The battle between faculty trying to maintain the integrity of their assessments and students trying to gain an unfair advantage has been part of education longer than I've been a part of it as faculty or as a student. It is an eternal challenge that you will win some times, and you will lose others. The tactics undertaken to minimize cheating can be time consuming, sometimes feeling overwhelming, and can negatively impact the rapport between student and teaching and thus jeopardize the educational impact that is the primary goal of education.
With that, I'm going to start with my assessment of the phenomenon of cheating. Further, let me admit that I have often fallen short of my own guidance, but continuously endeavor to do better.
- Most students are relatively honest. By relatively, I mean that they will not engage in gross integrity violations, however, they likely will engage in minor, or grey, transgressions. This leads to the first piece of advice: clearly state, on the syllabus and in class, exactly what constitutes cheating and stick to it. Absolute clarity is essential. The most frustrating instances I have faced are ones where the student has a reasonable shred of a claim that they thought that their behavior was acceptable. For instance, if there is no evidence that working with others on homework is considered cheating it cannot be enforced as a violation. Some instructors allow this, some don't. Absolute clarity is necessary. Are they allowed to use internet resources, solutions from other texts, etc.? This is hard! It is normal to have different rules for formative versus summative assignments. Typically rules are more lax for formative assignments to encourage learning through group communication and resource usage. However, in my personal experience it's unwise to have more than two sets of rules for a course. Keep in mind that they are often taking multiple classes and this can look like 10 different sets of rules to them. Simplicity can help preclude unintended violations.
- A few students lack any sense of guilt. Various estimates put the percentage of the population who is sociopathic at 1%-4%. Given common teaching loads, that means you likely have at minimum one sociopath in your classes each term. Sociopaths have no sense of guilt and can only be motivated by personal cause and effects that they sense. If they believe they won't get caught, and the rewards are sufficiently high, they will cheat without hesitation. This is one reason why you must enact anti-cheating strategies regardless of everything else. Be cognizant that we all are prone to mirror imaging.
- Most students will cheat if the penalty for failure is unbearable. Consider an example: a single parent has spent their last resources on this last class needed to graduate and accept a job that will transform the wellbeing of them and their child, but for whatever reason, they are not expecting to be able to pass the final exam without cheating. Setting aside the arguments that they should have avoided this situation (and I will argue that not all situations can be avoided), the supposition that the student may cheat is very strong. As an instructor or advisor, when one observes such a case, it is prudent to consider advising that the student use the appeals process and another process that can compensate for a justifiable shortcoming of the student (such as a substantial illness). Maintaining academic integrity isn't always easy. There are some who indeed would simply forgive this and look the other way. I believe we have failed as instructors when we reach this point, regardless of the path chosen. The best practice is always to avoid a no-win scenario, about which I will provide some guidance based on my experience and discussions with other faculty.
- A scenario that would be a minor stressor for one student can be an immense motivator for cheating for another. While some students will be quite pleased to earn any passing grade in a class, others cannot bear the embarrassing blemish of a non-perfect grade. Cheating may not come from the students who you expect. Their personal expectations are usually not known to the instructor and become hidden motivators.
- Cheating students seemingly will invest more time figuring out how to cheat than studying. If often seems that they will spend more time attempting to cheat than it would take to simply perform well in the course. This probably isn't true, but when it is it's likely due to a deficiency in prerequisite material that would necessitate substantially more effort than would be required for a more prepared student.
- The risk/reward ratio plays strongly into the decision process of students. If the reward is high (substantive impact on grades), cheating is motivated. If the risk is low, cheating is likewise motivated. Maintaining an appropriate balance that demotivates cheating for the vast majority of students is critical to minimizing this behavior and improve your success.
- Good students plead for enforcement of academic integrity. They feel that the value of their degree and GPA is undermined by the false achievements of those who cheat. When you identify these students, listen. They often feel ignored. They want to help you, and they want your help. They often resign themselves to the fact that the situation happens but can be revived if you give them hope that you will act on it.
- Not enforcing academic integrity rigorously and thoroughly sends the message that it acceptable. In doing so, an instructor makes themselves a target for cheating and results in loss of respect from students. It also fails in a core tenet of education- the development of ethical graduates.
- Preventing cheating is better than catching cheating. It is almost always better to prevent cheating rather than trap students. Building the habit of ethical behavior will hopefully lead to sustained ethical behavior. It won't always, but enforcing academic policies after a violation is always more time consuming than precluding the violation and yet more damage is done to the student, the instructor, and the institution. Thus there is indeed a selfish benefit for the institution and instructor to attempt to preclude cheating. When enforcing academic integrity policies becomes regular, the culture has broken down and needs to be rebuilt, in some part with examples made.
