Monday, November 11, 2019

A non-moral dilemma about cheating, but it brings up some points

I often give two versions of an exam and TELL THE STUDENTS I am doing this so that they don't even try to cheat. I've even had two different classes take the midterm at the same time, same room, every other seat, so the person next to you is in a different course. And I TELL THE STUDENTS that I am doing this.  A colleague of mine says I shouldn't TELL THE STUDENTS. Here are our arguments

1) Don't tell: students cheat a lot and this is a way to catch them.

2) Tell:  Dealing with cheating distracts from our mission of teaching so best to be preventative so it does not happen. Less noble- tell them so that you don't have to deal with the cheating issue.

I have heard of the following case at a diff school some years ago and want your take on it:
there was one question on the midterm that was different on the two exams- the prof changed the key number, but they were the same question really. The prof was in a hurry for some reason and FORGOT TO TELL THE STUDENTS. You can probably guess what happened next, but not what happened after that

One of the students exams had the solution to THE OTHER PROBLEM on it. Clearly cheating. When called in the student said:

Since you didn't tell us that they were different exams the cheating claim is unfair!

They DID admit their guilt, but they DID NOT have any contrition.

 Options for what penalty to go for:

1) A 0 on the exam itself

2) An F in the course

3) A notation on the transcript indicating Failed-because-cheated. I don't know what that notation was at the schol the story took place, but at UMCP its XF. (Side Note- not clear if someone outside of UMCP looks at a transcript and sees an XF they'll know what the means. But the F part makes it look bad.)

4) Expulsion from school. (This might not be the profs call- this may depend on if its a first offense.)

The lack of contrition bothers me, though the prof who told me the story said that the student may have said it out of shock- the first thing that came into their mind. I asked the prof how the student was doing in the class and the prof said, CORRECTLY, that that is irrelevant.

SO- what penalty would you go for?

The professor went for XF. The student, at the hearing, once again said

Since you didn't tell us that they were different exams the cheating claim is unfair!

The professor told me that he thinks the student was trying to claim it was entrapment, though he had a hard time expressing this coherently. If the student had been a coherent thinker, he probably wouldn't have needed to cheat.

He got the equivalent of an XF.

But here is my real question: Should we TELL THE STUDENTS that they are different exams (I think yes) or
should we NOT tell them so can catch them?


  1. You should def. tell for deterrence. Goal is not to catch cheaters. Goal is to prevent cheating in the first place.

    1. It depends on the scope, really. If you just think about your class in isolation, then this is correct. However, to deter cheating for all classes, better not tell at the class level. This way, students always run the risk of being caught, without each class needing to implement a detection system. It's a more efficient global strategy.

      Of course, if not organized, it will lead to free-riding professors who never check for cheaters, and then the whole system will converge to an equilibrium where a ratio of professors free-ride, and a ratio of students cheat.

  2. A few years ago, a student at some university contacted me and asked for information about my website (I think the university was not in the U.S., not that it matters.) They said that they were taking a software development course and they had to write a paper in which they analyzed a website and said how it could be improved. Two or three students would collaborate on the report. I said that I wasn't sure if my site was a good one for such a topic, but if they wanted to use it, I would give them some information. They asked a bunch of questions, and I provided them with the information that they wanted.

    Some time later, I asked them if they had used my site for the report. They said that they had and sent me a copy of the report. I started reading it and sent them some comments, e.g., things they wrote that were incorrect. They replied that I didn't need to bother since they were just trying to get a good grade in the course and didn't care whether what they wrote was correct.

    Of course, if they had told me at the beginning that they were just going to make stuff up and use what I sent them for window dressing, I wouldn't have bothered to help them at all.

  3. Tell the students you do but don't do it. That way you get the deterrence without having to do the extra work. Sort of like fake alarm stickers on cars.

  4. When I was in eighth grade, I was taking an algebra test. I was having trouble with one of the problems. I knew I had made a mistake somewhere, but hadn't figured out where yet. Then I heard a whisper: "Watch your minus signs." It was the teacher. She had been standing behind me looking over my shoulder. I quickly saw my mistake and fixed it. After the exam, she asked me how she should grade it. I said she could grade it however she wished.

    1. You should have said to grade based on result, since she took the initial action.

  5. One question is if the student was right about the entrapment claim. Real entrapment would be for example to send someone posed as a student to the exam who would try to engage the person next to them in cheating! A student who *normally would not cheat* may be deceived in this case, which is what entrapment means. Giving different exams without telling sounds more like the equivalent of sting operation in law enforcement, which is an accepted practice in some countries like the US but not others (and debatable from an ethical perspective). Such measures may be justifiable if there's no suitable alternative. So while I think what the professor did was not wrong, they should have told the students beforehand (and it seems like the professor actually intended to do so but forgot). Best to set the rules in the beginning of the course and stick to them. Dealing with cheating is no fun for anyone, whether the students, profs, TAs, or admins. Funny thing is, if a student is caught cheating and then "retaliate" in student evaluations, the evaluation still counts, and this may affect junior professors (think tenure). So unfortunately in a world where student evaluations make important decisions, many junior academics prefer to just not bother with cheating at all and see it as a can of worms to not open.

