) work for, but they don’t matter, anyway.

    This gets under my skin quite a bit.

  15. #15 Julie Stahlhut
    May 2, 2008

    3) (And this is underestimated, but huge) If you’re not cheating, you’re not trying hard enough.

    Maybe this needs to be changed, by strong and relentless social pressure, to “If you ARE cheating, you’re not trying hard enough.” Cheating needs to be considered, at the very least, a sign of incompetence.

    There seems to be some confusion about the idea of “ratting out” a cheater. I’m not personally a fan of strict honor codes, because they can be interpreted as requiring participants to report rumors. It’s very easy for a malicious person to cause a lot of problems for an innocent classmate this way. Also, someone who finds it unethical to report an unsubstantiated rumor can be put in a very bad spot.

    But it has to be emphasized that confronting actual cheating is NOT malicious — in fact, it can even be altruistic. First of all, sometimes people cheat because of a single episode of panic, unpreparedness, laziness, or lack of confidence. When this happens, getting caught and punished can provide a good attitude adjustment, and a deterrent to further misbehavior. At the other extreme, some people seem to be proud of their ability to game the system, and work at it much harder than they’d need to work at actual learning. Those folks need to be weeded out in a hurry.

    My graduate institution has what I consider an excellent policy regarding academic dishonesty. There’s an administrative committee that handles these accusations (faculty and other instructors are REQUIRED to report evidence of cheating, so students can’t claim that teachers arbitrarily single them out.) There will be a hearing, and the student will be found either “responsible” or “not responsible” for academic dishonesty. There are explicit consequences for a finding of “responsible” (don’t remember whether it’s failure on the assignment or in the entire course.) This remains on the student’s record until the student graduates or leaves. If the student is sufficiently impressed to refrain from further cheating, the case is considered closed. But, if the student is accused of and found responsible for cheating again, the record of recidivism is right there, and the student can be expelled from the university.

  16. #16 Becca
    May 2, 2008

    Interesting topic.
    I don’t cheat, and never noticed anyone doing it, so I never had to question whether I would rat them out. I fully agree that the best solution, where feasible, is a direct comment to the student that will dissaude them “Hey, that isn’t cool!” or “I know you are stressed, but let’s figure this out together” (for the chronic and acute cheaters as characterized by lonelyShoes).

    Personally, I think the zero-sum game of grading on a curve, psycho-competitiveness and taking performance in a class as a life-or-death situation (just because these students have future ambitions of bridge building) are all signs of a truly twisted and sick learning environment.
    I think cheating is a symptom of those problems as much as a moral deficiency on the parts of the students.

    Of course, my opinion may be unduly influenced by having been a lofty-minded “learning-for-learning’s-sake” grad school focused goat among competitive “an-A-isn’t-an-A+!!!”, “but-I-deserve-that-half-point!” medical school fixated wolves.

  17. #17 Karen
    May 2, 2008

    Cheating certainly predates today’s pop culture. As an engineering undergrad in the late ’70s, I never saw anyone actually cheat, but pushing your own grade up by bringing everyone else’s down was certainly a popular pastime. Critical homework solutions placed in the library would mysteriously lose their middle pages. A fire alarm pulled the night before a major chemistry exam caused everyone to be evacuated from a study hall; half an hour later, when students were allowed to return, their chem text books had all vanished.

    Currently studying for a career change, I’ve noticed in small upper-division science major classes that students do NOT appreciate cheating. “So-and-so copies” would be whispered around the room, and that person would find him/herself physically isolated during the test period. A student who removed some shared material from a lab got a long, collective scolding when the instructor was absent. These students rarely turn people in for cheating, but they don’t tolerate it either.

    On the other hand, cheating is so rampant in the non-major classes that professors go to great lengths to control it. Two copies of every exam get created, with the same questions sorted differently, and handed out so that no two adjacent students have the same exam. Cell phones are banned during the testing period, because some students photograph material for reference during a closed-book exam. Turnitin is used, or papers are graded with Google handy to run phrases that don’t quite fit the writing style of the rest of the paper. It’s rare for our professors to get through a single semester without having at least one serious cheating incident per general education course.

