Cheats and the Cheaters That Use Them

To foil cheaters, some universities have adopted an impressive range of new technologies, according to a New York Times story this week. All that stuff looks pretty expensive, especially if it isn’t just a showy pretense designed to fool would-be cheaters into thinking someone might be watching.

Now I’d take a slightly different approach, if I were those universities busily installing monitors and watching for pen cameras. In at least some contexts, I’d let students go ahead and cheat.

Let’s break this down a bit. There are two different kinds of cheating at issue in the article. The first is cheating on an exam or problem set in a very large lecture-based course. The other is plagiarized writing submitted for courses of varying sizes.

Why is either kind of cheating a concern? What’s the consequence of cheating to a university or to society as a whole? Primarily, the cost is that universities could end up certifying graduates as having strong or accomplished expertise in particular areas and have that certification mean absolutely nothing as far as actual competence. Which you’d think would then lead to a loss of faith in that certification, and hence to a loss of interest in preferentially hiring graduates with such certifications. Secondarily, in the case of plagiarism, we’re also concerned with the theft of someone else’s intellectual property. I suppose you might think that cheating and plagiarism are also moral problems, but I’m not terribly convinced that many big universities care that much about the development of the moral or ethical character of their graduates, nor is it clear that they should do to any great degree. This is first and foremost about protecting the value of the credentials.

So let’s look at the exam situation. What’s the issue if a student cheats on a final exam in a 800-person lecture course and gets an “A” that they didn’t deserve? Let’s say this is a necessary premed intro course in Biology or Chemistry, and the student is a premed. Surely it’s going to show in the next course up the sequence that the student doesn’t have the knowledge they pretended to have? Or maybe the next course after that? Some time before graduation? So all you have to say is, “If you cheat, you might get away with it today, but you’re going to crash and burn next year. We teach this sequentially because you have to learn it sequentially, not because we’re cruel ogres who hate you all.” Right?

Well, here’s the problem. In a lot of Mighty Big Universities these days, it’s possible that the student who cheats in the 1000-person class will cheat in next year’s 800-person class and will cheat in the following year’s 600-person class. And no one will ever really see that student with any specificity or individuality from the first day they enroll to the last day of classes, and most of the people who will teach that student will be graduate students or adjuncts who are handling very large numbers of students for very poor compensation and generally don’t have the time or relationship to the institution to do more than basic due diligence in assessing student performance. In those kinds of universities, the skilled cheater whose primary tests of competence are going to be formal exams could arguably get away with it all the way to the end and into medical school. Where, we all hope, they will in fact finally get caught, though I think we also all know that’s not necessarily the case either.

So the answer isn’t really technology. The answer is pedagogy. It’s ok to deliver introductory courses in lecture format to large groups of students. It’s not ok to not follow that up with much smaller, more face-to-face courses where every single individual student’s daily, continuous facility with the subject matter is made visible to an instructor. It may turn out that staffing that kind of curricular design is more expensive than installing monitors and watermarking note paper and so on. But that’s what really makes the credential worth something, makes it an assurance that every graduate has been observed and assessed by an expert as possessing the competencies that he or she is certified as possessing. If a large introductory biology class in the first year was always followed by a 30-person lab course where the primary means of assessing student performance were not formal exams but instead involved their ability to produce relevant knowledge on an ongoing basis in the lab, you’d spot cheaters more effectively than if you installed every technological safeguard imaginable.

Plagiarized writing is a more complicated issue in certain respects, but it’s still easier to deal with through pedagogy than it is by perfecting’s algorithms.

First, again, if a student consistently progresses over four years into smaller courses where they receive more individual attention from a professor, usually it’s going to be obvious when there is a considerable gap between the student’s formal written work and their capabilities in discussion or in types of writing that can’t be cut-and-paste plagiarized, such as short response papers, timed writing exercises in class, or hybrid forms like blog entries. If not within a single class, the discrepancy will often become visible across several classes, and is often the first thing that tips a professor off that they need to examine a student’s writing more closely, when their performance in a current course is wildly at odds with their performance in a past class where the kind of writing and subject matter is was very similar. (This tends to mean either that something really emotionally or personally difficult is going on in the student’s life, that the professors in each course have wildly divergent standards, or that the student has at some point submitted work not their own.)

Second, the easiest way to beat most plagiarism is to come up with essay prompts that are highly customized to a course, and to individualize or customize your course designs in some respect. I constantly shift my readings mostly to please myself and to chase what I think are the most interesting issues or questions in a particular subject area, but it doesn’t hurt to be using material that’s not commonly used in classes and to craft assignments which would be almost impossible to find plagiarisable material for. I think most humanists and social scientists can find a way to accomplish this in upper-level courses.

The only thing you can’t beat that way is the student who is willing to pay high prices for a skilled analytic writer to produce a customized product that responds to the prompt. I’m sure there are services like that out there. I’m unfortunately pretty certain that it’s not just students that use them, but some researchers (after all, isn’t that what pharmaceutical companies have been caught doing for some researchers)?

I’m also unfortunately sure that this is an area where it’s a bit harder to say that crime does not pay. I have no trouble saying with a straight face that habitual cheating in subjects where knowledge is concrete, technical and cumulative will eventually have disastrous consequences for the cheater. When it comes to writing or humanistic knowledge? Well, there’s more than a few professors who’ve gotten away with plagiarism in the last decade, after all. There are non-fiction authors and journalists who’ve had whole careers stuffed full of fabulism and misrepresentation and never had to pay any price for it. I’ve known people who’ve written reports for governments or think tanks who’ve spotted blatant plagiarism in the work of peers and known that it was pointless to call attention to it.

Here maybe you really do have to fall back on the proposition that education is partly about ethical training, with the main proposition here being, “Don’t develop bad habits that will seriously limit your potential later on.” Not so much the threat that you’ll be caught and punished, revealed and ruined, but that in more subtle ways, you’re willingly taking on the role of being a bottom-feeder and a second-rater at the age of 21, when it’s a bit early to angle for that as your place in life. There’s a human limit for living with being Christian de Neuvillette, no matter how many Cyrano-for-hires you may rely upon in the interim.

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One Response to Cheats and the Cheaters That Use Them

  1. G. Weaire says:

    I think this underplays another motive behind trying to stamp out cheating, one that I think is more powerful on the level of the individual instructor than concern for the value of the credential.

    One wants to be fair to the students who don’t cheat. Some other student is getting a C or a D because they followed the rules. There may be practical consequences: they may lose their scholarship. But even if there aren’t, there’s no point in pretending that we don’t want students to become psychologically invested in their grades.

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