“Am I the unethical one?” A Philosophy Professor & His Cheating Students
“All I did was go to a website that is designed to facilitate cheating and set up a kind of camera to see who visited it.”
That’s Garret Merriam, associate professor of philosophy at Sacramento State University, who recently caught 40 of the 96 students in his online Introduction to Ethics course cheating on a take-home final exam.The story begins with him using Google to see if some of the questions on his final exam were online, and finding a copy of one of his previous final exams on the website Quizlet. Ostensibly a study aid website, Quizlet allows users to upload materials to the site, such as exam questions and answers, and is one of many sites students use to cheat on their assignments. He emailed a request to Quizlet that they take down the exam, which they did. But finding the exam gave Merriam an idea.
I decided to ‘poison the well’ by uploading [to Quizlet] a copy of my final with wrong answers. (The final is 70-80 questions, all multiple choice, 5 options each.) Most of these answers were not just wrong, but obviously wrong to anyone who had paid attention in class. My thinking was that anyone who gave a sufficient number of those same answers would be exposing themselves, not only as someone who cheated by looking up the final online, but who didn’t even pay enough attention in class to notice how wrong the answers were.
When the students turned in their finals, and he noticed that many of the students had selected the “obviously wrong” answers from the planted version of the final, he had to decide how to distinguish the cheaters from those who merely made mistakes. He ended up using the following standard: if there was no more than a 1 in 100 chance that the number of matching wrong answers a student gave was a coincidence, he counted them as having cheated, as he explains:
When my students turned in their finals this semester, I compared their answers with the wrong answers from the planted test. A total of 45 questions on this semester’s final were on the planted final. (The exact questions change every semester, depending on a number of factors.) As expected, nearly all students had at least a few wrong answers that matched; statistically speaking this is likely given the number of questions. I ran a binomial analysis and found the likelihood that someone whose answers matched on 19 out of the 45 planted questions had about a 1:100 chance of doing so by coincidence. That was my (admittedly somewhat arbitrary) threshold, and anyone who matched at least that many, I suspected of cheating. (The highest match was 40 out of 45, which has a 1:10-Quintillion chance of being a coincidence.)
To my amazement, that threshold implies that 40 out of 96 students looked at and used the planted final for at least a critical mass of questions.
When he confronted those students about this, most of them admitted they had cheated; the consequences for their grades are still being determined:
I emailed these students telling them what I had done and what I found. About 2/3rds of them confessed right away or denied it at first and quickly changed their tune. The remaining third either haven’t gotten back to me yet or have insisted on their innocence. (I am considering that possibility for one student who is right ‘on the bubble’, but the rest are upwards of 1:1 billion chance, or more.)
I am in discussion with my Chair about exactly what response is appropriate for these students, but a zero on the final is the bare minimum, and an F in the class is likely for some, if not all of those who cheated.
As you can probably imagine, this has been exceptionally stressful for me (I’m neither a forensic mathematician, nor a cop, so this work took a lot of time that I would have preferred to have spent grading final essays.)
Professor Merriam wanted to share what happened on Daily Nous to see what other people in philosophy made of the situation and the actions he took. He had discussed it a little on Twitter, and while some people were, he says, “sympathetic and supportive,” others (for example) expressed the view that what he did was itself unethical. He disagrees:
As far as I can tell, their argument seems to boil down to the claim that my actions were deceptive or dishonest. I was accused of ‘entrapment’ and ‘honey-potting.’ More than a few seemed to think that my transgression was as bad or even worse than my students’. They suggested I should have just taken the copy of my test down and left it at that. As far as I can tell most of these people are not teachers of any kind, and none of them seemed to teach philosophy, ethics, or humanities.
These charges don’t make sense to me. I did not encourage or nudge my students to cheat, I did not do anything to make such cheating more likely or easier. Quite the opposite: I tell all my students what will happen if I catch them cheating, and I gave them a comprehensive study guide for the final.
As far as Quizlet goes, all I did was go to the website that is designed to facilitate cheating and set up a kind of camera to see who visited it. I honestly do not see what is objectionable about that. My University has an academic honesty policy that explicitly says that looking at other tests without the instructor’s permission counts as cheating (Although had I know it would be this much of an issue I would have been explicit about that in my syllabus as well, rather than just linking to the policy, an oversight I plan to correct going forward.)
Though he disagrees with his critics, he “open to the possibility that I might be wrong”
Maybe (as the saying goes) I am the asshole here. But I would take that possibility a lot more seriously if that were the judgment of my immediate peers (philosophers at least, if not specifically ethicists), and even more so still if those peers could articulate an argument beyond simplistic accusations of dishonesty or ‘entrapment.’
So, I thought I would reach out to you and see if you could share this with Daily Nous readers and ask them: Am I the unethical one here?
That’s one question. But it might be more useful to consider more generally: (a) feasible cheat-deterring strategies for professors teaching large classes, (b) what professors should do when they catch their students cheating (when this is not settled by university policy), and (c) the extent to which professors should concern themselves with whether their students are cheating.
The professor did make cheating “easier” by uploading a quiz (albeit one with wrong answers). This was not different from what others (presumably past students) have done to facilitate cheating. (One has to wonder what motivates someone to upload a quiz — one they have presumably already taken — to a website for the benefit of others. Altriusm? The Outlaw Code?) Whether it was unethical to do so is a far more complicated question. I’d be inclined to think it was a “lie of omission” that did not encourage anyone to cheat, but made it easier for those already inclined to cheat. If he plans to do it again, he could mitigate the charges of entrapment by disclosing to his students that he has planted quizzes with wrong answers on popular cheating websites.Report
It’s not the Outlaw Code nor Altruism. Websites like Quizlet require students to either pay for access or to get access by uploading a set number of relevant documents. So the cheater uploaded the quiz to access other stuff to cheat in other classes.
Poison all these wells, with fire if possible. This guy’s alright in my book.Report
That is not true for quizlet. Quizlet simply allows users to make an account, easily via google, to upload study sets and provides users with various tools for memorization and retention.
Quizlet has been used by myself for studying for courses in a completely reasonable manner that would never be considered “cheating”. For example, for a Spanish class, I would create a study set for the vocabulary for a module to study and not use that on the test, just for retention. If other students wanted to use my study set to cheat, that is one of a million options for foreign language cheating such as google translate.
You are thinking of some particular “cheating aid” websites that I won’t name, usually with paid subscriptions. However I’m surprised that this is highly upvoted given that it completely mischaracterizes the website Quizlet. I’m sure Quizlet has been used for cheating, but every application I’ve seen it used for is boring, everyday flash card studying.Report
I agree and disagree. It’s unfortunate that it has come to this. Quizlet is great for flash cards but students may need to go back to making their own. Not available for others. I am a return student (31 yoa) these students are straight up cheating. Not all but more than you can imagine. Never opening their book – using AI bots to answers questions. Something has got to give. We cant have a generation of graduates who didnt open their book. Thats scary to consider. That makes a degree worth less. The cheating will get worse as they teach their siblings. If they start flunking by using quizlet – they will stop. Chegg has many wrong answers too. These cheating sites are doing more harm than good from what I am observing.Report
I cant figure out how to delete my comment lolReport
By ‘cheating’ I suppose is meant effective, successful cheating, not merely acting with the intention of successfully cheating. Then he really made cheating harder by spreading those wrong answers. It’s unclear how causing someone to be unsuccessful in some endeavour might count as making it easier.Report
By ‘effective, successful cheating’ I suppose is meant partly effective, successful cheating, not merely acting to completely successfully cheat. Then he really didn’t make cheating harder by providing students with answers to copy without attribution. It’s unclear how providing material support in some endeavor might count as making it harder.Report
All sarcasm aside, there appears to be a misunderstanding. The students (a) viewed another’s exam answers online, (b) transferred those answers to their own exams without attributing them to someone else, (c) submitted their exams for credit. Each of these is an action taken to carry out their intention to cheat. They were successful in each of these actions, and Garret Merriam provided material support for each in that he served them by supplying the answers they used in viewing, transferring, and submitting. In doing this, he facilitated in carrying out their intention and thus made it easier for them to do so.
If (a)-(c) are sufficient for cheating, Merriam made it easier for students to cheat. If they are not sufficient, the students must do something more in order to cheat. Must the students do more than (a)-(c) in order to cheat? I don’t believe they do.
