Talking Teaching

November 19, 2010

cheating in an exam – how would you handle this one?

Filed under: education, university — Tags: , , , — alison @ 11:59 am

Over on Sciblogs Grant’s just posted a fascinating (& saddening) video that shows how one professor (at the University of Central Florida) handled widespread cheating in a recent exam .

I count myself fortunate that I’ve never been in a position like this. Prof Quinn is obviously absolutely gutted by the decision of so many of his students to cheat on their mid-term exam. I don’t know that I could be as magnanimous as he was, in making them the offer that he did, particularly as the UCF systems obviously allow administrators to work out whodunnit with a high degree of accuracy, so I’d be interested to hear what others think of this.


  1. It is unfortunate, but to be honest, if all he had was a 1/3 of the class cheating, he was lucky. Most studies I’ve seen in the US has found more than that. My wife teaches several courses in which all the assignments are some form of essay and every time, she catches most of the students turning in plagiarized papers to a greater or lesser extent. There was an anonymous survey done by a student at the school where I was working on my Ph.D. in which 84% of the undergrads admitted to cheating. This includes the fact that many things we would think of as cheating (such as doing work assigned as individual assignments in groups, plagiarism, etc.) they did not view as cheating. And this was what the students admitted to. I was really not surprised by this outcome when I saw that the report the administration released to the press had magically reduced the number to 40%. If the administration openly lies, we really can’t expect our students to be any more honest.

    I agree he was being very magnanimous with his offer. I wonder though, how much choice he really had. Most schools, and UCF is no exception, make it exceptionally hard to actually prosecute cheaters and the students know this. Unless the student was caught redhanded by someone actually witnessing them cheat and has physical evidence to back it up, administrations will rarely do anything. I have caught cheaters before and never been allowed to do anything more than make them retake the test or assignment. As a result, many professors don’t even bother trying to catch cheaters. My wife simply tells the ones she catches what she found and gives them the option of redoing the assignment. Only if virtually the entire paper is plagiarized and can be proven to be so on a specific program the school uses does she bother filling out the paperwork involved in reporting cheating, because the administration won’t do anything otherwise. To compound the problem, when the administration finally does act, it is to expel the student. The incredibly high risk combined with virtually no chance of being caught makes for very bad policy, imho. It is unlikely the professor could prove the cheating to the satisfaction of the rules, so his talk was mostly blowing smoke to scare them. But he couldn’t just let it go either, so making everyone retake the test was the most viable option. Getting the students to take the ethics course was a good idea in that it will make the students think twice about doing it again and will give the school a way to influence them without expelling them. But unless he succeeds in scaring them, it won’t work.

    Are things different in NZ?

    Sadly, his optimism that the days of finding new ways to cheat are over is at best a pipe dream. As long as there are people involved and an advantage to be gained by cheating, there will be people who will cheat. I personally don’t like test banks or reusing tests from year to year. It is pretty much accepted that the fraternities and sororities have copies of previous material. There is one upside that that, though. They actually do learn the material that is tested on, provided they have to remember the answers and not just, a,c, d, b…

    Comment by jdmimic — November 20, 2010 @ 7:23 am

    • We use Turnitin for essays & reports, in combination with educating the students not only on how it works but also on proper citation & referencing practices, plus how to paraphrase properly. Many of the first-years don’t seem to have picked up that particular skill at school & so we give them practice in tuts. The bio tutor & I are moving towards peer-assessment of essay drafts: if not the whole thing, then at least the introduction or discussion. Since we started using Turnitin the amount of plagiarism in essays has dropped right off :) (Some of my colleagues argue that we shouldn’t set essays in first-year, mainly [?] because of all the marking, but then they complain that the kids don’t know how to write properly when they get to second-year… The peer-marking thing, plus making the marking rubric available ahead of time, does seem to cut the marking load, however.)
      My institution does seem to come down fairly hard on cheating, ranging from failing an assignment, to failing the whole paper, to – in particularly bad cases & especially for repeat offenders – suspension/expulsion. With my first-year students I tend to take the view that if we haven’t actually taught them good practice it’s a bit hard coming down on them like a ton of bricks straight away, so for first offenders they have to come & see me: this is apparently quite a scary prospect :) I tell them then that the second time it happens, the gloves are off & they’ll be off to the Disciplinary Committee. Yes, this does involve paperwork but it’s worthwhile.

      The thing that bothers me more is these places (on line, naturally) that will write essays on demand, for a fee. PZ Myers wrote about one such case the other day, on Pharyngula.

      This sort of thing is one reason that I, like you, don’t like test banks & I try to make sure that my test questions are different from year to year. Unfortunately many of my colleagues tend to use the same questions every year, & getting them to talk about why this might just be a Bad Thing is really really hard.

      Comment by alison — November 20, 2010 @ 5:21 pm

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