    So whether students currently think cheating is okay seems to be partly based on how critical the class is to one’s future career. Your engineers may feel more comfortable cheating on a History or English paper than a structural engineering exam.

  18. #18 anon engineer
    May 2, 2008

    Anecdotal experience in engineering: Cheating isn’t related to procrastination as much as anyone thinks, maybe to gen eds, but sure as hell not engineering classes. I’ve had to cheat just to get things done on time and/or learn, since the Prof & TA just weren’t useful.

    The typical engineering student lives on 4-6 hours of sleep, and will fall behind more than a few times. Do the math.

    And there is no possible way to “cheat” in your professional career. Get this: Using reference material is encouraged!

  19. #19 Karen
    May 2, 2008

    Anon engineer,

    how does cheating help to learn? I’m having trouble imagining such a situation. As far as cheating to get everything done on time, there’s always the alternative time-management scheme of taking an extra year to finish.

    Also, what makes you think that there’s no way to cheat in your professional career? I’ve known managers to steal their engineer’s ideas and present them as their own; I’ve seen people stroke a rumor mill so their colleagues get shafted in the next raise cycle (the distribution of X dollars in raises to Y engineers, presumably based on merit); I’ve watched news stories of an entire company that cheated by selling open-source software as its own. I’ve even seen senior engineers concoct spurious justifications for introducing XYZ technology to a project, so they can acquire experience working with it before looking for their next job.

    You can justify any sort of dishonesty if you disable your conscience enough. It sounds as though you’ve certainly taken the first steps down that road. Please don’t go further.

  20. #20 soft_guy
    May 2, 2008

    You may think someone is cheating when they are not. The consequence of a false positive is more serious than not reporting a suspicion. Morally, snitching is worse than silence for this reason unless real injustice is being done. The cheater may be hurting the class, buy he is hurting himself much more. Therefore the net amount of injustice is small if any.

  21. #21 Theo Brominet
    May 2, 2008

    This reminds me of a story from a few years ago at Carleton University: Up to 31 engineering students were under investigation for cheating on an essay. Ironically, the essay was an assignment for an engineering ethics course.

  22. #22 Tony Jeremiah
    May 2, 2008

    Finally, what I don’t get is, if students see cheating as an act which, if detected, has the potential to RUIN THEIR LIVES, why is it an act so many of them manage to do? With much less risk of destroying everything, couldn’t they just expend a little extra effort to study and learn the material? What kind of cost-benefit analysis are these kids using?

    “…the strong influence of peers’ behavior may suggest that academic dishonesty not only is learned from observing the behavior of peers, but that peers’ behavior provides a kind of normative support for cheating. The fact that others are cheating may also suggest that, in such a climate, the non-cheater feels left at a disadvantage. Thus cheating may come to be viewed as an acceptable way of getting and staying ahead. (p. 533)”

    Cheating in Academic Institutions: A Decade of Research (McCabe, Trevino, Butterfield, 2001)(pdf)

  23. #23 Hank Roberts
    May 3, 2008

    Engineers buy things.

    The things they buy have specifications.

    Is it cheating to supply off-spec material to an engineer?

    Is it cheating for an engineer to save money by using off-spec material?

    Is it snitching to disclose off-spec work?

  24. #24 Theo Bromine
    May 3, 2008

    Engineers buy things.
    The things they buy have specifications.

    Is it cheating to supply off-spec material to an engineer?

    Is it cheating for an engineer to save money by using off-spec material?

    Is it snitching to disclose off-spec work?

    (Disclaimer: I’m an engineer who likes to think, and I consider myself ethical, but I’m not a philosopher.)

    I see 3 players in this case:
    A: the Supplier
    B: the Engineer
    C: the Observer

    Clearly, it is cheating for Supplier to claim that the material they are selling meets the spec if it does not. Equally clearly, it is cheating for Engineer to knowingly use off-spec material.

    However, there are complications that make the situation much less straightforward: If Supplier is offering a much better price than their competitors, Engineer will be under a lot of pressure just to take the deal. But what if Engineer suspects that the price is good because the product is not up to spec? What are their obligations to investigate? On the other hand, what if Engineer chooses to buy off-spec material that Supplier knows is inappropriate for the intended application? It would be difficult for Supplier to refuse to sell the material in such a case.

