Cheating Tech

The first class I taught at UB shocked me in a number of ways, not least of which was the size of the class or the amazing rudeness of some of the students. But I was most surprised by the flagrant plagiarism and cheating on exams. I was shocked because, in my naive mind, these students were juniors and seniors and should have already been tossed from the university if they had been doing this all along. I didn’t realize just how endemic cheating is to universities, and how much it is an expected part of the process. I’ve been a proponent of being tough on those who plagiarize, and enforcing some protections to try to minimize cheating.

When I insist on assigned seating for exams, no headphones, no hats (I caught two people with notes in the brims of their ballcaps that first semester), the students think I’m an ogre. During one class, my TAs and I watched as someone copied answers from his girlfriends exams. He looked down at me in the front of the class, looked me in the eye, and then went back to copying answers. In one exam, I had to write on the board “please stop cheating.”

Circuit City is selling, for three bucks, a UV pen with a small UV light on the back that you can use to mark your personal effects for identification by the police if they are stolen. It is not a surprise that a number of the comments note that this can be used to write on the skin and then revealed at opportune moments.

At some point, the spy v. spy effort to contain cheating seems to occupy far more time than it is worth, and you fear you are neglecting the students who really are there to learn. In many ways, the propensity for students to cheat on the exams is a symptom of an educational system that has failed. If we cannot teach our students the value of learning, rather than the value of the GPA, we really are not very good at our job.

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  1. Posted 2/12/2006 at 9:34 pm | Permalink

    That’s very interesting to hear. I caught 6 students plagiarizing papers. I had proof. And when I interviewed them, and researched it, I concluded that there was nothing intentional. They take a special course and away they go. There was no question in my mind that I’d assumed that they knew what I was talking about when I told them how to document sources. They all clearly thought they were doing it right; no reticence or trying to hide what they’d done. But they’d been taught wrong. I have never taught frosh before… just third year and above. it was a shock. I know I’ll teach them right next time.

    But when it comes to exams, I don’t have cheating. I give them the question a week in advance, and require a one page, double sided, cheat-sheet in 12 point times. I don’t care about memorizing facts, but what sense they can make of facts in a sustained piece of inclass narrative composition. If they can’t write on the facts, they don’t know the facts. And I can require a good bibliography, and proper APA referencing. Makes life a dream. Oh, and the other option is giving an insane question. My fav for my 3rd yr environmental science class was: Dracula, discuss.

    Got great responses.

  2. alex
    Posted 2/13/2006 at 12:03 am | Permalink

    I’d love to do that, but how many people do you have writing? As much as I would like to, I just can’t see doing that with huge courses. This semester it’s a take home 24 hour exam, with essay questions that require more thinking than regurgitating, but I’m not looking forward to turning aroun 392 written exams in a week.

    I’ve been doing oral exams (with groups of 3 or 4) in my grad theory courses for a while. Generally, the responses have been really good. This year, only one of the groups did particularly well, and I suspect that is a reflection of how I handled the class rather than any of their deficiencies. I do generally ask, in that class “What do things mean and why?” and have them answer in the voice of a given theorist. The performance requirement of an oral exam generates high stress, but I’ve been very happy with the outcomes most years.

  3. Nancy
    Posted 2/13/2006 at 9:32 pm | Permalink

    I have a colleague who lets each student bring in an index card with as many notes written on it as they can fit and gives them exams that are all application, so knowing definitions and facts is not enough to do well. He says it has reduced anxiety and cheating without improving overall test scores.

    My university has a site license for and i have all students turn in papers there. I penalize the plagiarists by doubling the percentage they plagiarized and deducting it from their total and filing academic misconduct charges with the college. One offense is not a big deal, but when they get busted twice and the paperwork’s been filed it gets ugly at levels that are (thankfully) out of the individual instructors’ hands, and at three times they are in really serious trouble.

  4. alex
    Posted 2/13/2006 at 10:19 pm | Permalink

    Early on, I resisted this, but in the large classes, I now allow them to bring in a 1 sided 8.5 x 11 sheet. I collected these at my last exam, and some of them approach pure art in miniature, containing full notes from the class in microscopic hand printing. The main reason I did this has less to do with their performance on the exam, and more to do with providing an incentive for going over their notes again. In fact, most of my exams have that aim: not so much showing me what they know and how they’ve integrated it, but creating a reason for thinking more seriously (especially in groups) about the material of the course.

    Our university is likely to go with a site license for turnitin as well. I convinced my dean to pay for me to give it a spin for a year, and now the university is doing a more extended pilot. I recognize some of the concerns with its use, but I loved being able to concentrate on improving students writing, while generally not having to worry that I was actually correcting some random 3rd party’s work. (Of course, students are increasingly turning to turnkey writing services, but at least this requires *someone* to do some creative work.)

    I like the “reduction by plagiarized amount” approach, by the way. It does away with deciding how much is too much.

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