You, however, apparently believe they do, as you suggest Merriam didn’t make it easier to cheat. What more must they have done? You apparently believe that in order to cheat, they must have succeeded. But succeeded in doing what? Some possible options are (1) avoiding detection, (2) earning credit, and (3) getting correct answers. But none of these is a requirement of cheating.
Regarding (1): If cheating requires avoiding detection, then cheaters can never be caught and punished for cheating. For if they were caught, they would fail to have cheated. But some are caught and punished.
Regarding (2): If cheating requires earning credit, then cheaters cannot receive a zero as punishment on an exam on which they cheated. For if they were to receive a zero, they would have failed to earn credit and thus failed to cheat. But they can and do receive such punishments.
Regarding (3): A teacher “teaches” his students that 1 + 1 = 3, that 1 + 2 = 4, that 1+ 3 = 5, etc. Come test day, one student copies every answer from the student sitting next to him. But since that student answered based on the “teaching,” the copier gets no correct answers. If cheating requires getting correct answers, the copier didn’t cheat. But the copier did cheat.
It seems that in order to cheat, the students need not have succeeded in doing anything more than (a)-(c). If so, the students cheated and Merriam made it easier for them to do it.Report
I teach a large (over 100 students) section of Introduction to Philosophy every year. I often give unannounced but very easy quizzes as an incentive to pay attention during class and complete assigned readings. My official and clearly communicated policy is that quizzes can occur at any time during a lecture period. Of course, it’s often most convenient to administer quizzes at or near the beginning of class.
A few years ago, a pattern developed: Some students—about 15 of them—would show up and wait a few minutes to see whether we’d begin with a quiz. If we didn’t, they’d leave. This was rude, and also somewhat disruptive to other students.
My solution: I waited a week or two until we were discussing the problem of induction. After a quick warm-up activity, I launched into lecture. A bunch of students walked out. As soon as they left, I administered the quiz. The remaining students thought this was great.
I found out later that some of those who had left were annoyed, but I regret nothing. The pattern stopped, and hasn’t recurred.
I have no plans to follow in Dr. Merriam’s footsteps, but I do look forward to sharing his story!Report
I love that this was done during the lecture on induction.Report
Indeed. The irony. Peirce FTW!Report
Why is this either/or?Report
Were the students that were leaving performing less well on the quizzes? If not, then their behaviour was rational: they gained little by attending. “Punishing” them for not attending classes they did not need to acquire the knowledge of the cursus is just plainly wrong.
So, were they performing badly or were they just already holding the knowledge or acquiring it on their own by reading the material? I skipped some classes while at university when I was able to learn it on my own. You were just punishing self-learners by both doing these random quizzes and by deliberately doing one after they left.Report
Notice that these were “very easy quizzes” designed “as an incentive to pay attention during class and complete assigned readings”. There is no claim that these quizzes measure anything of what students are expected to get from the class – just as a proxy to measure if they are doing the basic work that might serve as a foundation for actually getting something from the class.
If the point of the class was to prepare people for quizzes like these in the future, then it would be reasonable to say that people who can do well on these quizzes don’t need to do any other class work. (That might be appropriate in, say, a logic class.)
But if the point of the class was to prepare people to discuss philosophical ideas and write effective analyses of philosophical questions, then these quizzes aren’t a relevant test of that. They are just a test of whether the students have read the material, which would be essential to them discussing and writing about the material, but not at all sufficient.Report
When I taught logic, there were students who could ace the tests blindfolded (typically computer science/other STEM folks). I don’t think I had any moral obligation to penalize them for not attending .The argument that their attendance is of value for other students in the class, even if not them, is the strongest reason, but this argument applies most to classes in which discussion/active participation is crucial (most philosophy classes) ethically, I think it is a case by case basis (isn’t it always, at least in real life non torturing babies for fun cases?). I do think it is a mistake to think or encourage students to think that the value of education is the mark they get on a quiz… even if it were not a simple superficial way of checking if they tried to do the reading.Report
I’m with Sid Johnson: the professor did make cheating easier. That’s not good, but whether it was unethical is complicated. What I would suggest for the future is doing this but telling the students that you’re doing this. That is, tell them that you know that it’s unavoidable that some people will upload such content to such websites and so you (the instructor) have done this as well and in such a way as to enable you to tell if someone is illicitly relying on such prohibited internet content. Explain to them that the penalty for relying on such prohibited internet content will be severe, but don’t tell them which websites you’ve used or what particular content you’ve uploaded, or how you plan on detecting them via this method. The idea, then, is to give them a strong disincentive to use prohibited internet sources.Report
I like the idea of providing this sort of disincentive. But there’s a consequentialist argument agaisnt your suggested approach.
Your suggestion helps students to improve their cheating because it brings to their attention a further reason to carefully select resources, to vet websites, etc. in order to achieve cheaters’ preferred outcomes. Your approach is akin to telling students to watch out for the unhelpful sources of information and to consider the likelihood of incurring penalties associated with cheating. It thus helps cheaters to improve their cheating, even if it does deter some cheaters.
If you instead upload the incorrect exam answers without telling students anything, cheaters would unkowingly be undermining their efforts to receive good grades when they use the answers. When they recieve a poor grade and see that their efforts failed to produce their preferred outcomes, the disvalue of cheating becomes more apparent, and the value of hard work and study becomes more prominent. This approach would lead to an improvement in character, and it wouldn’t help to improve cheating.
The latter approach is more likely to produce better future educational outcomes than the former. And the former is more likely to improve cheating. Overall, uploading answers without telling students produces better outcomes. With this, we have a consequentialist argument against your suggestion.Report
Fair enough. But I guess that I think that my primary goal as an educator should not be to catch as many of those who are willing to cheat as possible but rather to prevent as much cheating as possible both by designing assessments that are very difficult to cheat on and by disincentivizing cheating. I think that this is why many object to Merriam’s approach. It’s designed to catch more people who are willing to cheat at the cost of increasing the number of people who will cheat. (After all, fewer students would have cheated if Merriam had merely removed rather than replaced the problematic content.) So, I think that we should be focused on preventing people from doing wrong rather than identifying and punishing those who are willing to do wrong in the right circumstances.Report
I don’t at all agree that my goal as an educator is to prevent as much cheating as possible. There are limits on how far an instructor ought to go to prevent cheating, and I think it’s perfectly legitimate to try to determine the extent of cheating in one’s course before trying to determine how far one has to do in redesigning pedagogically value assessment to avoid cheating.
For what it’s worth, I suspect he’ll deter more future cheating from telling classes about the time he failed 40 students because they used the answers from false exam, then just from telling them he’s planted an exam.Report
I second most of DoubleA’s comment here, but I must point out that at most public and private institutions in the United States faculty do not have the legal authority to penalize a student for cheating beyond failing the assignment in which the cheating occurred. In my state, for example, sanctions for violating the student code of conduct can only be issued by the designated student conduct officer(s) who acts on behalf of the entire college. Faculty are not student conduct officers. So, as faculty, I cannot legally enforce the student code of conduct. This entails, for instance, that I cannot give a student a failing grade for an entire course or remove students from the course or program of study for academic dishonesty. Circumstances vary somewhat at difference institutions, but I would advise everyone here to check your state’s laws and your institution’s regulations about who has the authority to enforce student conduct rules. Generally speaking, if your institution grants students due process rights regarding violations of the student code of conduct (and most do on account of federal regulations), then it is likely illegal for you or for any other faculty at your institution to issue sanctions for academic dishonesty beyond giving students a failing grade for the individual offending assignment.Report
Your right, I was assuming that failing the final would entail failing the course, but that might not be true.Report
That’s a fair point. At some level, the difference between giving a student a failing grade for an assignment and sanctioning that student for academic dishonesty is academic. If I give the same student failing grades for multiple assignments which makes it impossible for them to pass the course, then it looks like I have given that student a failing grade for the course on account of academic dishonesty. But, legally, I haven’t.Report
An excellent point to raise. I was unaware of this when I started teaching and was told during an evaluation I had to change my academic honesty policy (an F in the course for any violation).
