You are hereCheating


By hagrin - Posted on 18 November 2010

Very rarely do I ever write opinion pieces on this site because I try to keep things informational, but every so often an issue gets brought to my attention and I have to speak out about it. Today on Slashdot, I watched the video of a University of Central Florida professor tell his class that about 1/3 of his students had cheated on his midterm. For those who don't have 15 minutes to spend watching the professor relay the circumstances, here's a brief synopsis -

  • After the exam, some basic statistics showed a bimodal grade distribution as opposed to a bell curve distribution that he had seen in past years of teaching the same material.
  • The test used a question bank based on the texts that the publishers had provided.
  • Someone "anonymously" let the teacher know that this question bank was circulating.
  • Professor states that within 95% certainty he has the names of the people who cheated, but instead of taking action he gives the class a deadline to turn themselves in with no punishment.
  • After the deadline, all data will be turned over to Academic Affairs and then it is out of his hands.
  • Around 200 students have turned themselves in at this point.
  • All students would be required to take a new midterm regardless if they cheated or not and they only have a 51 hour window to do so.

I don't even know where to begin with how screwed up this entire story is. Let's see what logical assumptions we can make from the video to help dissect this story. First, the teacher would be able to take the upper distribution, know from past test results how many students roughly should have scored this highly and come up with a rough estimation of exactly how many students successfully cheated on the exam. This severely shrinks the class into a subset that has a high likelihood of having cheated on the exam. However, this alone is not proof of anything.

Second, the "turn yourself in, no punishment, everyone retakes the test" outcome is a zero punishment outcome to those who cheated. When you watch the video, you can sense the anger/disappointment from the teacher in the situation. Therefore, to give cheaters a zero punishment outcome doesn't seem to correlate to the outrage. Therefore, I think it is reasonable to assume that the university opted for a less controversial outcome and that this may have not been the outcome desired by the professor. Therefore, while definitely only an opinion, I do not think that the professor was solely responsible for the resolution to this problem.

Third, it is unclear as to whether or not the question bank provided an answer key. If it did, then without some anomaly in the answers, there would be very little evidence in the answers given to specific questions unless there was some sort of pattern between test takers. One Slashdot poster stated that the teacher could look for tests where easy questions were answered incorrectly and hard questions were answered correctly as some indication of cheating. However, for numerous reasons, this line of thinking is dangerous to those student whom didn't cheat and any number of plausible explanations could explain this type of performance on a multiple choice exam. The conclusion to be made here is that without some unstated anomaly from the professor, making any inferences based on the answers given on an exam is no real proof of cheating and could be best described as inference. If no anomalies exist, then any conclusions drawn on this information is extremely flawed and dangerous to use.

Fourth, without direct testimony from people involved or a forensics trail (email, file sharing, etc.), the professor is probably left in a situation where he has a very good idea of who cheated, but couldn't say with 100% certainty. This is one of the obvious reasons for the "zero punishment" outcome. While I am sure universities can expel students simply for "suspicion of cheating", disciplining over 200 students would end up being costly to the university in several ways. One wonders if the professor had 100% certainty of who cheated if action would have been taken against such a large number of students.

So Why Do I Care?
This story infuriates me because the only people who get punished in this situation are the students who didn't cheat. Again, as always in life, the nice guy finishes last. This professor may have been forced to make a deal with the university so I don't blame him necessarily, but I do blame the university as a whole for not coming up with at least some form of punishment for suspected cheaters.

I'm also mad at those who didn't cheat on the exam? Huh? Why? Too often in life, I see the nice guy not speak up and get trampled on. Where is the outrage of these students who now have to sacrifice time needed to prepare for other classes to retake a test that they already completed ethically? These students probably put in more time studying than the unethical students did since memorizing a set of test questions is much easier. There is a finite number of hours that these students have to prepare for their other classes, why should they be punished again by possibly not performing as well as the possibly could have if they could have alloted the time to those classes? Where is the student protest protecting their rights as students? Why was a "deal" made behind their backs and without their consultation and why didn't they question this procedure? Speak up for yourselves people otherwise life will continue to trample you.

Finally, is this not more proof that the American education system is flawed? When I was in college, I could recite numerous instances of widespread cheating whether it was teaching assistants in the same fraternity/sorority as students and providing them with inside knowledge or answer sharing on large homework assignments or paying other students to write term papers. For a large number of students, college is only another platform to learn how to take shortcuts in life which is why GPAs should be meaningless when employers hire newly graduated students. The entire system needs changing and more tangible skills need to be formed in college so that employers can more accurately identify who will make good employees.

I hope there is more disclosure about situations like these so that change occurs because it's obvious to me that change is desperately needed in the entire education process.