- When enforcement is neglected, you have lost. The integrity of your classes is lost and you will have lost the respect of your peers and best students. Enforcement is never easy, but a reputation of strict enforcement will quickly reduce the amount of violations and thus the workload of enforcement. Failure to do so increases this workload.
Preventing cheating on unsupervised work is the most challenging for obvious reasons. The principle goal of homework is to be formative. In an ideal world no scores would be given but helpful guidance with the instructor learning about the students' progress and adjusting to compensate. However, we know this doesn't work. So, some reward or penalty must be assigned based on performance to motivate sincere effort on the part of students. Too little and the assignments are ignored. Too much and the risk reward ratio motivates cheating. Common recommendations are between 5% and 10% of the grade should be for the regular small assignments that constitute homework. I find that more motivates students to work so closely together that individual performance is correlated too strongly with the best student in a group.
Gone are the days when we controlled access to the homework solutions. It's long been time to accept defeat on this matter, although I still comply with publisher agreements not to make solutions available. The internet, high quality cell phone cameras, and social media have resulted in an ecosystem where one must simply accept that access to solutions exists. With that said, there is little risk of getting caught. No peer need ever know- in years past they would have had to share paper copies. There is little risk, or should be little risk. However it turns out that weak students can bungle this up. They often copy solutions verbatim as their laziness precludes them working to even have a basic understanding of the solution. Thus the first piece of advise to preclude cheating.
Require very specific formats and organization for homework. Rigorously enforce them. It should not conform to the format of the solution manual.
Students who cheat will struggle to take one solution and reorganize it to another structure. Further, many solution manuals' solutions are very poorly formatted for a hand written solution. They want for space and the authors typically skip steps for the sake of expediency. What is obvious to an expert who wrote a solution manual is not obvious to a learner. This can be leveraged to always require extra details that require student knowledge to complete.
Be very clear in writing on the syllabus, and reiterate verbally, what constitutes cheating specific to homework. What is allowed, and what is not allowed. Eliminate any grey areas. They benefit no one.
You will not prevent all cheating on homework. The reward/risk is far too high for some students. You should accept that some cheating is inevitable or you will become a "homework cheating Don Quixote".
You will not identify all cheating on homework. Don't let a lack of observation lead you to believe it isn't happening. However, never make a unsupportable accusation. You will pay a substantial price with more students than just the accused.
Projects are the bane of existence for many students. Better students often hate working with others as it slows them down. Weaker students dislike the exposure of their lack of fundamental knowledge to better students who can readily observe it and disdain them. Students who don't (or didn't) cheat feel aggrieved at perceptions of the ease at which others might cheat through using disallowed sources, upperclassmen, or simply leveraging stronger partners in a group.
The first piece of advice is, when appropriate:
Always subject projects to plagiarism checks. Services such as TurnItIn enable easy plagiarism checking for many projects. Hopefully your institution subscribes to such a service. Eventually they will have a library of projects from your courses to preclude copying from former students.
The second is:
Have students run their own plagiarism checks. There is no need to make this harder on yourself than necessary. When students discover how easy it is for us to identify cheating they stop, with rare exceptions.
When students work on group projects, they naturally form groups that may not be to your liking for pedagogical reasons. This isn't an article about that process. Regardless of how groups are formed, cheating in group projects can be seen as taking credit for other teammates work. It is often overlooked by teachers because a single grade is assigned to the effort with each student receiving the same grade regardless of effort or productivity.
However, there is an easy way to adjust for this.
At a minimum, have students score each other on their performance as a whole, but privately.
My simple process, which works exceedingly well, is that I give each student 100 percentage points to distribute points amongst themselves and their teammates. In my observation substantial value is obtained by having them self-assess.
Three students will have 300 points to distribute (each having discretion over 100), 4 will have 400, and so on. The average number of points each student can receive from their peer will thus be 100%. This becomes a score I weigh the project score with to adjust recorded scores up or down. I look for consistency (a member is scored the same by other team members), which is generally very good, and I look for altruism.
Student Prj score Peer weighting Net peer Net score Ben Sue Jen Ben 90 35 35 37 107 96.3 Sue 90 25 20 25 70 63 Jen 90 40 45 38 100 110.7 TOTALS NA 100 100 100 100 AVE: 90
In this example, Ben distributed his 100 percentage points 35, 25, 40, to Ben (himself), Sue, and Jen. Clearly he thinks Sue didn't do much, but Jen did more than him. Looking at the table, Ben is consistently thought to be the #2 performing group member, Sue the worst, with Jen the best. Also observable is a trend that is nearly university in my observations: students rate themselves equal to or worse than their peers rate them. Ben's average rating is 36.7, Sue's rating is 23.3, and Jen's is 41. Selfishness is obvious and exceedingly rare.