On an absurd number of occasions, I have been in a position where I could only dock a few points off a final grade for serially plagiarizing on low stakes assignments (e.g., mandatory discussion posts in online classes), which seems disproportionately lenient. Unfortunately, the student discipline office at my school (a public community college) does not take academic dishonesty seriously. I suspect they choose to turn a blind eye because of pressure from the state to value graduation rates and times over all else. We serve our students very poorly by conditioning them to expect lighter consequences than they are likely to encounter after they transfer.Report
My only push back on this is that businesses care about results and they don’t care if I typed every character myself or found a stack overflow post to draw inspiration from. The truth is that education is slightly divorced from reality especially with regards to “cheating”.Report
Professional bodies require ethical behaviour of their members. They expel members found to have behaved unethically. Education is precisely aligned with the professions here.Report
I also taught at a community college which clearly turned a blind eye to cheating. They are so desperate for enrollments and rewarded for passing everyone that they never allowed more than a slap on the wrist. I finally quit when one fifth of my class cheated quite obviously on an exam (free response) and shared an absurd error with ridiculous probability of occurring and my dean told me I was limited to only impacting that exam grade. By the end of my time there I had students standing on desk chairs cheating, attendance fraud, ringers enrolled in multiple community colleges and changes to the LMS course reports. I hope community colleges don’t wonder why enrollment is down. The cheating verges on the ridiculous!Report
Having a goal doesn’t mean there are no limits on what you should do in its pursuit. Clearly, you should have other goals.Report
My point is that, qua educator, the goal of minimizing cheating should take priority over that of identifying and punishing those who are willing to cheat.Report
I should have been clearer, I don’t think minimizing cheating is my “primary goal as an educator”. I do think figuring out how pervasive cheating is can take priority over minimizing cheating. Maybe this is a quibble, but he isn’t punishing them for being willing to teach; he’s punishing them for cheating. Putting up the fake exam made cheating easier, but I’m not sure how much it increased the amount of cheating (given the overlap between quizlet, coursehero, etc, just getting the old exam pulled doesn’t mean it’s gone from the internet). It certainly made cheating easier to detect.Report
Sorry, “isn’t punishing them for being willing to cheat” not teach.Report
Uploading your own material with carefully selected incorrect answers to cheating sites is more work than not doing it, so I fail to see how it relates to “limits on far one ought to go”?
Furthermore, the story of “how I failed studenmts by uploading fake exams” is just as effective if true or false, especially a few years after the incident were there would be few proofs if it really happened or not in the minds of students.Your bias in knowing that it did really happened is clouding your judgment: you don’t need to perform it and entrap one class and don’t need to actually upload your material to be able to provide the warning that you would do it and detect the cheaters.
Just go the quizlet and take down your material.Report
I certainly understand why people take issue with the practice, and I’m somewhat sympathetic. But I would’ve thought our primary goal as educators is to promote or facilitate students’ in acquiring an education. Focusing on preventing students from cheating helps achieve the goal. It’s an open question whether the approach I outlined does a better job of this than the approach you outlined, especially if we consider a broader range of outcomes instead of the narrow range of outcomes associated with one class.Report
Right. I should have said our primary goal vis-a-vis cheating is to minimize cheating as opposed to identifying and catching those willing to cheat.Report
The keen mind will read this as “As long as you cheat the right way”.Report
I don’t agree with the premise that he is facilitating cheating. The professor did not notify students of the existence of Quizlet. In order to cheat from his fake test, the student must already be aware of the cheating resource and voluntarily seek out a paper with the answers for his class.
These are students who are *already* cheating, regardless of his intervention. Abstaining from uploading the fake test answers does not stop the student from cheating, it just means they must continue their search for a cheating resource elsewhere.
It is true that some cheaters may get discouraged and resort to attempting to study legitimately, but students with a sufficiently low level is attentiveness to copy “obviously wrong answers” are far more likely to simply answer randomly and hope they get enough points to pass.
These students are not trying to learn, they are trying to get good grades, and are exploiting the flaws in our education system that those two things are not tightly connected.Report
Is it not easier and more tempting to cheat if there’s something online that’s represented as being the answers to the test than if there isn’t? Had he just taken down the answers already up and not replaced them with incorrect answers, it would have been less easy and less tempting to cheat.Report
Some of the worst cheating problems I’ve uncovered have involved honor students who were certainly smart enough to do better on their own. I say this not to dispute your general claims but to expand the profile of the students we might assume are cheaters. My worst cheaters ever were truly pathological about it – they were smart people who easily could have done well on their own but were deliberately choosing to lie and cheat because it was their way. They’re out there now working in some job and doing the same kind of thing, I’m sure. These are the people who double and triple down on the lie when caught red-handed, or who cheat once, get caught, and then immediately go on to cheat again.Report
Yea and some of them are running the UK government.Report
I wonder how you can predict an improvement in character. The difference between the two scenarios is that in the original one, students would know that the resource of bad answers was the teacher and in your version, they would not know why the answers were bad. How can this difference make an impact on their character? Why would your version lead them to the conclusion that cheating was wrong (rather than the conclusion you draw from the first case that the resource was unreliable), esp. if they used the website several times for other exams and they succeeded?Report
I’m not trying to predict improvement in character. It’s not my job to improve my student’s character. It is my job to minimize cheating in my courses.Report
Sorry, I was asking Sam who replied to your comment, not you. That is the reason why my question might seem to you irrelevant (because it really was to your comment).Report
My bad. I see now that it wasn’t a reply to me.Report
Thanks for asking. There are many differences between the two approaches. The relevant difference between the two approaches concerns recognizing and appreciating certain value and disvalue. My approach does a better job of helping students with these things because it allows them to experience the disvalue of cheating for themselves (when getting a poor grade), and then turn their attention to the value of effort and study.
As I see it, the recognition and appreciation of the relevant value and disvalue informs character. I’m thinking of character in terms of the attitudes underlying conduct in general, not specifically moral attitudes. I’m not thinking that if my approach were used, students would come to believe cheating to be wrong (though, of course, they might), but that they would come to have beliefs and desires more conducive to good behavior. For example, instead of thinking cheating is the most effective way to achieve their goals and desiring to cheat, they’d think effort and study to be most effective and desire to work hard in studying.Report
Thank you, this clarification helps a lot. Now I understand your point.Report
Your approach is akin to telling students to watch out for the unhelpful sources of information…
I see that as constructive. If students start to look critically at online resources, including ethically questionable ones, that’s already a step towards them actually acquiring a critical understanding of the material. It’s somewhat similar to allowing students to bring a single-sheet ‘cheat sheet’ to an exam: the best ‘cheating’ strategy actually involves them reading and learning the material!Report
Informationally, the more the student pays attention to the process of selecting answers, the less of the answer is cheated.
Not exactly: I initially believe two websites contain equally credible answers, and copy answers indiscriminately from the two without thought about the answers themselves. I later come to learn that the answers of one website are merely 50% accurate. I then select answers solely from the other, without any further thought. The attention I pay to the process of selecting answers increases without a decrease in how much the answers are cheated, as I still copy answers without any thought about the answers themselves.Report
I can’t help with the ethical issues, but the pedagogy is clear. Instead of expending the effort in baiting and catching cheaters, think about redesigning the assessments. I recommend reading James Lang’s Cheating Lessons: Learning from Academic Dishonesty https://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674724631
One should try to design assessments that are hard to plagiarize or cheat. In the past I have offered 1-4 versions of the same multiple choice exam, so it’s easy to see if a student copied from another. I also set up question banks in the LMS that picks, e.g., one or two questions from a bank of 12 questions about a particular topic. So everyone gets exams of equal complexity that cover the same topics, but no exam is alike. That system is especially good for the reading quizzes Tyler mentioned earlier. Before each lecture, my students would be assigned a 5-7 question quiz drawing from 4-5 banks with about 7 questions each. They could take the quiz as often as they liked, and they were available weeks in advance and shut down 10 minutes before class. The questions were designed to make them curious about unusual or complicated things in the readings. It didn’t guarantee that students did the readings, but they came to class primed for good discussions that I rarely see, and it flipped the classroom in an awesome way.Report
It’s normal now (at least where I teach) for students to create a GroupMe for all their classmates to join. Not surprisingly, these often seem to turn into cheating factories. If students can take the quizzes as often as they like over a period of several weeks, then can’t the students just keep taking the quizzes until they get full points, and post the results on GroupMe so that everyone gets full credit? And can’t they then pass this along to the next semester’s students? Or am I misunderstanding how this works in your course?Report
There’s an even better hack in cases where students are using course software (e.g. Blackboard), and can retake the quiz any number of times. For a quiz with n questions, do n iterations. On the n-th iteration, answer only question n, then look at your grade. This way you learn all the correct answers. Your final submission gets a perfect grade. I had many students discover this hack in the last weeks of this semester (strangely, they never discovered it before).Report
However, these are many small formative quizzes, so that they actually gain some useful info, and they are low stakes. Therefore building a resource for all students to crowdsource all answers to all possible questions by brute force would actually be more effort than for a student to just Google the answers to the questions that they actually receive. And for midterms and finals, they are timed and only available then.Report
Are you sure that it would take more effort, Ken Mayer? On the one hand, there’s the work of doing the readings and then attending your lectures and paying enough attention to learn from them. A dishonest student could save considerable time, it seems, by paying no attention to your lectures or the readings and then just cheating on the quizzes.
