Back in December (or as we academics call it, Exam-Grading Season), esteemed commenter Ewan told us about a horrifying situation that was unfolding for him:
Probably not totally relevant, but frankly I’m still in a little shock.
Graded exams Friday evening before heading out for weekend. Noted some really strong efforts (take-home exam), some really lame, nothing special. Then: two word-for-word identical, typos-and-all, answers with *many* unique characteristics compared to all other answerers of that Q, even down to the same joke-aside-to-the-professor.
Ack, really? Check. Yep, really, and true for about four Qs (of 27) on this short-answer format take-home final (given this way because somewhat akin to Janet, I also want them to demonstrate knowledge even if they have to use a book or the net for some facts/help. Anyway..).
I’m still in shock; some details adding to shock are unpostable b/c of identification possibilities in public.
I send email to the two: “I need to speak to you regarding your final; are you around next week?”
From A: detailed reason, perfectly fine, why no. Also unbloggable.
From B: “Yes. If this has anything to do with similarities between A’s paper and my own, I want to talk with you privately.”
Well, there goes any possibility that I was wrong, huh? Wow. And what a response to send!
Oh, and: f*ck.
That last part of Ewan’s comment is relevant because I suspect some students believe that the people grading their papers are giddy with glee when they find evidence of cheating.
We are not.
It feels much more like a punch in the gut to those of us who have done our best to help our students learn the material, and who want only to see those students demonstrate that our efforts and theirs have resulted in understanding that can be usefully applied.
Cheating comes across either as not really caring about learning the material we have knocked ourselves out to teach you, or as believing that we who are grading the exams are dumb enough to be fooled, or, at best, of not trusting yourself to show what you have learned and/or not trusting us to recognize when you have tried your very best to learn the material and then to show what you know on the exam. (It’s true that doing your very best to learn the material and then to show what you know on the exam is sometimes not sufficient to earn you a particular grade that you think you need, but losing a teacher’s good opinion of you may be a more significant loss than losing a letter-grade from where you hoped to end up.)
Please, kids, don’t do the crime.
Anyway, given the word-for-word match of those four questions (approximately 15% of the exam), and the fact that it was a take-home exam (which seems to provide opportunity), and the fact that student B acknowledged, in his reply to a suitably vague request to speak to Ewan about his/her exam, that he/she was aware of a similarity between his/her paper and A’s paper, it seemed pretty clear that Something Bad Had Happened.
(All of this assumes that the students were not allowed, in completing the take-home exam, to use a classmate’s paper as a resource.)
In any case, in the aftermath of the discussion with B, Ewan took the necessary but painful step (seriously, kids, do not put us in this position!) of reporting the incident to the University.
And now, some additional information:
Just wanted to follow-up. Student A back in country, confirms the copying from student B. Which was, I actually think, to their credit. Seemed very surprised that I would have reported the problem to the University without talking to them first.
Still feels awful. A claims, and I don’t doubt, that he’s the hope of the family and being supported by aged relatives working in second- or third-world conditions to send him here, had planned to return there and practice medicine. Yuck.
Undoubtedly, any motion forward here will be constrained somewhat by the policies and proclivities of the Dean of Cheating at Ewan’s University. However, the Dean of Cheating may be receptive to Ewan’s input, as the one teaching A and B in the course where the cheating went down.
I’m guessing B, as the student whose exam was copied (and who volunteered this information to Ewan, although not before asked — more on this in a moment), did not receive the most severe penalties available. I’d think, though, that a lot would turn on how it is that B came to have access to A’s answers.
If B willingly shared the answers with A, that strikes me as the same level of participation in the crime as B’s asking for those answers and submitting them as his/her own. Snitching first may get you the better plea deal on the cop shows, but I’m not sure it ought to in an academic milieu.