In only one single group have I seen an instance where a student scored themselves higher than their peers scored them. Consistently I see students scoring themselves lower than they are scored by their peers. It is a marvelous thing to see.
With this model, students do not complain when they have a weak partner as this usually produces a bump in their grade (providing opportunity for more work and thus recognition in the class). Further, I see stronger students giving more credit to weaker students then the weak students, indicating generosity of spirit. I have seen students form a group strategically in order to leverage this. All students benefitted from the arrangement- the lazy student did little work, but because of the generosity of the strong students, received some credit. The stronger student had more upside available- the points not given to the weak student- and thus improved their grades. An experienced teacher will quickly realize that the high caliber students, while improving their project score, did not increase their score in the class because they had A grades almost regardless of performance on the project. Yet, those students, with this methodology, actively seek out weaker students which benefits those students by being able to observe work habits of stronger peers.
Proving cheating on programing assignments can be daunting. This happened to me in Fall 2015. I was faced with the challenge of proving that 5 students had indeed written the same code. It is not unusual for successful codes to look identical, so how was I to prove cheating?
In this case I did have one major advantage- none of the students had a program that implemented the assigned algorithm. Further, they all had the same nonsensical "algorithm." As non-working as it was, calling it an algorithm is giving it too much credit.
However, I was sufficiently motivated to make sure that the integrity violation case was successful. Here is what I looked for:
- Spacing habits. Individuals writing code will tend to put spaces in some locations, and not in others, depending on their personal habits. Weak students will not follow standards for readability. I won't go further, as I don't want to solve the problem for future students. The effort and skill necessary to cheat well is often unavailable to students who wish to cheat.
- Spacing trends. The first equal sign had no space before it, the second did, the third did, the fourth didn't, etc. This pattern was consistent amongst the cheaters... an unlikely scenario.
- Indent trends. Indenting is usually done for the sake of readability. When one doesn't understand the code, it's done to convince the grader that something works. This set of students shared meaningless indentation patterns.
- Unused variables. Each student defined a variable in the same location that was never used elsewhere with the same values.
- Common variable names: this is actually quite common when using conventions. In fact, it's very common. Cheaters use changing variable names to cover up that the code was copied. The 100% lack of shared variable names was suspicious. For instance, t for time is common. One expects commonality, but there was none.
- Nonsensical variable names. The desperation to have 5 different names for the same thing lead to arcane naming that didn't fit any convention or logic.
- Inability to execute without an error. One code managed to be messed up enough that it wouldn't even execute. However, it did somehow produce a plot for the report. Always run suspicious code
- The graphs turned in didn't match the output of the code. Labels were not what the code said they should be. The graph was generated before the code was edited.
- Nonsensical settings. The codes shared nonsensical settings that individually wouldn't be surprising. However, the same setting existed in each code. It did nothing except highlight that the code was copied.
Quizzes & Exams
By and large the predominance of the grade of most courses derives from the summative assessments. These present a substantial reward for the student should they successfully cheat. These activities are subject to the greatest strategizing, and faculty, including myself, eventually find themselves impressed by the ingenuity or audacity of students attempting to cheat. This is where student efforts are focused.
Broadly, preventing cheating requires supervision. Supervision requires diligence and constant suspicion of deception.
I recommend an extra proctor for more than 10 students, and an additional proctor for each additional 20 students (31 students requires 3 observers). There must always be eyes available when proctors are busy answering questions as the questions are often decoys to draw the instructor away from a friend.
As an alternative (or better, addition) to more proctors, outfit the room with cameras to record the entire exam. Suspicious behavior that is recorded can be used in integrity hearing. However, in my opinion it's best to:
- Make sure students are aware of the cameras, and make a big deal of turning them on. (precluding cheating is best for all involved)
- Put the cameras in the back so the students don't know if they are even on (deterrence only requires creating the belief of supervision)
At least one proctor should sit behind the class. A student cannot be sure of safely cheating if they cannot locate all proctors and ensure they will not be observed.
Broad categories of cheating and strategies for preventing them are:
Inappropriately transporting information into an exam
Examples (nonexclusive) are:
- Unauthorized crib sheets, which may be hidden:
- Under a piece of clothing
- Inside a ball point pen
- A rubber band (stretch, write, let contract to hide)
- Water bottle (the water facing side of the label)
- Any place, if a student takes a bathroom break
- Information already written on nominally blank paper or exam sheets
- Information written on the body on the:
- Forearm (under a sleeve)
- Ankle (under a sock)
- Other location that can be covered and uncovered as needed
- Information stored in calculators or other electronic devices
- Information written on an eraser
- Information written on the bottom of a shoe
The creativity is unlimited. Actions to prevent this include:
- Keep what students may bring to an exam to a bare minimum.
