Wednesday, January 04, 2006

The problem with cheaters.

[Finally I'm actually healthy again, and not in a hotel charging $10 a day for internet access. So, on with the blog!]

It must be a law of nature that when past and current graduate students dine together at the end of December the conversation turns, sooner or later, to cheaters. First, of course, you discuss the head-slappingly stupid techniques cheating students employ. ("If they thought we wouldn't notice them doing that, they must think we're really stupid!") Then, you recount a sting operation or two (like planting someone next to a habitual cheater during an exam and having the plant spend the exam period writing utter nonsense -- all dutifully copied by the cheater onto her own exam). Finally, there is the wringing of hands over how the graduate students' efforts against cheaters are for nought given the policies at certain universities that, basically, don't let you do jack to the cheaters.

It's that last part that's been sticking in my craw since the cheating cheaters discussion of which I was a part on New Year's Eve.

Maybe I just lack the necessary perspective here. I am not now, nor have I ever been, a university administrator. I do not grant degrees, nor do I take in tuition money. I've just been in the trenches teaching. From my point of view, assignments and exams are tools for assessing how well my students have learned the material I have tried to teach them (and, therefore, of how effectively I've taught the material), and of how well they're reasoning about this material. Cheating, therefore, is a subversion of the communication that's supposed to tell us how well we've done with the process. What it ends up communicating, when detected (and detection is far more frequent than students seem to think it will be), is that the cheater doesn't actually care about learning the material on offer. And, I get that there are lots of things about which one may legitimately not care, but it seems like it's a good idea then not to take a course on them. Or, if one must take a course on them (as a requirement, say, for a major about which one does care), it seems like a better strategy to try to find something to care about in the material -- how is it connected to the thing I do care about, for example.

Indeed, part of what I find most offensive about cheating in my courses is that it is an attempt to appear as if one cares about the material that reveals the absence of actual effort to learn the material. Cheaters care about my course instrumentally, as a means to get a necessary requirement filled or to get a desired grade. And, they seem to think that I won't feel ill-used by their cheating.

But I'm not ranting about the students today. I'm down on systems that let cheating persist unchecked. On New Year's Eve, I heard tell of policies at three major research universities that make it next to impossible to do anything to a student you've caught cheating. One where a student isn't "caught" without multiple witnesses to the act -- one of whom has to be the professor of record for the course. (Teaching assistants, the prof always sticks around when the exam is being administered, right?). Another where professors and TAs are expressly forbidden from being in the room while students are taking exams (which leaves witnessing and reporting the cheating up to students ... who are not always so invested in taking up this responsibility). For all three of these institutions, there seems to be serious pressure from the administrative forces in the system not to impose sanctions (like suspension, or even failing grades) for even habitual cheaters. And the lack of institutional will to take a stand against cheating seems to have made some of the profs just ... give up trying to do anything about it in their own courses. (Who wants to take on the procedural nightmare involved even in administering a slap on the wrist?)

What the hell are these administrative forces thinking?

I'm sure much of their thinking is informed by legitimate concerns for the rights of the students to due process. If I were cynical, I might suggest that their thinking is also informed by the likelihood that the parents of the cheaters, the captains of industry paying upward of $40K a year for junior to get a name-brand diploma, may be inclined to call those administrative forces to lobby for junior to get a second (or third, or fourth, ...) chance. Certainly, it would be a problem if the system were set up in such a way that profs and TAs could merely allege cheating, without proving it, and thereby end a student's college career. But that's not what's happening. Rather, we seem to have a situation where habitual cheaters are not held to account at all, except for perhaps having to repeat a course.

This at universities where, occasionally, faculty members are booted for fabricating data.

My gut says the root problem here is the model of the university that the students and the administrative forces seem to have in mind. The operative assumption is that the student is a consumer and the university is providing a product. (I paid my money, whaddaya mean I don't get my degree?!) On this model, exams with the right answers are just the necessary paperwork you have to turn in to get the degree you came for. How much, really, should it matter how you got that paperwork filled out?

A better model, at least from where I sit, is one of community. While each of us has our individual interests, we have certain interests in common (like the honest exchange of information and ideas, or the creation of conditions that foster learning). This is why cheating is an abomination -- it strikes at our common interests, and makes it impossible for us to function well as a community. Administrative actions that don't recognize or address this aspect of cheating further undermine the community. When administrative forces don't get that cheating hurts the community, they reinforce the cheater's sense that the community doesn't matter.

Community may be the key to dealing with cheaters in the world of science, too. In many of the high-profile cases of fabrication, falsification, and plagiarism, it comes out that the cheater is a habitual cheater -- someone who has been cheating for some time, and who may even have been caught doing so but let go with a slap on the wrist. I've heard it said (and it seems reasonable to me) that the tendency to let scientists go with a slap on the wrist is reinforced by a lack of intermediate-level penalties for cheating; if all you have is the scientific equivalent of a death penalty, you may look for reasons to let people off. But, having been let off, sometimes repeatedly, the cheaters may start to get the message that cheating doesn't really matter all that much. Their "youthful" offenses are kept quiet, lest a promising young researcher's career be ruined.

Wouldn't it be better to bring the "youthful" offenses out into the light so the scientific community could make it clear how these kinds of behavior hurt the community and undermine the project science is trying to do? Shouldn't the community, in the process of training new scientists, take an active role in keeping these new scientists honest? Mercy comes from an understanding that people sometimes falter in their judgment; working together as a community to help members exercise good judgment seems like a better approach than leaving someone who has screwed up on his own with just the warning not to screw up again. The community ought to know about "prior bad acts", not so it can isolate the actors or consider them evil (because if that were the goal, you'd just boot them from the community on the first offense), but so the community can help the actors interact with the community in better ways and earn back the community's trust.

