Category Archives: Academic honesty

“The system has failed you”

Apropos of the UCF cheating scandal, Stephen Ransom tweeted this morning:

Here’s the video he linked:

Once you get over seeing Uncle Phil as the Kaplan University proponent here, take a moment to think about this.

  • Does the video have a point? Is it time for a new system?
  • Is “the system” flawed in the ways or to the extent stated in the commercial?
  • Is the problem with “the system” its being steeped in tradition? Is the problem the oldness of the ideas?
  • Is Kaplan University, and other institutions like it, the answer?
  • Which would you rather attend: the University of Central Florida, or Kaplan? (Yes, that’s a loaded question.)
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Students respond to UCF cheating scandal

As a kind of rebuttal to the cheating scandal at the University of Central Florida, some students have posted this video that raises the issue of whether students were misled as to the source of their exam questions:

I think the students have a point here. Prof. Quinn did say that he “writes” the exam questions. This doesn’t necessarily mean that he creates the exam questions from scratch; “writing” an exam could refer to the act of assembling a particular mix of questions from the test bank. But it’s unrealistic to expect the average college student to know the difference between creating and assembling an exam when the word “write” is used in this context; and anyway he said he writes the questions not the exams.

This entire video goes back to a point that involution made in the comments to my first post on this story: Did the students know that the exam was going to come from the publisher’s test bank, or was there at least a significant chance that it would be? If not — if the students had no reason to believe that the test bank should be off limits — then what the students did can’t be called “cheating”. How could it? Cheating is when you use an unauthorized resource to substitute for your own knowledge. If the resource isn’t unauthorized, it’s just another resource, not a cheat-sheet. If Prof. Quinn didn’t make it clear that the test bank was off-limits, I’m afraid he doesn’t have much of a case here after all. What exactly was said in the class or the syllabus about and test banks? Does anybody know?

Of course, by telling the students that the test bank is off-limits, you are basically telling students that the exam comes straight from the test bank and therefore making it that much more likely that this sort of cheating will take place. But I consider that a strong reason not to use test banks at all, rather than a reason to keep the test bank under wraps. In fact, the more this situation unfolds, the more unhealthy it makes the whole educational environment surrounding it seem. Class sizes in the multiple hundreds: Check. Courses taught mainly through lecture: Check. Professor at a remove from the students: Check. Exams taken off the rack rather than tuned to the specific student population: Check. And on it goes. I know this is how it works at many large universities and there’s little that one can do to change things; but with all due respect to my colleagues at such places, I just can’t see what students find appealing about these places, and I wonder if students at UCF are thinking the same thing nowadays.

As to the students making the video, I think they can bring something fruitful out of all of this if they stay on point and act professionally. But I have to say this video doesn’t help. First of all, calling yourself “UCFScam” on YouTube; it’s not a “scam” and business majors should know that. In fact, calling Prof. Quinn’s actions a “scam” implies fraud, and that can be interpreted as slander on the students’ part, landing them in the same place they want to land Prof. Quinn by suggesting he violated copyright. Second, speaking of which, accusing the prof of copyright violations and calling him lazy are off-point and counterproductive. Pejorative words don’t win you an audience. And the last subtitle:

…is absurd. Right now the students, rather than sounding like mature young men and women who have been legitimately put on the wrong side of an issue in an unfair way, sound like whiny undergraduates asking for class to be cancelled and wanting more points. If you have a point, make it — respectfully and logically. You might also try not making spelling errors such as “frustated”. I’m assuming the students want to succeed in the business world, and this is how it works as far as I understand it.

What a sad situation. Why don’t they just make up their own tests at UCF?

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Cheating at Central Florida

In case you haven’t heard, the University of Central Florida was recently rocked by a large-scale cheating scandal in a business management course. At one point, over 200 students in the course had turned themselves in to Prof. Richard Quinn or an associate. Prof. Quinn uses (or I should say “used”) tests from a pre-made test bank, and somehow students got hold of the test bank with answer keys prior to the midterm. Every student in the class, guilty or otherwise, was required to retake the midterm, which apparently then showed a normal distribution as opposed to a severely bimodal one on the compromised exam.

UCF puts the videos for Prof. Quinn’s lectures online. Here’s the one where he announces he’s discovered the cheating and describes what’s about to happen. This is 15 minutes long, but you MUST watch it. Seriously. All of it.