True, this strategy would not be effective if students need to pass a rigorous final and midterm under secure conditions in order to get a passing grade in the course. But if the midterm and final are cheatable (for instance, if students can take them from home, or if they can leave the exam room, look up answers online, and then return to work on those same questions), the cheating strategy seems optimal for those who just want a fraudulent credential.Report
Dropping in from non-academic, non-philosophy, just a person who found this interesting.
If they keep repeating the exam until they can get the answers right, doesn’t that mean they learned the stuff?Report
Not if they just try different answers at random, with no thinking, until one of them works! And not if they just copy what others have done when they hear that that works.Report
I’m afraid that things have gotten far worse since Lang’s book came out. The culture of dishonesty has, quite frankly, become endemic. For years we’ve been hearing our STEM colleagues warn us about things like Wolfram Alpha, which will give provide step-by-step equation solutions (in case “show your work” was required). Humanities has always had the issue of plagiarism and ghost-writing, but that’s old hat. The great threat now is AI.
In my department (historian here), we started seeing AI-generated essays at Christmas, right after ChatGPT broke out. Now, in some sections as many as one-third of all essays brought forward are flagged as AI-generated by multiple engines (NB never rely on just one, always question your students b/c tools are no substitute for investigation, etc.).
We can talk about creating a more engaging culture, and making assessments less hack-prone, but it’s whistling past the graveyard. AI is the atom bomb of the integrity arms race. It’s a matter of time (if not already upon us) before an AI can generate a semester capstone project, replete with deepfake imagery and narratives. I have sadly concluded that if you are not watching the students doing the work, they WILL default to using “unauthorized assistance.” It’s too readily available (and cheap!), it’s hard to counteract, and the overall culture encourages it.
I’m going revanchist, teaching nothing but in-person classes and giving in-person assessments (and adjusting for a timed environment and all that –I’m no monster). I am, at least, used to looking for things like crib notes and surreptitious cell phones and ear buds.Report
One quick point: Engines to check if AI generated the content are unreliable and it is quite easy to fool them. I would suspect that if they area flagging 1/3, many more actually use them.Report
They also give false positives, unfortunately, as we can see by feeding in work from before AI.Report
If Merriam were to have employed someone to go undercover, posing as a student in the course, and try to lure others to use the fake Quizlet to prepare, maybe there could have been a credible basis for an entrapment accusation against him. But he didn’t do that: he just posted, in a place where none of his students had any good reason to go, a decoy that would only appeal to people who aimed to obtain a fraudulent grade by doing so.
What wrong is being done here, exactly? And to whom? To the students who apparently didn’t do the readings or attend class, and are taken in by an obviously false Quizlet as they try to game the system and make fools of the honest and attentive students? I don’t understand, but I’d love to hear what moral obligation the professor violated toward them.
I wonder what else these critics would think is illegitimate. For instance, to discourage cheating, I often prepare different copies of the same exam, so that people copying multiple choice answers from the people sitting next to them will have a fair chance of getting all the answers wrong. Is that wrong of me? Must I try to ensure that, if students try to cheat on an exam copy someone else’s answers, the cheating will succeed as planned so long as I don’t catch them? Where are these rules coming from?
We are facing a tidal wave of academic dishonesty, cultivated by years of professional indifference to the problem. The effect of all the resulting bogus credentials is a threat to untold members of society, not to mention the future of our profession. Students are showing up in our classes who have never been seriously challenged, and who have de facto been permitted to cheat their way out of every difficulty they’ve ever faced at school, because none of their teachers or principals did anything to stop it. So, they are even less equipped to handle serious academic courses today, and are even more prone to cheat. And yet, many professors look the other way and do nothing, reinforcing the cheating habit still further by reinforcing the rewards of a dishonest approach to school and life.
Where is the Twitter outrage against these enabling professors? Nowhere that I’ve seen. And yet, this.Report
Getting the answers wrong is already bad enough. Maybe they “cheated”, but it did not benefit them. Why enforce punishment on top of that?
Disclosure: I’m generally befuddled by professors’ willingness to discipline their students, so this is coloring my perception.Report
I enforce a blanket grade of “zero” for any cheating because of fairness. Students who did not cheat might get a poor grade on an assignment. They should not get a lower grade than a student who completed the assignment dishonestly. A grade of zero for any instance of cheating ensures that honest students get higher grades than students who cheated.Report
I mean in this specific case: the hardcore cheaters were likely going to do significantly worse than the non-cheaters, even those who got a poor grade, unless I misunderstood the setup.
Otherwise, fair enough, though your policy requires:
1. Specific and precise rules determining cheating.
2. Active surveillance.Report
I (somewhat reluctant) punish cheating because cheating prevents learning, and I want to incentivize learning. The worse I make cheating, the more likely it is that students will do the work (I hope – it’s possible students don’t respond to incentives here, but it’s not obvious to me that they don’t). When they do the work, they learn better than when they cheat.Report
You’re assuming the set of options to choose from is fixed. What some of us are suggesting is that the badness of cheating shouldn’t lead to improved detection and punishment but to alternative assessments that do not incentivize cheating to begin with.
Instead of making cheating worse you could make learning better. I dunno. Clearly I’m in the minority.Report
Unfortunately I think a lot of assignments that make learning better are also ones that incentivize cheating. So for instance I assign reading quizzes, which students take at their own pace before the class during which we discuss a reading. The quizzes point them to important parts of the reading, help clarify confusing points, give them instant feedback about how well they understood the reading, etc. These are very good assignments for students who want to learn, but also very easy to cheat on, because students can share answers with each other.Report
“Make learning better” is a nice and concrete suggestion that everyone should easily implement this weekend, and then we won’t have to have any more discussions about cheating.Report
Hi Kenny. I’m not sure the sarcasm was needed but good to hear from you. I didn’t suggest it was nice and concrete, let alone implementable in the short run. It’s just an orientation, where I prefer to direct my finite time and energy, when others choose to direct such time and energy toward other orientations. Let a thousand flowers bloom.Report
Hi, Nicolas. You say: “Getting the answers wrong is already bad enough. Maybe they “cheated”, but it did not benefit them. Why enforce punishment on top of that?”
I think the reason can be seen if one imagines two students who have both got to the last week of the course without doing a lick of work, and who have no knowledge at all of the material cover. Both students should rightly fail the course. However, their behavior at this point diverges.
Student A says, “Aw, man, I really should have studied, but I didn’t. I see that now. I guess I have to go in tomorrow, take this exam, and hope that I get lucky and somehow figure out how to answer the questions correctly. It probably won’t happen that way, though, and I have to admit, I fully deserve the F I’m probably going to get.”
Student A may have failed the course, but is honest enough to take the consequences. But Student B compounds the failure to learn the material with a far worse wrong: the wrong of using fraudulent means to obtain a bogus credential. That goes beyond laziness into the realm of careless antisocial behavior.
As a parallel case: two people fail to put in the work needed to keep a job, and they both get fired. Now neither one can pay the rent without making economies. But one of them rolls with the punches and learns a lesson, and the other commits credit card fraud. Would you be opposed to treating those two people differently?
If this doesn’t convince you, please consider also that your standards have effects on the future. It’s not just that Student B shows up and gets a passing grade for nothing. It’s that the story spreads that this is possible in your classes, and that informs how students will act in future semesters.Report
I’m sorry, Justin, but until you stop coming up with criminal behavior analogies I don’t see the point of an exchange. We just see the situation with profoundly different lenses.