- Make an exam open-book and open-notes precludes cheating by bringing these materials from being possible. The fewer the limitations, the less the enforcement. However, be clear about the line.
- Be very suspicious of a student who is dressed unusually for them or carrying an unusual item for them. This is obviously easier in a small class.
- Reduce the allowable level of calculator, or write problems to remove the value. Modern calculators are quite capable of storing notes and solutions.
Communicating with others
The ability of students to communicate must be managed. Students must, at the very least, have cell phones stored in their bags out of sight. Better yet, these should be set to the side of the classroom.
If there are extenuating circumstances, the cell phone should be given to the instructor who can answer in an emergency. This need often evaporates when this option is provided.
Many modern calculators are cable of communicating through various means. You must become aware of the models being used and their communication ability. Blocking wifi may be allowable during an exam, or traffic may be able to be monitored.
Walking amongst students, and sneaking up from behind (not to startle), is the best way to make sure that they are aware they may be caught using a calculator inappropriately. Fear is the deterrent here. However, being too aggressive can be overly intrusive to compliant students.
A classic cheating strategy is to have a four-person team, although variants can exist. Through a nonchalant action, such as a cough, sneeze, scratch, or tap, a student may alert others of their desire for misdirection. A distant student who is part of the team raises a hand to ask a question. While the proctor is distracted, communication occurs between the originating student and another.
Do not allow students to chose where they sit. This is allowing cheating students to make the first move.
For some students, I will manually assign seating to control appropriate separation. Other times, I will randomly assign seating.
A quick method to assign seats (if they are not numbered) is to write numbers 1-100 (for a class of 100) and have them placed in an organized pattern on the tables. Number exam booklets (I always use exam booklets to control information) and hand them out to students strategically. Students who walk in together do not get consecutively numbered exams. Students who recognize as friends are also intentionally separated.
Cheating off other students' exam papers
This is the classic scenario that we are all aware of. A weak student tries to observe a strong students exam to obtain information.
Preventative measures include:
- Change the order of answers in multiple choice problems
- Change fundamental numbers in the problem statement and have multiple versions of the exam. Do not change a physical constant: students will remember g = 9.86 m/s^2. Change another number, say the mass. Even better, change a digit. For instance, 13 kg versus 18 kg. From a distance, the numbers look similar. The student who copies may not notice the subtle difference and "solve" with the wrong numbers- a dead giveaway.
- Change colors of the exams. While this is a staple and indicator of the exams that are common, that isn't necessarily true. To spice things up:
- change colors without changing any problems
- change colors, but don't have them correlate with different problem (or multiple choice answer) sets
Students will build their expectations early in the term. Change them on the final exam, and be unpredictable. Do not enable them to prepare to counter your move. It isn't the most ambitious students who are likely your concern, but they will spend a small amount of time strategizing.
Take-home exams create a massive challenge in that the reward is great and the probability of getting caught is minimal. In part you will be relying on weak students doing such a poor job cheating that they are easily caught when they could have easily avoided detection.
Given the ease with which students can cheat on out-of-class activities, I advise against them, although some classes make it difficult to avoid. Classes where this is hard to avoid are those where solutions are too long for a reasonable exam period. Small classes are easier to manage, but still trustworthiness is suspect. Do not get fooled into thinking you know if they cheated or not from what they turn in. It's very difficult.
When a take home exam is given, test a portion of what should have been learned/understood and test it in-class or one-on-one. This provides some validation that the student at least understands what they turned in.
Carefully scrutinize patterns in turned solutions for indications of non-original thought. Here you must rely on exactly the opposite structure for homework: do not indicate the structure of the solution and organization. You will use improbable consistencies to indicate collusion.
Slight changed to problems are prudent. Leverage the reality that only strong students can generalize solutions, and they will be unwilling to share their work. Weaker students are less likely to be able to generalize and successfully work together or translate one solution to another.
Further, attempt to generate problems where the solution can follow separate paths- a bifurcation of sorts. For instance, in fluid dynamics, calculation of a Reynolds number results in an a determination of how to proceed with the problem. The entire path is different, resulting in solutions that look very dissimilar from the students' point forward.
This is the most distasteful part of the job. Nobody likes it. However, with a bit of experience and prudence, your effort can be minimized and the incidences greatly reduced. Please provide your feedback below and I will incorporate it as I receive it.
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