Wow. Can I breathe now? Four things:

  1. That lecture was a masterpiece of restrained forcefulness. You can tell that Prof. Quinn wants to explode all over those people, and yet he doesn’t — and somehow it makes you feel worse than if he had blown up. I’ve been in situations like this before and never come close to keeping my cool the way he did.
  2. You wonder how much of what he’s saying about “forensics” and the “net tightening” around students is just bluffing, and whether students with the chutzpah to cheat on this scale have the nerve to call the bluff. Can a university IT department really do an NSA-style traffic analysis to determine who cheated?
  3. I think Prof. Quinn is being unbelievably gracious (you might even say “lenient”) towards the students who ‘fess up to the cheating. Between getting kicked out of school and having to take an ethics course, I think I’d choose the latter any day as long as there’s no penalty. Speaking of which, did anybody consider the poor schmoe who has to teach that ethics course? How crummy of a teaching assignment would it be to teach an ethics course to students who are forced to take it because they got caught cheating? Like teaching a drivers’ ed course to a 200-student class full of known traffic violators.
  4. Finally, and a little more seriously, I abhor academic dishonesty, and the fault here lies squarely on the students who chose to cheat. However: This should serve as a warning to any professor who chooses to use a publisher’s test bank to give prefabricated tests. Doing so adds so many exploitable seams into your test security that it is practically begging for unscrupulous students to try to find those seams. I know: I’ve written one of those test banks before. The publisher doesn’t keep track of who has a copy; the fact that there are extant copies of the test banks and their keys just floating around out there should be enough to make profs not want to use them. But some still do. The convenience is not worth it.

 

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Plagiarism in high school

Turnitin logo
Image via Wikipedia

About two dozen seniors at Hamilton Southeastern High School in the affluent northern suburbs of Indianapolis have been caught plagiarizing in a dual-enrollment college course, thanks to turnitin.com. Full story with video here, and there’s an official statement from the HSE superintendent on this issue here (.DOC, 20KB).

This would be an ordinary, though disappointing, story about students getting caught cheating if it weren’t for some head-scratchers here. First, this bit from the superintendent’s statement:

We took immediate action because the end of the school year was rapidly approaching. Several students were in danger of not graduating on time. We found a teacher who was willing to step up and administer a complete but highly accelerated online version of a class that would replace the credit that was lost due to cheating. Each student who wishes to graduate on time and participate in commencement now has the opportunity to do so. [my emphasis]

It’s troublesome that the superintendent chooses to describe the teacher as “stepping up” to deliver an online makeup course. “Stepping up” is what you call it when there’s something that needs to be done and somebody agrees to get it done. But it seems to me that the school system here owes these students absolutely nothing. HSE, in conjunction with Indiana University, offered a legitimate college course with clearly-defined parameters for academic performance, and HSE did a particularly thorough job describing the boundaries of academic honesty. The students chose to violate that contract and cheat. The school system is therefore not obliged to offer an online makeup course, or indeed to offer anything to these students at all. To imply that HSE does owe the students a path to graduate on time is like saying that if someone gets caught shoplifting, the grocery store owes it to the shoplifter to find a way to help him buy his groceries.

Also, what is the teacher who “stepped up” being paid to run this online course? If the teacher is being paid from public school coffers for this, and if I lived in Hamilton County, I would have a big problem with my tax money being spent to offer online courses to students guilty of cheating just so they can graduate on time — especially when public school money is historically scarce right now. Let the students find their own way to graduate. It’s not like they were barred from graduating on time, fair and square, in the first place. Let the residents’ school money go to help the students who are working hard and doing things the right way instead. (If the teacher’s doing it for free, then other questions arise.) This is the way we’d do it in college, and this is a college course, right?

HSE might think it’s doing right by the students in “allowing each student to work his or her way back toward the proper path so they can graduate on time, continue their educations [sic] and understand the benefits of making good choices” (quote from the superintendent’s statement). But isn’t this really illustrating the benefits of making bad choices — as in, go ahead and cheat, because the school will find a way to let you graduate on time anyway? Other than potentially not getting into IU, what consequences are these students having to face, exactly, other than sacrificing a bit of their summer to retake a course at taxpayer expense? (By the way, if this course is dual-credit, whose rules about academic dishonesty are supposed to be followed? IU’s appear to be more strict that Hamilton Southeastern’s.)