I’ve considered my standards and they’re just fine, thank you. My students don’t cheat because I design assignments for which they have little incentive to cheat. No need for them to develop new tactics to evade detection; no need for me to develop dystopian methods of surveillance and punishment. Most of my students want to learn. Those who don’t want to move on.Report
Can you explain how these assignments work?Report
Scaffolded essays, take-home exams with questions that can’t be gamed, in-class quizzes. Nothing very original.Report
I scaffold my essays too, but why would that prevent or disincentivize cheating? Likewise with take-home exams: I would say those highly incentivize cheating! In-class quizzes make cheating more difficult, but as you note they’re nothing very original, so I don’t see how the use of those could be an alternative to standard anti-cheating tactics.Report
Scaffolding works to prevent (some) cheating because some cheating occurs due to desperate students who realize they haven’t started a paper that is due the next day.Report
Ah, ok. I was interpreting ‘prevent’ more strongly, but yes, I agree that it should lower the incidence of cheating a bit.Report
If they are cheating it’s not working really well. There’s typically a very strong relation between how well/poorly they do on assignments on which it’s very hard to cheat and how well/poorly they do on those on which it’s feasible. If you’d like to continue assuming my students want to cheat and/or do cheat, go for it.Report
I don’t understand your argument here. You’re saying that you give assignments on which it’s hard to cheat, and assignments on which it’s easy, and students generally get similar grades, and so you conclude that your students aren’t cheating? That would be an ok argument if “hard” meant “impossible”. But if “hard” just means “there are some barriers like scaffolding assignments”, then sorry, I definitely believe that some of your students are cheating, since I use scaffolded assignments and have caught numerous cheaters nonetheless. I’m not assuming something negative about your students in general. I’m just assuming that there’s a non-trivial number of students that are willing to cheat even if there are obstacles in their way. That is clearly, empirically, true, and if you don’t believe that, I’m not sure what to tell you. Maybe volunteer to serve on your university’s academic honesty committee?Report
If the students who do poorly on in-class assignments were cheating at home, I would see it, but I don’t. If the students who do well at home were cheating, they may not do well on in-class assignments, yet they do fine.
I’m sure some students cheat. I’m sure many are tempted to. Some cut corners. I’ve had a small handful of suspected cases in like five years, though it was never clear-cut enough to justify more than a warning. I let them know when I smell something iffy. But really, outright cheating is extremely rare.
I don’t know what to tell you. Maybe our students are really different, maybe my samples are too small, maybe they don’t have a strong enough incentive to do well. Students could pay others to write their exams or essays, sure. They just don’t seem to be doing it. I guess most of them want to learn.Report
I agree that outright cheating is rare *in courses designed to make cheating difficult*, and I agree that we should make it difficult to cheat in our courses. I just also think that a significant number of students still cheat. ChatGPT is a massive temptation. I had more plagiarism (or academic dishonesty at least–using ChatGPT) cases this semester than I’ve had in the previous five years combined.Report
Not to mention that admin at some places is loath to discipline any academic dishonesty because it might cause students to drop out and then they lose that sweet tuition money (not all universities are selective, many depend on enrolling as many students as they can at the prevailing rates).
I think people are ignoring the pedagogical interest an instructor has in knowing how prevalent cheating is in his course before he goes about restructuring aspects of the course to avoid cheating. Giving notice of posting the fake exam, for example, defeats this purpose. The moral criticism depends, in my opinion, on a massively inflated conception of “entrapment”. Simply doing anything that makes a bad act easier to perform isn’t entrapment. Letting students use their phones to check the time during an exam makes cheating easier but isn’t “entrapment.” Giving students have a take home exam makes cheating much easier than an in class exam, but it’s not entrapment.Report
I think I agree with you, but one might draw a distinction between doing something that makes a bad act easier to perform but which is justified for other reasons (letting students check their phones, giving a take home exam, etc.) versus something that only makes a bad act easier to perform. One might then think this distinction makes a moral difference.Report
But a greater moral difference between these cases is that, if one lets students check their phones or take their exams home, one enables them to succeed in cheating, whereas putting up a bogus Quizlet makes it less likely that they will succeed in cheating.Report
A consequentialist might identify the wrong as follows:
It was foreseeable that posting the fake answers increased the number of exam failures. If they had not been posted, fewer students would have been caught cheating and received a zero. Having fewer failures is a better outcome than having more. So, he ought not to have posted the fake answers.
Others might identify the wrong as follows:
Cheating is wrong. If cheating is wrong, then facilitating cheating is wrong. He facilitated cheating.
Others might identify the wrong in another way:
You ought to avoid punishing people for any action A that they wouldn’t have done but for your intervention to entice them to do A. He posted the fake answers for the purpose of enticing students to use them. They wouldn’t have used those answers if he hadn’t posted them. He then punished students for using them.
My imagination could likely produce more examples. But I’ll stop now.Report
Thanks for the interesting ethical arguments, Sam. In the order in which you give them:
My response: It is not the case that having fewer failures is a better outcome than having none. I don’t know what could plausibly support that view.
2. “Others might identify the wrong as follows:
Cheating is wrong. If cheating is wrong, then facilitating cheating is wrong. He facilitated cheating.”
If by cheating you mean securing an unjustly high credential by duplicity, then he did not facilitate cheating. None of these students secured the credential. They failed the exam, and also exposed themselves as cheats. The bogus Quizlet helped them show their true colors so that they could be caught. Had the professor not posted it, some of those students might have kept searching and found a Quizlet with more plausible answers, which might have enabled them to pass. So it seems that the professor prevented cheating, rather than facilitating it.
3. “Others might identify the wrong in another way:
You ought to avoid punishing people for any action A that they wouldn’t have done but for your intervention to entice them to do A. He posted the fake answers for the purpose of enticing students to use them. They wouldn’t have used those answers if he hadn’t posted them. He then punished students for using them.”
Even if we accept this principle, the ‘action A’ the students are being punished for is trying to cheat on the exam. And it seems clear that the students would have tried to cheat on the exam whether or not the professor had posted the Quizlet: they only found it because they were trying to cheat.Report
“It is not the case that having fewer failures is a better outcome than having none. I don’t know what could plausibly support that view.”
Really? OK. There’s a lot that can plausibly support it. Among many other things: students passing helps them to achieve their goal of graduating, but failing doesn’t.
“the students are being punished for is trying to cheat on the exam”
Yes for cheating, but in specific for using those answers to attempt to earn credit. And no, they wouldn’t have done this if he hadn’t uploaded the fake answers.
“If by cheating you mean securing an unjustly high credential by duplicity, then he did not facilitate cheating.”
I don’t mean that. I mean using the fake answers to attempt to earn credit. That’s called “cheating.” And he facilitated it by uploading the fake answers.Report
Why would it be a good thing overall to help dishonest, unprepared students to obtain a credential that gives an incorrect impression of what they have achieved, devalues that same credential when it is earned by honest and well-repared students, and then enables these unprepared and dishonest people to obtain positions of greater power and responsibility?
The rest has already been answered in this thread.Report
I’m no consequentialist, so I can’t answer on the basis of my own view. But the consequentialist view would be that the outcome in which we benefit more students contains more pleasure or happiness or well-being.Report
Right — more pleasure or happiness or well-being for everyone, not just the cheating students.Report
Students learning enough to earnestly put sufficiently many correct answers on the test to pass is clearly better than students not learning enough to earnestly put sufficiently many correct answers on the test. But holding fixed the answers a student puts on a test, it’s not at all clear to me that passing the student is always better than failing them in its consequences.
If passing a student helps them get a job that they otherwise wouldn’t get, that might be helpful for the student (or it might not, if they are woefully underprepared) but it’s very unlikely to be helpful for the employer!
Conversely, if failing a student conveys to them that there will be negative consequences for not learning material in a course, this may help cause the student to later pay more attention to learning material in classes.Report
“If passing a student helps them get a job that they otherwise wouldn’t get, that might be helpful for the student (or it might not, if they are woefully underprepared) but it’s very unlikely to be helpful for the employer!”
“Very unlikely”? For some jobs, sure. For others, definitely not.
Anyway, I’m just helping JK to understand what others could be thinking.Report
I’m not sure that this is a correct consequentialist analysis of the situation. If it were, then it seems that a professor would do something wrong any time they subtract enough points for incorrect answers that a student fails. I don’t believe that consequentialism is committed to the idea that professors should give passing grades to students whose work is incorrect enough to be given a failing grade on the basis of a pre-specified rubric, so it sounds to me like there must be some additional considerations that consequentialists are willing to accept, which might also be relevant to using this method to detect cheating and disincentivize it.Report
I tend to agree. JK asks what wrong was done. My main objective was to help JK understand what others *could* be thinking.Report
Seriously. ALL of those 40 students were TRYING to cheat. That, in itself, is enough reason for them to fail the course.
I generally try to pretend that cheating doesn’t happen in my classes, because it’s a major pain and frankly, I don’t care enough or get paid enough or have the time to deal with it. But I have nothing but admiration and moral appreciation for those who care enough about the integrity of their students to do something about it.