On the other hand, if B’s answers were taken without B’s consent — say, because A got access to them while B was taking a shower, or made a deal with B’s roommate to access them on B’s computer while B was at another class, then it strikes me that A (and perhaps an accomplice) would bear all the responsibility for the crime here. I think that would be the case even if B could have taken more steps to secure the exam-in-progress — whether password-protecting the computer file, or hiding the paper in a desk drawer. When you’re focused on doing your best on a take home exam, you shouldn’t be responsible for anticipating and thwarting any conceivable espionage attempt.
But … the fact that B was aware of the similarity of B’s and A’s papers suggests that what went down was somewhere between these extremes, that B may have “offered help” that crossed the line under some kind of duress. This duress might have taken the form of, “I’m the hope of the family and being supported by aged relatives working in second- or third-world conditions to send me here, and I had planned to return there to practice medicine, but I totally can’t if I fail this course (or get a grade too low to get me into med school).” There might even have been a credible threat of self-harm along with the desperation.
If that’s how things unfolded, I’m inclined to say that B was over his/her head and made a bad call that came from a place of good intentions. Copping immediately to the facts when contacted by Ewan suggests that B recognized it as a bad call. Assuming no established pattern of such bad calls in B’s record, leniency is probably in order (along with an internal record kept by the Dean of Cheating to discourage further such bad calls on B’s part).
Then there’s the matter of A.
A clearly cheated — that’s what copying B’s answers is. It was a violation of the rules of the exam, and it undermined not just the letter of the law, but the spirit of it (under which the point of the exam was to serve as a measure of what the students had learned and understood from the course).
Minimally, A shouldn’t get any credit for the stolen answers on the exam — perhaps not any credit for the exam at all (since there may now be some doubt as to whether the other 23 questions on A’s exam were completed honestly).
Beyond this, the University has an interest in maintaining a record of the incident to discourage A from crossing this line again. One bad mistake in judgment when one is a student may be an important learning experience. A pattern of such mistakes is a problem that needs to be identified and addressed.
Should there be further punishment for A?
My gut feeling is that this might depend a lot on the particular circumstances. A did admit to copying rather than denying it (which is something a surprising number of cheaters will do even when presented with evidence that, absent a time-machine, it could only have been cheating), which speaks to some awareness of crossing the line. If this is really a first offense, I’d be inclined to assume that A can be rehabilitated — and then to use the resources of the Dean of Cheating to support that rehabilitation. If, on the other hand, there is a record of A doing this sort of thing before, it may be the case that some administrative sanction (maybe suspension for a term) is necessary to get A to take the opportunity to redeem himself/herself seriously.
Do A’s circumstances warrant leniency here?
I think it’s worth taking account of the pressure A feels himself/herself to be under, and to help A find better ways to respond to these pressures. (I take it this should fall to the Dean of Cheating, or the campus counseling center, rather than to Ewan — we academics are not generally trained to do counseling ourselves, and need to recognize the limits of our own expertise so we don’t muck things up.) And in some sense, I think it’s crucial for A to recognize that it is precisely A’s duties to family members and to homeland that require that A not cheat.
His/her family members are making sacrifices for A to get an education, not just a piece of paper with fancy writing on it. Getting that education means learning the material on offer and developing effective strategies for completing assignments while balancing (or juggling) other responsibilities. With respect to the end of getting an education, cheating is not an effective strategy.
Serving people in his/her home country as a physician will require that A get the relevant knowledge, not just the appearance of knowledge. While it is the case, I’m sure, that medical students and pre-meds might argue that there’s a disconnect between the subject matter taught in the classroom and the actual knowledge needed to practice medicine well, I’m guessing that doctors need to be able to make good decisions when they are feeling overwhelmed by demands. Working out sensible ways to weigh those demands and make good decisions is something any patient would want his or her doctor to be able to do. Developing a habit of cheating, on the other hand, is a way not really to deal with the demands. When a patient is in front of you, whose paper can you cheat off of?
That’s my read of this situation, but, as I’ve noted before, you commenters are incredibly smart and insightful, so please add your thoughts in the comments. I know Ewan will appreciate the input.