This bit from a fellow student is equally disturbing:

“If you’re going to do something dishonorable, there’s going to be consequences for it,” said [a fellow student, not part of the plagiarizing group]. But she says she sympathizes with her friends who were caught cheating. She claims students have been cheating for years, but this is the first year teachers have used the software system that gives them the ability to easily catch cheaters. She believes this incident likely serves as a lesson for students for years to come.

So, it’s about the consequences, not so much the act itself. The sympathy didn’t show up until turnitin.com caught them. Until we stop “sympathizing” with plagiarists and start treating plagiarism on the same level as lying and stealing — which it is both — this problem isn’t going to go away.

What’s your take on all this? Is HSE acting honorably or just enabling future plagiarism? What’s the best way to punish teenage plagiarists on the one hand but really help them make better choices on the other?

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Publicly exposing cheaters?

Is this going too far to punish and deter academic dishonesty?

Texas A&M International University in Laredo fired a professor for publishing the names of students accused of plagiarism.

In his syllabus, professor Loye Young wrote that he would “promptly and publicly fail and humiliate anyone caught lying, cheating or stealing.” After he discovered six students had plagiarized on an essay, Young posted their names on his blog, resulting in his firing last week.

“It’s really the only way to teach the students that it’s inappropriate,” he said.

Young, a former adjunct professor of management information systems, said he believes he made the right move. He said trials are public for a reason, and plagiarism should be treated the same way. He added that exposing cheaters is an effective deterrent.

“They were told the consequences in the syllabus,” he said. “They didn’t believe it.”

Young was fired for violating FERPA. Young, and some of the commenters at the original article, don’t seem to understand the idea that a syllabus is not a legally-binding contract, and a course syllabus cannot overrule Federal law. So it doesn’t really matter whether he had this public humiliation clause in the syllabus or whether the students read it. Choosing not to drop a course does not amount to acquiescing to the syllabus policies if those policies are illegal. You might as well say that cheaters will be shot on sight and then claim immunity from assault charges for putting a cap in a plagiarizing student, because after all the student knew the consequences.

There’s also a sort of moral issue here too. Young lost his job because what he did violates FERPA. But if there were no FERPA, would it be OK to publicly humiliate a student who had been determined — let’s say beyond a reasonable doubt — to be guilty of cheating?

UPDATE: Young’s blog no longer has the offending article on it, but he has this response to TAMIU in which he claims he “analyzed FERPA at the department chair’s request” before posting the article, submitted his analysis to the university, and got no indication that his analysis was incorrect.

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Academic honesty at MIT

I was just listening to the introductory lecture for an Introduction to Algorithms course at MIT, thanks to MIT Open Courseware.  The professor was reading from the syllabus on the collaboration policy for students doing homework. Here’s a piece of it:

You must write up each problem solution by yourself without assistance, however, even if you collaborate with others to solve the problem. You are asked on problem sets to identify your collaborators. If you did not work with anyone, you should write “Collaborators: none.” If you obtain a solution through research (e.g., on the Web), acknowledge your source, but write up the solution in your own words. It is a violation of this policy to submit a problem solution that you cannot orally explain to a member of the course staff. [Emphasis in the original]

So in other words, you can collaborate within reasonable boundaries as long as you cite your collaborators, but you must write up work on your own. Normal stuff for a syllabus. But what I love is the last sentence. If the professor or a TA believes that you didn’t really write up the work yourself, they can ask you to stand and deliver via an oral explanation of what you turned in. And if you can’t orally explain, on the spot, what you did to the satisfaction of the course staff, then the presumption is that you cheated.  That’s a brilliant way to ensure students understand what they are doing, and expecting students to be able to do this oral explanation is absolutely reasonable for university-level upper-division work.

Maybe everybody does this already; I’ll be building that into my syllabus for Linear Algebra next semester.

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OMG!!! This video TOTALLY shows you how to cheat on a test!!!!

OMG it’s so simple! Roll up a piece of paper with your cheat notes on it and STICK IT INSIDE A PEN! Then TRY TO READ THE TINY HANDWRITING THROUGH THE CLEAR PLASTIC during the test!

I’m sure it’s OK to immortalize dishonesty on YouTube… Because, like, NOBODY important ever checks YouTube — like teachers, employers, or The Chicago Sun-Times.

Do students really think that this works? Having a little rolled-up piece of paper with microscopic notes on so densely packed together that they threaten to collapse into a black hole, not to mention being sheathed in plastic which blurs the resolution of the notes? How could someone even find those notes legible, let alone useful?