We’re passing and graduating a bunch of people who are fundamentally dishonest people, cheaters and liars who will take the easy way out of any situation. Nearly half of the students in this guy’s class were perusing quizlet, trying to cheat! That he caught them is a service, primarily to them. One hopes that they might become better people as a result.Report
You are not remotely concerned that by allowing cheating you are promoting cheating and being paid to promote cheating as opposed to teaching? I think when we accuse students of being “fundamentally dishonest people, cheaters and liars” we need to also ask if any administrators, faculty or others may be “fundamentally dishonest people, cheaters and liars”.Report
In the real world, do we want mechanical engineering students who cheated their way through university designing bridges where you either do the proper calculations or people die when the bridge collapses?
Universities already have poor reputations for being hotbeds of woke indoctrination. Allowing rampant cheating will shred what little confidence employers have left with the quality of the “product” universities produce.Report
I want to point out that STEM majors are often swamped with coursework for their majors and don’t view classes that are required to satisfy the school’s general education requirements as something that is remotely as important as learning their trade. They are not cheating on statics, they are cheating on philosophy. It is still cheating, but it is on a topic that they will not retain much of any knowledge from when they are building bridges.Report
This was a great idea, Garret. I have colleagues who have had to make many burdensome changes to their courses in response to sites like Quizlet. I don’t know what the solution to such sites is, but what you’ve done gives rise to an interesting possibility: if more people did what you did, i.e., uploading sham exams/quizzes with bad answers, it might be an effective way to undermine this form of cheating.Report
I don’t think we are cops, nor that it is our job to teach compliance, discipline or anything else that clears a path for middle-managers who yearn for an obedient work force.
So I don’t think such interventions as in the OP are unethical per se, but they may reveal a misunderstanding about what it is that we do.Report
This “we aren’t cops” sentiment seems all over Twitter. Attempting to prevent cheating in the interests of student learning and fairness isn’t “being a cop” in any objectionable sense. What is it that we do that we should be unconcerned about cheating?Report
Instead ask yourself why someone would be concerned about cheating?
If you’re very concerned about cheating, you’re probably using assignments that are easy to cheat on (eg anything that tests mainly for memorization).
If you base grades on measures that target understanding, engagement, and independent thought, you may just naturally be less concerned. Even if a student cheats part of the way, they’ll still be overall worse than any of the ones who followed along.
Maybe I’m a gooey romantic, but I still believe that cheaters mostly hurt themselves. Good course design makes this come out as true.Report
Naive and condescending! How refreshing!Report
I understand that many people will be aghast at this, but they should ask whether they are so caught up in credentialing that they forgot about education.Report
It’s true that cheaters mostly hurt themselves. But I don’t want them to be hurt! I want my students to learn! Perhaps that makes me the gooey romantic…Report
I take a “you can only lead a horse to water” approach here.Report
Punish them for their own good amirite.Report
The best option would be to threaten punishment but never follow through. Unfortunately I have yet to figure out how to put that into place. The second best is indeed to “punish them for their own good,” so to speak. The punishment is not good for them, but the framework in which they are expecting to be punished if caught is good for them, because it incentivizes doing the work and thus learning.Report
Right — and threatening to cheat without being prepared to follow through only works once, unless your students will never even try it. That’s one of the main reasons why we need to follow through.Report
ChatGPT (and soon-to-be-here improved versions of the same sort of technology) seem to undermine the thought that “if you base grades on measures that target understanding, engagement and independent thought” you may be less concerned.Report
Short-term I’m not worried, long-term maybe it’ll lead us to finally doing away with this dreadful institution of valuing people on a letter scale altogether.
Although I fear it’ll just lead to in-class exams in faraday-caged rooms.Report
Right, when I hand back graded assignments, I whisper “this is how I judge your value as a person” in each student’s ear …
Having standards is not the same as valuing people on the basis of how well their work meets those standards. Have you ever taught a course?Report
Plenty. I find that kindness goes farther than duress, but I know not everyone sees it that way.Report
I think it’s unreasonable to expect people with hundreds of students each semester to assume the burden of designing assignments that minimize any possibility of cheating. Doesn’t this too make cheating concerns too high a priority relative to other parts of the job?
Anyway, I agree that it’s naive to suppose good course design makes this come out as true. Sometimes yes, sometimes no.
I struggle with whether my learning assessments provide meaningful information to those worried about credentialing, or whether they even should. Identifying cheaters is paradoxically a simple and useful service: this is a person who will do X when explicitly told not to do X because it is dishonest and wrong. Maybe that’s a good thing for people to know about a prospective hire or professional student.Report
I’m not talking about intricate cheat-proof assignments. You’re right that this also gives too much weight to cheating.
The priority is always education.
Don’t attempt to prevent cheating mechanically, but simply make it a non-issue.
The first step is to integrate assignments into learning so that students actually see a benefit in completing them.
Then, if the students work towards a goal that is not “an A in this course” and you can make it plausible that the assignments are part of the learning experience, then you’re 90% there. And if someone still cheats, I really don’t know why one should care.
That’s the course design part.
The last bit in the way is these dreadful grades. One wants an A to mean something, I guess. As you correctly note, it is not quite clear what we are certifying with an A to begin with. I’d be in favor of eliminating grades altogether.
I wrote more about this downthread; my vision is somewhat utopian but certainly not unattainable if we could come together as educators rather than credentialers.
Finally, I’m really, really not interested in whether I am providing actionable information to employers. I don’t let it sway anything about my teaching. I find it concerning how many people here take it to be part of their job to aid the pre-selection of applicants.Report
Thank you for being the only person in this comment thread with a reasonable take on this issue.Report
There are two issues here that I think we should keep apart.
One is whether what he did in any way lessens the students’ culpability. I guess for me what helps here is to think about cases where I’d think police have entrapped someone or not. If someone was on the fence on making a bomb and went back and forth and the police subtly pushed him to do it or even assuaged his worries and doubts, then I’d say entrapment. I’d probably say entrapment if he was some sort of political radical and really wanted to do something violent and they just put the bomb idea in his head in some way. However, if he’d decided to make a bomb and was making steps to do it, but for some reason didn’t know where to get fertilizer and diesel and all the cops did was point him toward the nearest Southern States Co-Op then I’d say he hasn’t been entrapped and the decision is all on him. (I know that actual American law on entrapment is more permissive, but a. I disagree and b. I think a stricter standard helps).
The other thing is whether this is a lousy thing to do. I’m more on the fence here. On the one hand, trying to trip up or trick your students is far from the ideal relationship a prof should have with them. But on the other we don’t live in an ideal world and our actual practice has to adapt to that. Ultimately I don’t think I’d condemn him here either. I’ve went through my classes and gotten rid of all the paper and discussion board topics Chat GPT does well with. I’ve tried to keep only the ones where it fails miserably and have even tried to design new prompts that get it to say blatantly stupid stuff. Is that much different? I guess the difference here is that one could argue that the Chat GPT cheaters would use it no matter what and here the cheaters couldn’t and wouldn’t have cheated without the answers being up. But it seems question begging to assume that’s true. Why think they wouldn’t have tried to cheat in some other way?Report
The objections to this put me in mind of Trump and his supporters complaining that testifying under oath would be a “perjury trap”; it is, in precisely the same sense that a bank is a robbery trap, or a house a burglary trap.
To be negatively affected by what GM has done, students must first form the intention to cheat, and then act on it. All he has done is thwart the likelihood that they will succeed. I’m 100% in favour, and can only laugh at the idea that there’s anything ethically improper there.Report
I agree with the thrust of this. However, this isn’t true:
“All he has done is thwart the likelihood that they will succeed.”
It’s likely that he has invited some students to form the intention to cheat. Possibly, some students who went to Quizlet with the sole intention to study, but saw the exam with answers and, as a result, formed the intention to cheat.
Whether or not students did in fact do this, he did facilitate (and encourage?) cheating, and he thereby has done more than “thwart the likelihood that they will succeed.”Report
If students want to study for an exam, they should have notes and books and resources provided by the professor. The professor did not and could not “invite some students to form the intention to cheat.” He didn’t tell them to visit Quizlet. Academic dishonesty policies warn of the consequences of cheating, and they must be responsible for their choice to cheat or to be honest. One cannot claim to know a student’s intention for visiting Quizlet, but as Jack McCoy says, “intent follows the bullet.” They cheated; thus, they went to the site to cheat. It is an ethics class, so they failed to understand and apply the primary concept of the class. Cheating on an ethics exam is the definition of irony. At my college, I could have only given them an F on the exam, but I believe they should have failed the entire course, and I would have taken that argument to the Dean.Report
Suppose I know many students in my class are hungry but on a diet, and I put their favorite high-calorie foods on their route to my class. Beside it, there’s a sign that says “free to all.”