    As for Observer, by some definitions, it is considered “snitching” to report bad behaviour that could get someone else in trouble (not to mention the trouble it could cause for the snitcher). Nevertheless, it is Observer’s moral obligation to report mis-representation and fraud. Over the past few years, many organizations have tried to assist people in Observer’s position by implementing “whistle-blower” policies and procedures, and anonymous ethics hotlines.

  25. #25 lytefoot
    May 3, 2008

    I TA’d a gen ed calculus course, and I detected a fair amount of what I’m sure was cheating… nothing with enough evidence to be actionable, but enough that I’m sure my suspicions were well founded. The interesting thing? Nobody ever benefited by it. None of the papers that were clearly the result of cheating had a correct solution. Some of them had correct answers… but correct answers following a bunch of nonsense never got anyone any points.

    We made up two versions of the exam papers, and we regularly saw correct answers to the other version. The two versions were printed on different colors of paper, and we made it clear to everyone what the different colors meant.

    The cheaters didn’t pick up on either of these patterns over the course of seven quizzes and a final exam. It blows my mind.

  26. #26 Interrobang
    May 4, 2008

    I think it’s interesting that “ruining someone’s whole life” by getting involved is a primary motivation not to do something. I mean, not that I’m advocating ruining people’s lives, but I’ve also seen an awful lot of people get away with egregious amounts of bad behaviour because everyone said, “You’ll ruin his [usually “his”] life if you accuse him…”

    To be more specific about where I’ve seen it the most, peer-pressuring people into not reporting wrong-doing because the accusation will ruin the alleged perpetrator’s life is usually rape-apologist’s logic…

  27. #27 Cherish
    May 4, 2008

    I have to say that this is something I simply don’t understand. I try to, though, because I had some students last year whom I caught doing it. I gave them zeros on the work that was copied. One of them never said anything, and the other came to my office and started out being hostile and then tried to lay a guilt trip on me with some sob story.

    I do see that there are some major problems with the program that I think cause cheating: too many classes (the idea that you have to cram 6 years of classes into 4 years), too much stigmatization if someone can’t keep up, the general competitiveness of the program which is certainly not discouraged by some of the teachers, etc. It would make much more sense to me if professors would encourage students to back down on class loads and not treat people like idiots if they don’t do well in a class.

  28. #28 Citronella
    May 4, 2008

    About what motivates a cheater… I’ve never cheated, but if I had, it would probably had been in one of the classes I had to take to fulfill the requirements of my program but that I wasn’t interested in. I know they are all supposed to be relevant to what your future job/studies will be, but as a now-graduate student in CS with a focus on machine learning, I have very little use for all these undergrad networking classes I took and worked for (very inefficiently, of course), barely passed and do not remember. The thing is, I had time to work on them even though I disliked them, I needed no more than a barely passing grade in them thanks to my good results in other classes, and cheating goes against my principles… but I can easily see how someone could decide to cheat in this situation.

  29. #29 Samia
    May 5, 2008

    If I saw someone cheating in one of my classes, I’d let the professor know right away. Jeez.

  30. #30 Miss Outlier
    February 14, 2009

    To add to the anecdotal evidence, I’d like to offer my experience as an undergraduate mechanical engineer and back up some of the commenters here who note that cheating has different shades.

    I knew of only one student in undergrad who cheated on a critical assignment – where he took a calculation he didn’t know how to do and used it as his own. Inexcusable, of course. He dropped out the next semester.

    The vast majority of cheaters I knew (and, sadly, was myself a couple times) cheated on things they already knew how to do. If you have 30 similar problems, and you do the first 10 and understand the concept, it’s hard to do the other 20 on your own when you could just look at the solutions. It’s also hard to memorize a dozen complicated equations, when you could just note them in your calculator.

    In both those examples, the cheating has nothing to do with understanding the concept. The people who had to cheat because they didn’t understand the concept ended up dropping out, because even if you cheat you can’t make it through engineering without understanding the material.

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