If this young lady wants to come to my college and take a class with me and take one of my tests, I’ll look the other way if she wants to use this little pen trick, because if you haven’t learned the material, then a little rolled-up stick of notes will not do you much good. And that’s not just me and my classes. Her blog says she is going to go to a community college and get a culinary arts certificate, which makes me wonder what it would be like to be served by a chef who cheated her way all through culinary school. “Academic honesty, blah blah blah….” indeed.

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Handling academic dishonesty

Virusdoc, always the prolific commenter, has left another comment that raises the issue of how a professor should actually deal with academic dishonesty when it occurs. What follows is my own procedure for handling these situations; I’m sure it’s not perfect, and I’m open to suggestions for improvement, but it’s worked pretty well for me over the years. 

The overall strategy for dealing with academic dishonesty is that the students involved should be confronted with the issue promptly after it’s been discovered, given a chance to give their side of the story, and then the professor can move forward on the dual basis of the evidence in front of her/him and the student’s own statements. This strategy is opposed to two other possible strategies: 

  • Avoiding doing anything about the academic dishonesty at all, either by simply looking the other way and pretending it didn’t happen, or else using the suspected academic dishonesty as an occasion to give an alternate exam or some kind of second chance assessment. I’m not against second chances or mercy in general, but look: academic honesty is bad. It’s more than just youthful indiscretion, like drinking too much at a frat party or sleeping through an exam because you were up all night studying (or drinking too much at a frat party). Academic dishonesty is a willful, intentional violation of trust, and if you are a professor and have a shred of respect for the life of the mind, you have to do something about it, even if it might earn you a reputation as a mean SOB among students. (This goes double for new faculty, for whom academic dishonesty is often perpetrated by students as a means of testing boundaries.) 
  • Executing a summary judgment on the basis of evidence alone, without the students giving their side of things, even if you are within your rights as a prof to do so and even if the evidence for academic dishonesty is overwhelming. First of all, I’ve had many cases of something I thought was academic dishonesty that could be logically explained away by students when I confront them with the work; or at least, I could see that the student was so scared and authentically sorry that I can at least scale my recommendation for their punishment back a little. Second, many times students will simply confess when they are confronted. 
So now, my means of working through an academic dishonesty situation goes like this: 
  1. Make a paper trail. Make photocopies of all the suspected dishonest work. Make copies of the syllabus policy or any other pertinent document where the rules against cheating are stated. Make printouts of the Wikipedia article that was copied. Save and print any email exchanges on the subject that you have with the students. We do all this because you should never underestimate how litigious a situation like this can get. I’ve never been sued for writing someone up for cheating </knock on wood> but I have had angry parents show up in the office before, one time with a firearm. But that’s another story. At any rate, having good documentation takes a lot of pressure off. 
  2. Contact each student individually for meetings to discuss their work. And phrase it that simply: “I’d like to meet with you to discuss your work.” No mention of academic dishonesty yet. And if there’s more than one student involved, don’t meet with them in a group — because they will likely meet before your meeting to get their story straight. Or, phrased more positively, if it’s a group of students involved and they all have the same explanation with the right details even when meeting separately, you can be confident they are telling the truth. 
  3. Start each meeting by getting the student to discuss the work itself. This will help you gauge the extent to which the student really understands the material, and consequently how likely it is that the student actually cheated or plagiarized. 
  4. Then, after you have gathered some information about the student’s skills with the material, shift the discussion to the academic dishonesty. Something like this: “I had something else to discuss with you about this work. Here’s your work. [Lay out the student’s work.] And here’s [another student’s work | a Wikipedia article | a website | whatever]. These are very similar as you can see. Can you give me some context for what happened here?” I’ve seen this called “the reveal” ala Trading Spaces. In other words, confront the student with the problem: They’ve turned in something that appears to have been lifted from something else without attribution, and you would like to know what the deal is with that, from their perspective. 
  5. One of three things will happen at this point. You will get (a) a believable explanation, (b) a crap explanation, or (c) a confession. If (c), then that student’s case is, sadly, pretty straightforward from this point onward. If either (a) or (b), then you will eventually have to weigh the student’s words against the evidence. But for now, all you do is listen and ask questions to clarify what the student is saying. And make notes — make notes and add them to the paper trail. Above all, be nice. The student is probably about to crap his or her pants out of fear and uncertainty, and so being a professional who is merely seeking understanding of a questionable situation will make the student more comfortable and more likely to think straight. 
  6. Once you’ve met with all the students and heard everything that needs to be said, you now have to take the evidence in the work, each individual student’s words, and the interactions between the words of different students, and figure out which student crossed the line into academic dishonesty and how willful and bad that crossing was. I can’t offer any rules or procedures for that, other than general advice to be professional and to seek a proper combination of justice and mercy. Also, I’d say that if you have any doubts about whether a student crossed that line, then it’s better to err on the side of mercy and give the student the benefit of the doubt — along with a serious lecture about how close they came to getting their grade nuked for cheating — rather than administer a punishment you’re not sure is deserved. 
  7. Finally, based on (and partially guided by) your institution’s procedures for academic dishonesty, you probably have to write a report and send it up the chain of command to the Dean. At my college, we profs have the option to suggest restricted punishments for academic dishonesty if the circumstances merit it. The standard penalty is a 0 on the offending assignment, a lowering of the semester grade by one full letter (on top of grade damages caused by the 0), and expulsion upon the second offense. If my interview with a student leads me to believe that they were guilty of academic dishonesty — but their behavior was closer to indiscretion than it was to cold-blooded cheating, and they were not giving me a crap explanation in step 6 — then here’s my chance to suggest they not be punished as badly. I almost always have plenty of cause to call for mitigated penalties, because students are usually pretty forthcoming in their interviews. 
I wish I could describe some specific cases I’ve dealt with to show how my way of doing things usually leads to conclusions that I can feel relatively good about, but there’s FERPA and all that. But suffice to say that while every academic dishonesty investigation for me has been distinctly unpleasant — it takes a lot of time and a lot of energy to do things this way — I’ve never come away from a case feeling like I did the wrong thing, either letting someone off too easy or being too heavy-handed. 