If I want my students to find the food and succumb to their urges (and form the intention) to eat it, I surely won’t need to ask them to go to class, for I know many will be going to class on that route already. What’s more, many won’t be taking the route to cheat on their diet, but might still take the route to get to class, find the food, and cheat. So, from the fact they cheated, it doesn’t follow that they took the route to cheat.
Something similar is true in the case at hand. All I’m saying is it’s possible (and somewhat likely) that some students were invited to form the intention to cheat on the exam as the students in the food example were invited to cheat on their diets. Further, I’m happy to grant that many or most were at the site to cheat.Report
It’s funny how every defense of cheating on this ethics exam begins with a wild analogy that bears little resemblance to reality.
So this hypothetical situation is in fact the exact opposite of the situation at hand. In reality, the professor said not to do this, the school’s honor code said not to do this, and even Quizlet’s terms of service say not to do this.
No, there was no party in the case at hand who ever claimed that this was acceptable.
You might have had a valid point to make (though I’m not sure what) if your story had a plate of food with 3 signs (from the professor, the school, and the caterer) which all said “DO NOT EAT DURING THE TEST”.Report
I’m obviously not defending cheating. Clearly I’m supporting the claims (1) from the fact that students who visited the site cheated, it doesn’t follow that the students visited the site to cheat, and (2) some students could’ve been invited to form the intention to cheat after arriving at the site, even if they weren’t told to go to the site. The example was designed simply to make that point, and it wasn’t intended to be highly analogous with the actual case of cheating.Report
The results are fascinating and amusing, but nah, this is a bad idea. Reason: we want grades to communicate information about what students learned, to the greatest extent possible. Granted, they also signify other things to a degree, like whether students are punctual, whether they attended, whether they cheated…but that should be kept within limits. When you make cheating easier and wind up with 40/96 getting low grades because they cheated, not based on low learning, you’re muddying the significance of grades more than necessary. After all, there are other ways to prevent cheating–so grades aren’t muddied in the opposite way (high grades going to people who cheated instead of learning something). You can tweak exams, change the order of answers, etc. The prof. has made detecting cheaters an end in itself, instead of treating it just as a means of achieving grade-learning proportionality.Report
If the answers were trivially wrong on the basis of the learning material then what was measured was precisely a low (more precisely, zero) level of learning (or a low level of text comprehension).Report
The situation may have been mixed. Some may have found the answers at quizlet extremely surprising, but may have reasoned that they had to be correct, since answers at quizlet are always from answer keys, in their experience. “I can’t believe this is right, but it’s got to be, given what I know about quizlet, so I’ll choose this answer.” The propensity to go along with quizlet answers is a sure sign of dishonesty, but not a good measure of how much students understand.Report
Ooof, this is a fun one. Instructors have to be cops (we have to certify competence in the material) and guides (help them learn). But one can be too much one or the other! If there’s an ethical lapse here, I tend to see it as opting for the ‘cop’ role of the instructor when the ‘guide’ role would have sufficed and might have made them learn something. One could have taken down the Quizlet exam and announced to the class that it had been taken down, or pointed out how easy it would be for professor to upload a fake exam. Upload it in class for extra drama. And some of them might have taken the reminder and studied. It’s not entrapment, but it wasn’t the best choice, I think.
Instead, what you’ve got is a situation where you’ve arguably caught some (I’d want an actual data science person to look at your calculations, because if your bad answers are correlated at all then the odds are different), but you’re going to punish only those honest enough to confess. Anyone who keeps their mouth shut learns nothing but just fails the final — statistical proof isn’t going to hold up when the student appeals to the provost.
The bigger question is whether using previous exams counts as cheating. It apparently is against the honor code here, but absent that, I’m not sure it’s clear cut. It could be used ‘to cheat’, i.e., memorizing answers, but also to learn how the professor asks questions, to see what kinds of things are on the exam, etc., and it doesn’t feel different than watching YouTube videos, finding explainers, etc., which aren’t the Platonic form of coming to class and learning but also not usually characterized as cheating.Report
This case involves an online class, which poses particular challenges.
It isn’t just a matter of students “memorizing answers” or using outside materials and explainers to study. It’s a matter of students looking up answers while taking the test.Report
If you give an online multiple-choice take-home exam with no way of enforcing the testing environment, the gods are going to give you cheating students.Report
I agree with this. Sadly, asynchronous online courses are here to stay. As an adjunct who was forced to become certified to teach online because of the pandemic, I will be stuck teaching a lot of them.
If you are in a position where you can avoid these courses, I’m genuinely happy for you (and your students – I am convinced online courses result in worse learning outcomes for most students, cheating issues aside). However, as a profession, we need to figure out a better response than throwing our hands up. Perhaps such a response doesn’t exist and we have already lost. Lately, I’ve come to suspect this is true, and I have started to question my willingness to continue teaching in such an environment.
The problem isn’t unique to multiple choice exams. Written assignments fare no better (I even have students plagiarize low stakes discussion posts).Report
I’m not able to avoid it (teaching online since 2012, I think), but I’m lucky that we have a testing center, so even asynchronous online classes can have an in-person proctored option for exams. I’m not sure there’s a good or obvious solution here.Report
My heart goes out to you. Many are coerced into teaching in a way that does not align with their values. I am glad you can see this and I genuinely hope you find a way to teach that you believe in. Best of luck!Report
An example of cheating is violating the rules governing an exam in order to pass it, and as Merriam said it is against school policy (and class policy as his syllabus affirmed school policy) to use previous tests without permission from the professor. So this was cheating. There are other questions we could ask, like “should we have a different rule” of course.Report
Is anyone thinking of Eric Schwitzgebel’s study on ethics books? Schwitzgebel gave compelling evidence that people studying ethics are more likely to steal books from the university library!
His study, and this situation with the ethics course, seem symptomatic of philosophy in general these days, and it perhaps gives us a little openness to Thoreau’s suggestion that, in some ways, “there are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers.” The work of Hadot and others shows that the practice of philosophy in the universities is anemic, and it seems symptomatic that this whole issue has come up in relation to an ethics course in particular.
Doesn’t this indicate how much of a change we need in how we teach LoveWisdom? Doesn’t this indicate how much has gone wrong in education at all levels? Are we corrupting souls? If the souls of our youth come to us already in distress, do we have any idea how to facilitate healing?
The ecologies learning we find in most universities make it exceptionally challenging to teach in ways that would keep students engaged, and empower the possibility for transformative insight. It seems far more important for us as philosophers to look at ourselves and the larger systems than to place blame on these students. This cheating behavior is feedback, not something we can see as a deep violation on the part of the students (thus, I disagree that the instructor should have turned the students in . . . this should have been very personal feedback, and perhaps a kind of wake-up call). We seem to need more systems thinking here.
Gregory Bateson wrote about this in relation to crime:
“It is interesting to consider the nature of such a concept as “crime.” We act as if crime could be extinguished by punishing parts of what we regard as criminal actions, as if “crime” were the name of a sort of action or of part of a sort of action. More correctly “crime,” like “exploration,” is the name of a way of organizing actions. It is therefore unlikely that punishing the act will extinguish the crime. In several thousand years, the so-called science of criminology has not escaped from a simple blunder in logical typing.”
For many students, “cheating” refers to their manner of organizing learning. It is up to philosophers to change that. We have here feedback on the state of philosophy, not feedback about actions taken by a group of isolated individuals.
How can philosophers design courses to help their students become more ethical beings? It won’t happen by means of the kinds of gestures philosophers in the academy are used to making.
We find a deep cultural issue here, because many (if not most) of the people doing the most serious harms on a planetary scale could likely have passed this ethics exam without resorting to “cheating”. What does that tell us?
I don’t expect all philosophers in the university to teach in ways that might have the most positive impact on this situation. But this does seem to give further evidence to the need for a more diverse ecology—not merely diverse in terms of skin color, gender, or cultural background, but diverse in the forms of life and forms of discourse we associate with philosophy.
Philosophy as a way of life needs more presence in the academy and in the culture. If we treat philosophy too anemically or abstractly, then learning it and living it become incapable of actually helping us fulfill our greatest potential and cultivate the whole of life onward.
