Tag 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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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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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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One more thought on working in groups

In my upper-level courses — especially the two senior-level math majors courses I teach, Modern Algebra and Topics in Geometry — traditionally I’ve seen timed tests and so forth as being ineffective in assessing the kinds of advanced problem-solving that students in those classes have to do. Mainly the problems are ones in which they have to prove a theorem. It’s hard to do that under a time pressure because it’s a creative endeavor.

So typically I’ve given such problems out as homework, with the instructions that students may work together on understanding the problem and drafting up a sketch of the solution (Polya’s stages 1 and 2) but the main solution itself, as well as any reality-checking, has to be done individually.

This article from the Harvard Crimson from a year ago captures exactly what I wish this process would look like on the students’ level. The article is about Math 55, called “probably the most difficult undergraduate math class in the country”. How do these students handle the homework in this class, which is assigned frequently and hits like a ton of bricks?

Georges Bizet’s Carmen blares from the computer of Menyoung Lee ’10. The boys sit scattered around their gray worktable, their eyes telltale red and fingers sore from countless hours at their laptops, dutifully LaTeXing problem sets. They have been here since 2 p.m. and will work for almost 12 straight hours to complete the problem set due the following day.

As the hours pass, they discuss the problem set. They formalize and write the solutions on their own for academic integrity. Despite the class’s cutthroat stereotype, this session is about community, not competition. [emph. added]

They work hard as a group — they have to — but when it comes time to actually write the solution, they voluntarily break off to work the solution out on their own, because they have a sense of academic integrity. It’s a community, but not a commune. Nobody is taking anybody else’s work and turning it in as their own, because I suppose they have pride in their work and in their abilities. As far as I can tell there are no timed assessments in Math 55 to hold them individually accountable.

I wouldn’t want my Geometry and Algebra classes to be as hard as Math 55, but I’d love it if students would have a solid sense of the correct point when working together on problems needs to stop and individual work needs to begin, and then make that switch from group to individual work as a matter of personal ethics and an understanding of what it means to learn a subject.  And I’d love not to have to shift assessment of problem-solving over to timed tests as a result.

Do students in high school and certain college courses where group work is stressed more and more frequently understand that this point exists?

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P.S. to the previous post about group work

Another thing about group work and assessment. In some courses, particularly upper-division courses with small enrollments, the same kind of individual accountability I’m looking for can be found through oral presentations, not just timed assessments.

I found this out in the textbook-free quasi-Moore Method abstract algebra course I did this past semester. Students were free to work with each other and consult outside sources on any course task they wished to, but at the end of the day their grade depended on their ability to get up in front of the class (and me) and present their work — answering questions on the particulars, being able to explain the overall strategy of a proof, and defending their work against potential holes. Students who could do this on a regular basis scored highly. Students who couldn’t scored poorly. It worked out.

And I know that the students learned a valuable lesson: You don’t present something unless you know it’s right, otherwise you’ll end up embarrassed. And don’t discount the educational value of potential embarrassment.

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A resolution about group work

One of the things I have learned this semester (which is now officially over, having turned in my last batch of grades this morning) is the following lesson which I am convinced I must implement immediately: Group work has been playing far too great of a role in my student’s grades. From this point forward, assignments which could conceivably be done in groups — not just those that are designated for group work — will count for no more than 10-15% of the grade in my courses.

I like collaborative learning. I think, in fact, that working with other people on math can be not only a highly effective way of doing so but also carries with it a powerful pro-math socialization effect. The best personal friendships that I had during my college + grad school years were those that I formed with my classmates in my various math classes, as we struggled through material that, to us at the time, was really hard. Not only did those friends help me learn, I also associated good times and shared victories over math problems with learning math.

But here’s the deal: At the end of the day, the grade that an individual earns in a class, mine or anybody else’s, has to be an accurate reflection of that individual’s mastery of the material and that individual‘s ability to solve problems and think effectively. If were reasonably confident that group effort on problems was translating into individual mastery, I’d be perfectly willing to admit as much group work as students want. But the fact is that this has not been the case.

Case in point: In a recent course, I gave out some pretty difficult advanced problems and instructed students on the usual academic honesty procedures, which boil down to “collaborate if you want but not to the point where you’re no longer doing your own work”. I got back solutions which were eerily similar and all basically correct, and in many cases way out of character for the students handing them in. It was enough to make me suspect a breach of my academic honesty policy, but not enough to make a case. So I simply reproduced the exact same problem on a timed test. And guess what? Whereas before, nearly everybody had a really nice solution — the same really nice solution — this time only one or two people had an idea where to start or even how to correctly parse out the terminology in the problem.

And this has been happening all over, not just in that class — a sort of soft academic dishonesty that nominally stays within bounds. Students work together and hand in work that earns points but does not reflect their understanding of the material. I understand earning good grades is important, but equally important is my ability to identify problem areas and help students grow through them.

So I know what all the digital nativists say about how in the modern workplace, people work collaboratively and it’s a 19th century anachronism to give out timed tests and all that. But you know what? You can’t contribute to a group if you yourself have used the group to feign your own competence. So from here on out, the majority — if not all — of my assessments of students will be done in a timed setting, under conditions that I can set and monitor. For example, in calculus next semester, I’ll assign homework problems and let students work on it all they want in any size group they want. But the grade is going to come from timed quizzes, tests, a midterm, and a final. Some variation on that will also be in place for my two sophomore level courses as well. If you do group work properly, contributing where you can and really working to understand things where you can’t, then it will be no problem to do well on a quiz or test. If not, then the quiz or test will show that up as well.

If that makes me an anachronism, or unhip, or whatnot, then so be it. I’m tired of students not learning the material because they have easy workarounds for doing their own work, and one way or another they will get a good grade in the course if and only if they can show me that they know what they are doing.

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Academic dishonesty again

OK, commenters, you win. My proposal for extending the punishment for academic dishonesty is probably too draconian fascist much like walking the plank strict. Even if I fixed the “five-game suspension” problem for athletes, I admit most students caught in academic dishonesty aren’t cold-blooded cheaters but basically good people who are naive to the ways of college and have gotten themselves talked into thinking that cheating is acceptable if one can sort of morally justify it. And as such, they don’t need the full force of the sanctions that I proposed to get the lesson across.

But at least at my college, the professor reserves the right to suggest withholding parts of the standard penalty for academic dishonesty. While I always report academic dishonesty to the Dean, and while I have done so at least once a semester ever since I started working here, in fact I have almost never recommended the full punishment. So even if the range of punishments allowed were expanded drastically, like I proposed, a professor could hold back whatever portions s/he chose while retaining the right to drop a bomb on somebody who was violating academic honesty blatantly and without remorse. So I’m not sure why raising the upper end of what punishment can be meted out should be such a bad thing.

But regardless, I still think that punishing academic dishonesty at the level of grades only is barking up the wrong tree. Students get into academic dishonesty — cold-blooded or otherwise — by thinking that cheating is what’s best for their grade right now. It’s all about the grade. The punishment needs to communicate unambiguously that academic honesty is not all about the grade but about defending the basic foundation of college, which is mutual trust. You violate that trust, you dismember the community, and you should receive some temporary but substantive time-out from being a part of that community.

If it hurts or takes away something that’s important to the student, then so be it — cheating takes away something that is important to the college, and to me. 

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