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I’ll say it again:

Academic dishonesty is not only easy to catch, it’s a horrible miscarriage of the mutual trust upon which all of education is built, and students who willfully engage in it deserve all the punishment they receive, if not more. There’s simply no rationalizing it, and I don’t think we in higher ed do nearly enough to eradicate it. 

I bring this up because of virusdoc’s comment, just made on an old post

Resurrecting an old thread, but I just graded my first ever take-home essay test (open-book, open web, but no collaboration allowed and students were instructed to make sure their ideas and words were their own).

Out of 30 tests graded thus far, there were two students who boldly copied and pasted huge blocks of text from multiple websites into their test answers, without so much as an attempt to change any words or even alter the font from that in the website. It was horrific. In addition, I uncovered one clear example of two students who almost certainly shared answers. One of them had screwball, left-field answers for two questions in a row, using examples that weren’t in our text and I hadn’t discussed in lecture. This was odd, but I dismissed it as a singularity. Several tests later, another student used exactly the same screwball examples for the same two questions. (no other student has used these examples). Further comparison of the two students’ tests side by side reveals multiple verbatim quotes in their answers, and several of the answers that are not verbatim are structurally highly related.

I never anticipated senior level students would a) cheat so frequently, and b) do so in such stupid, obvious ways.

Yee-ha for higher ed!

Yep. I’m actually a little (pleasantly) surprised that I haven’t had a clear-cut incident of academic dishonesty yet in my own courses this semester. But that could be because I’ve taken to designing my courses specifically to avoid assessments with a high risk of cheating or plagiarism. I have very little in the way of take-home assignments that are worth very much.

That doesn’t seem right for higher education. Profs ought to be giving assignments that are challenging, engaging, and therefore take time and effort outside of class. But when we do that, there’s all this rampant and ridiculous cheating that takes place. So we profs feel this intrinsic pressure to make most of our grades come from timed assessments which are easier to manage, but which by definition operate at a lower cognitive level than the kinds of assignments we would like to give (and which college students ought to be getting). So cheaters and plagiarists are ruining not only their own education, but the education of others as well. 

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You can’t make this sort of thing up

True story from a faculty meeting today: A biology prof gave an assignment in a class at the beginning of last semester on the subject of proper academic conduct in a college class. The assignment was to research the definition of “plagiarism” and write about how it applies to the biology class. 

When the prof got the assignments back, guess what he discovered? That’s right: One of the students had plagiarized his plagiarism assignment.

As some great mind once said, there’s a fine line between stupid and clever. 

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