Truly evil actors will need to be booted, of course. But it seems reasonable that only a small proportion of cheaters are irredeemably evil. One of the strengths of community is that it can help bring you back after you've gotten off track. The trick, it seems, is understanding that you're part of a community in the first place.


At 6:53 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Amen! Or whatever it is that scientists are supposed to say as an equivalent.

I'm always stymied by cheating. It's just completely against my character.

And it comes in all forms. When I was in college, there were students who re-used essays for humanities classes. For science classes, they amassed collections of old tests that no one else had access to. In grad school, students worked together on exams that I think everyone else presumed were meant to be taken individually. Nobody ever said anything to the faculty, because we all knew nobody really cared. We were more likely to call attention to ourselves, and that was the worst thing you could do at that school.

And then the scientists you speak of, who fabricate data out of thin air.

I agree there has to be some punishment, and it has to start early. I think it should be more than a slap on the wrist.

Where I'm from, we got yelled at, sent to the principal's office, if you handed a paper in a day late, you dropped a grade, and points were taken off for spelling and grammar mistakes. I think these measures help and we should keep enforcing them.

Students can stay, and they can pay their tuition, but there will be consequences and they will be reflected in grading policies. Cheating should mean an automatic F on the test or the paper, and there should be no do-overs. If you make these policies clear up front, that should protect you legally and give you a basis to reject complaints from parents. Shouldn't it?

There has to be some psychology to wanting to succeed and not caring whether it's really a measure of your merit or not. I don't get it. Personally I'd rather fail by myself and say I tried my best than get somewhere based on something fake. But why I'm like that and other people are cheaters, I just don't understand. Maybe I watched more Sesame Street than they did, I don't know.

At 6:26 AM, Blogger Unlearned Hand said...

On the consumer model of the university, these administrators need to think long and hard. It's called brand dillution. All these imbeciles running around with the university's credentials are making those credentials meaningless. What happens when employers decide to automatically dock any candidate from University X because of past experience or reputation? How are we sure this isn't already happening?

I've had an affiliation with a top research university, or so they say. The academic reputation of said university is awful for undergrads. As I know cheating is systematic, the correlation gets me wondering.

And due process my ass. There is stuff that gets caught that is unambiguously cheating but which gets by with no action. I wonder if there is more than just prof laziness driving the move towards scantron which abets cheating.

At 7:56 AM, Blogger Kyle said...

I'm at the same time cheered up and depressed by this post. On the one hand, it does make me feel better that there are other TAs who have had the same problem - I'm not alone. Unfortunately, it doesn't sound like there is anywhere to go to get away from it.

As an undergrad I taught the astronomy lab regularly. Cheating was rampant, but in a very different form than you mention here; in that lab a good 1/3rd of the students cheated, and most of the time I would argue that every last one did it without realizing it. Plagiarism was rampant; copying each others labs the norm. Data fabrication was a part of their "scientific method."At first I thought they were being devious somehow, and put my foot down. I made one person cry, and upset almost everyone. Starting the next semester I went easy, but firmly.

Usually people worked with me, but sometimes they didn't. For instance, there were two groups who had significant bodies of their labs that were identical. I insisted on giving them a 0 for that lab (which, due to the easy going nature of the grading, could still have left them with an A), but they just went over my head.

It was humiliating having the professor give in, and what little was left I enjoyed about teaching was gone. I stopped teaching the labs.

In retrospect I wimped out too, though. Flustered by the deep hypocricy of the administration and embarassed I'd been overruled (on multiple occasions) I lost interest... but those are things I can deal with. It's sad thinking that the next place will be similar, but as long as I'm aware of the situation I can handle it.

It would be interesting to try again.

At 2:07 PM, Blogger Miss Glymph said...

I do agree and I believe that habitual cheaters should be punished, in the event that this type of action was done purposely and on numerous occasions. I am also a lab TA and I have discouraged my students from cheating and plagiarism. If I have discouraged my students from doing this, I would certainly know better than to succumb to this type of activity myself.

Although it should be evident what blatant cheating is, in some cases students are not exactly sure what constitutes plagiarism. This should be reviewed at the beginning of every semester and communicated what it is and how it will be tolerated. It is a known fact that simply copying someone else’s work without giving proper credit is wrong. In some cases one may not exactly know that what they did is plagiarism.

I do believe that the scientific community should communicate how blatant cheating and plagiarism hurt the community, and I do believe that in the process of training new scientists the community should ensure that the new scientists understand these principles and not just assume that they are dishonest, habitual cheaters, and deceiving. The community should not try to boot these people from the scientific community because of one infraction that was totally unintentional and very unclear. That is why the character of the individual, the nature of the circumstances, and the history should be taken into account when taking drastic consequnences with "cheaters."

At 8:39 PM, Blogger A.Evans said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 8:41 PM, Blogger A.Evans said...

do agree, there should be a consequence for cheating. However, there are many different types of "cheating", such as deliberant cheating (copying from some else), plagiarism (cutting and pasting from the internet, wrong citing, misunderstanding what plagiarism actually is)or just ignorance. I do also feel that students need to actually be taught what cheating or plagiarism is, some honestly do not know. Now after that have been taught or lectured on what is considered to be cheating or plagiarism, then consequences should apply. Even though as educators we feel it should be automatically known, or second nature what cheating or plagiarism is, and it is not our responsibility to entertain nonsense, however, how can we better or train future scientists or educators without educating them through their ignorance.


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