Thursday, December 16, 2010

Universities Teach Cheating

Recently there was a minor cheating scandal in one of my courses.  I base part of the students' grades on a test. Rather than create my own questions, I use a test bank that the textbook publisher provides.  This facilitates giving of multiple exams, which has become the norm in some colleges (some students are permitted extra time because they have learning disabilities; as well, make-up exams are often required).

One or more of the students obtained the publisher's test bank, possibly by pretending to be a professor, having the publisher send the textbook to the college under a false name, and then figuring out how to pick up the textbook from the locked storage room where packages of this kind are stored. It is likely easy to do since all the student would have to do is ask an unsuspecting professor entering the room to help him or her find a book or to use the copy machine, which is in the same room.

In any case, I noticed that the grades on the exam this semester were unusually high; about one fourth of the class got grades that were normally above the highest grade any student would get. At first I thought the class was exceptionally good, that is, until a student met with me in person and proved that the test bank had been obtained under fraud or stolen and that some students studied by memorizing it.  The proof was that he e-mailed me a copy of the test bank which another student had sold him for $10. I asked him to identify the student, but he would not.  I forgave him that distaste for "ratting".

I spoke about the situation with two colleagues. One said that the situation is unequivocally cheating and that I should tell the administration that this has gone on. Since I have no evidence concerning any specific student it would not be possible to uncover who was at fault without pursuing investigations that I have no power to pursue and that I doubt very much the college administration would be willing to pursue.  Another colleague said that in his view students who review the test bank are doing nothing wrong since SAT questions and New York State regents questions are often available for practice purposes.  But those questions are not stolen or obtained under fraudulent pretense.  Also, those questions are made available to all students whereas in this circumstance some students refused to use the stolen test bank because they viewed doing so as unethical. 

College seems to be contributing to the more general moral decline in American society. The chief impact is on me as I now have to make up by hand something that was once computerized, turning a one hour project into a one day project.  With 15 exams over the next year that translates into a two day project versus a 15 or 20 day project. So much for my research output.

I failed to pursue any sort of redress to the cheaters, and in this I participate in the tendency of universities to increasingly condone cheating.


Mairi said...

I remember in H/S, our Senior term paper had to be on a great novel, from a list given by a VERY difficult English teacher. (A Nun!) I chose Dostoevsky's "Crime and Punishment".
We were cautioned that she would absolutely know if anyone cheated, so not to even consider it.
I suffered through reading that book, with a notebook to keep track of each character's numerous names and pet names. Another student, the class president, also chose "Crime and Punishment". He chose to copy Cliff notes verbatim. He made no attempt to hide what he had done. He received an "A", and I received a "C" with an admonition as a straight "A" student, that I should have been on a par with the male student.
I had that same teacher review a book of poetry I had written a few years later, and I actually thought about telling her what had happened, but declined at the last minute.
I have never regretted "earning" my grade, but have often wondered if the "A" recipient ever regretted cheating.....I have often wondered where his life lead him, and if he has continued to cheat.
My "C" grade prepared me for a much greater challenge in my adult life, and I KNOW I once again made the right decision.....despite what it cost me.
My heart aches for you, Mitchell. Some of those students who tried REALLY hard to do well on that test will suffer now......HOPEFULLY, it will help them later.

Mitchell Langbert said...

Dear Anonymous: In re-reading your comments several spill over into defamation and so I have deleted the unbalanced discussion. If you wish to discuss sensitive issues concerning my career, feel free to contact me at and we can set up an in-person meeting. We can also discuss your career, which I doubt amounts to much.

howzerdo said...

The only multiple choice test bank assessments I use are online quizzes, and they are low stakes because they are worth only 10 percent of the course grade. Do some students cheat on them (by collaborating)? Probably. But in the ten years I've been teaching, the most common form of academic dishonesty I've encountered is plagiarism. Students hand in papers that were written by another student in a past semester, or copy extensive material (or the entire paper) from the Internet without attribution. I estimate I've discovered 20 cases over the years. Such cases are easy to prove since I require students to submit e-files; students fail the class and are usually kicked out of the university as well. I also devote one entire class session in my lower division class to ethics and academic dishonesty.

Mitchell Langbert said...

Yes, plagiarism is common. Based on recent information I have been obtaining from Blackboard's Safeassignment program, I would guess about 15-20% of students plagiarize parts of their papers by copying sentences or paragraphs from websites ranging from Cliff Notes to "information please" type sites.

I was dismayed when my college refused to purchase Turnitin because, argued the library administrator, the paper pooling supposedly violates the students' right to privacy. That is worse than a nonsensical argument and amounts to a bald justification of cheating. The thought that anyone gives a rat's a** about a student's paper and would invade their privacy is ridiculous.

Luckily, Blackboard, which is indispensible to run online courses which, in turn, are major student draws, has a very good built-in check system called Safeassignment.

Students are not kicked out of the university for cheating where I work. If the administration is willing to pursue the matter they may fail the student in the particular course.