    1. I very strongly disagree with this reasoning. First, aligning it with entrapment is specious. Second, all of the information needed for an ethical test is contained in the delivery if the test.

  6. I agree it is more useful to prevent cheating than to catch a few cheaters. The purpose of the exam is to find out what the students have learned, not to determine how honest they are. But, I don't see anything wrong with the professor not telling the students that the exams were different.

    When I was TA-ing, I could sometimes tell that a student had copied another student's homework. There was one student who clearly had copied from several of her friends and simply concatenated the answers into an answer that didn't make much sense.

    When I was in seventh grade, I got a zero on a math test. During the exam, the student sitting next to me asked me a question. It was something procedural like were we supposed to do all the problems. Without thinking, I answered. The teacher gave us both zeros for talking during the exam. Despite that I managed to go to graduate school and get a Ph.D. in math.

  7. Can I say the idea of printing fundamentally the same test with different key-numbers strikes me as a terrible, terrible idea since it runs the risk of a simple mistake being flagged as an attempt to cheat. Clerical and Consistency errors show up all the time across all levels of education, and most marking systems are designed to allow consilliary marks to account for that. So any risk of someone getting a 0/5 when they've rightfully done the work for a 3/5 should be eliminated.

    1. You raise the good question of how different the numbers should be to avoid the scenario of which you speak.

      If in a calculus class one version has

      What is the derivative of 2x^3

      and the other verison has

      What is the derivative of 100x^2'

      then the answers are far enough apart that one can tell
      if they are cheating. I do indeed do analgous things.

  8. Note - I've been out of school for a long time, so my comment comes from that perspective.

    1. You say this is not a moral dilemma, but if you offer different students different exams, you are essentially running an A/B experiment on them. Does your institution have ethical requirements for running experiments on students, and do those guidelines include informing the student that they are the subject of an experiment? Of course, yes to both.

    2. People don't decide to cheat (or make any other moral decision) in a vacuum -- they are making a choice based on various emotional pressures that may feel more or less significant at any given moment. Some students may be dealing with all kinds of struggles that make the temptation to cheat much larger than it otherwise would be. By telling them the situation (a trivial action), you have an opportunity to shift the balance in favour of good behaviour. Given the chance, don't you have a moral obligation to do so?

    3. When your colleague says "don't tell the students" because "students cheat a lot", they are lumping all the students together - guilt by association. This is unfair, and also unkind. Surely there are students that you are almost certain would never cheat; don't they deserve to have any lingering temptation removed (as in point 2)? But the other students might be just as upstanding, only you haven't discovered it yet; best to give them the benefit of the doubt and tell them too (while still supplying the guardrail of different tests).

    4. Do students ever complain that they "might have done better on the other exam"? Confronted with an inconsistent test, after receiving any mark less than 100%, this would be my first remark. I know in one of your other comments you mentioned e.g., "derivative of 2x^3" vs "... of 100x^2", but this approach only works for the simplest of questions. If a question is of the form "prove that ..." or even if it involved multiple steps, a cheater can still gain significant advantage by looking at a neighbour for examples of an approach to the problem. If the problems are different enough that no comparison can be made between the tests then I would argue that it is impossible to make the exams of equivalent difficulty. You could try to correct after the fact by equalizing the mark impact (e.g. those with the B test had their mark drop by an average of 5% while those with the A test had a drop of 20% ...), but that comes with all sorts of other issues and would be hard to do with any accuracy unless at enormous scale.

    IMO the only way to do this truly fairly is your example of two different classes (close in size), alternating every other seat. And of course in this case the students would be aware, because they need to know which seat to use! But in this case there is no experiment to disclose, it removes as much temptation as possible, all students in each course are treated the same, and marking is guaranteed to be consistent.

  9. 1) I never thought of it as an experiment and I really doubt it is breaking university policy to not tell them.

    2,3) I actually am in favor of telling them ahead of time, so I'll leave those people who are against it to respond to this one. (I doubt they weill, blogs over a week old don't get commented on much, except for things like `click on this site' and you find its a bargain to buy tuxedos--- we block those of course.)

    4) When I make questions differ it IS only in the most trivial ways,
    but changing numbers around. I had not thought of a student getting a good enough look at his neighbor answering a similar-but-different question, and thus getting an idea of how to do the actual question assigned. This would seem to be a great effort on the students part.
    And again, I think just telling them the exams are different is a deterrent.

    I have sometimes managed to have two classes taking an exam same classroom, same time. I may do it this spring when I am teaching
    Automata Theory and Ramsey Theory. I just hope I don't have anyone in Ramsey Theory drawing DFA's, or anyone in Automata Theory drawing graphs with colored edges.

  10. You have a moral obligation to instill knowledge to a future generation. You have a moral obligation to provide the best environment that facilitates this process that is within your control. If telling a future generation in advance that you will monitor them by providing different sets of knowledge checking material and that instills greater knowledge to a future generation then you should do that. If withholding that information instills greater knowledge to a future generation, then you should do that.

    1. Knowledge of what? Ethics or the subject matter? Which is more important? I think that's really the choice.

  11. Cheating is survival nowdays. If one does not cheat, one is at a disadvantage so people are incentivized to do it. To bring out the best in them, tell them at the class start that there are various anti-cheating systems built into this course so they better learn the material or else.