At the very least, we should all sit long and hard with the nature of philosophy, the nature of education, and the nature of the teaching and learning of LoveWisdom. Socrates would want us all to ask: “What are you? And what will these students become if they come and study with you?”Report
We are educators and credentialers. I have always hated being the latter, and it looks like technology is inevitably going to make credentialing impossible to do meaningfully anyway. The consumers of the credentials I contribute to — grad schools and employers, mainly — are no doubt already wise to this, and that fact makes me less concerned about the meaningfulness of my contribution to credentialing.
I am more bothered by, and completely unsure how to address, the fact that we have gamified education by situating it as a requirement for credentials.Report
You put it much better than I did.Report
Another thing to consider: at the K-12 level, students are sometimes encouraged to use Quizlet and other test banks as study guides. Explicitly, by the teachers. They also encourage collaboration in Google Docs, etc. So unless your institution hits the honor code hard, you’re going to have a population of students who thinks that using quizlet counts as ‘studying’, not cheating, and is going to be completely floored by what feels to them like a massive change of rules.Report
Some of the students I have confronted did say they used it for studying, not during the test itself. The problem with that is (a) there is no way to tell if that’s true, or if they’re just trying to mitigate their culpability. If it was just one student I might trust my judgement, but with 40, it’s not possible. And (b) even if it was a good faith mistake, that still qualifies as cheating according to our academic integrity policy, which they are required to know.Report
That’s what I would expect from at least some of them. I would be inclined to think that it’s true — and probably sufficient for your purposes in this case, given the academic integrity policy.Report
There’s an argument to be made that the students did not violate the policy you described, as uploading a version of the test yourself constitutes permission from the instructor.Report
For an amusing examination of actual permission to cheat, check our Roy Sorensen’s article “Permission to Cheat.”Report
I specifically meant the permission to “look at other exams” that is referenced in the OP as being required under the school policy. Not an outright permission to cheat.Report
In Sweden students have a constitutional right to gain access to old exams. The old exams are considered a “public document” and the right to gain access to public documents are protected under “the principle of publicity”. Universities are under obligation to archive all old exams under some paragraph in “the freedom of the press”, as long as there is no specfic security risks attached to the documents. Old exams will circulate among the students. These are anonymised, but both the exam and answers are readily available. Studying by looking at old exams is part of what is considered to be “studying for an exam”, and teachers often link to old exams in their communication with the students. I even remember a few classes in undergrad where the exam questions were identical to the old exams.
Obviously, multiple choice exams are rarely used. This puts greater demands on teachers, as multiple choice is faster to grade, but it would completely eliminate “cheating by looking at old exams”.
I’m surprised that noone has suggested the apparent solution: if looking at old exams are bad because it is unfair to the ones that has not looked at old exams, make everyone look at the old exams. Exams should be designed in such a way that old exams can be used as a study tool.
Perhaps this is a Scandinavian sentiment, but if almost half of your students are cheating on your exam, the solution is not to reprimand the students, but to redesign your exams! Your designs are obviously flawed. I would consider ditching multiple choice exams.Report
I made old exams available and also created “no stakes” online practice tests aligned with my exams. When the cheating became rampant (more than half the class) only a handful of students would even look at the practice tests-usually the ringers that would be providing the answers during the exams. The format of exams included multiple choice, multiple response, short answer and essay with choice, usually 4 or more formats for a class of 25 with different questions and jumbled on paper, in person. My Pockethound proved helpful in detecting GSM used, no cell phones visible. The only solution is to punish cheaters. There is no “magical method” that promotes learning. They often buy their grade before they even enroll. I recommend The Cheat Sheet substack if you need to learn more.Report
A number of the responses here contend that at least some of the wrongness of Prof. Merriam’s action comes from creating an opportunity for students to cheat by uploading a bogus test to Quizlet. This overlooks the fact that the professor not only uploaded a bogus test, but also removed an actual test. Since the opportunity to access what purports to be a test is the same both before his actions and after, it does not seem like Prof. Merriam made it any more likely that students would cheat.Report
In removing the actual test answers from Quizlet and replacing them with bogus test answers he didn’t make it more likely that students would cheat, but you’re ignoring the fact that he had a third option: removing the actual test answers from Quizlet and not replacing it with anything. Had he done this, there would have likely been fewer cheaters. So, he didn’t do all he could to minimize cheating. Indeed, he chose not to minimize cheating so that he could identify and punish more of those who are willing to cheat in the circumstances in which the answers to the test seem to be readily available on Quizlet.Report
There would have been fewer ‘successful’ cheaters. The attempted cheaters would have remained the same. The same number of students would have went looking for a short cut, regardless of whether or not they found one.
And there was no deliberate attempt on my part to allow cheaters so I could catch them. I specifically warn my students against cheating, I link them to the academic integrity policy, which they are required to know (albeit I did not specifically mention that such websites are prohibited in my syllabus, something I will do next time), and I give them flexibility around deadlines if they need more time. I also give them a comprehensive study guide, so there’s no reason they should have to go looking for outside help.Report
Is searching online for information relevant to answering the test questions cheating? (I’m genuinely asking. I don’t know what rules you’ve established. I know that you say there’s no reason for them to do so, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t do it anyway.) If not, then some people may have come across the bogus test answers that you put up on Quizlet through a search without having had the intention of cheating. I think that we should try to minimize the number of people who actually cheat by both disincentivizing cheating and making it as difficult as possible for those who wish or attempt to cheat to succeed. So consider that you have a way of monitoring students during an in-person exam that enables you to detect discretely from the front of the room whether any exam-takers are looking at illicit crib sheets during the exam. You could just not tell them about this so that those who brought in crib sheets with the intention of cheating if it looks like they can get away with it will all cheat and get caught and be punished. Or you could instead (with the help of a TA) demonstrate to them that they will not be able to refer to a crib sheet without getting caught. In which case, none of those who brought in a crib sheet will now use it to cheat. The difference between you and myself, I suspect, is that you think the former is better, but I think that the latter is better. It’s better to prevent those who are willing and prepared to do wrong from doing wrong than it is to identify and punish those who are. We should be more concerned with preventing wrong-doing (and additional wrong-doing — if just making a crib sheet counts as wrong-doing) then we are with identifying and punishing those what are willing to do wrong (other things being equal).Report
Interesting, Doug! And maybe a little surprising coming from a consequentialist: how would you defend that view on consequentialist grounds?
Seems that only the former method comes with lasting consequences: the students are negatively conditioned to not cheat in the future and so would be more inclined to put in the work going forward. That’s what we want from our future doctors, politicians, engineers, teachers, etc. — having competent citizens makes our world a lot better.
The latter method might better prevent cheating on that one exam day, but it’s not obvious how it deters future cheating and promotes a habit of academic honesty (beyond your class) toward the goal of competency.Report
Not surprising! Consequentialism is compatible with almost any view about which acts are right and wrong. Thus, the consequentialist and non-consequentialist can agree that an act is wrong. But they’ll disagree about what makes that act wrong: say, whether it’s that its outcome is outranked by that of an available alternative or that it’s forbidden by God. And an act’s outcome should be construed broadly to include not just its causal effects but everything that would be the case were the act to be performed.
In any case, it is also not obvious that the latter method wouldn’t better prevent cheating overall. In any case, though, I don’t see it as part of my job to identify and then punish those willing to do wrong even if it is, in part, to identify and punish those who have done wrong. And I do think that I should try to prevent those who are willing to do wrong from actually doing wrong.Report
Oh, I’m not surprised that consequentialism can defend any given act, as long as the math or circumstances work out. It’s just (much) less obvious to me that the latter method would better prevent cheating overall, and I was wondering why you think it would.
I’m sure you can come up with an imaginative explanation, but I suspect it’d take some contorting, and that the more natural conclusion is that the former method would more likely lead to better outcomes, since rationale people respond to incentives and deterrents…Report
It doesn’t have to do with the math or the circumstances. It could be that the outcome in which one makes it easier for others to cheat by putting bogus test questions online is outranked by the outcome in which one refrains from doing so irrespective of whether this maximizes utility or minimizes bad instances of cheating overall. Thus, it has to do with accepting an evaluator-relative ranking of outcomes in which an agent-neutrally worse outcome can, for the agent’s evaluative standpoint, outrank an agent-neutrally better outcome.Report
Not unethical. It does seem to be a honeypot, but it’s not entrapment because the honeypot was placed in an area that students should not have been in the first place, and we may presume that any student there is looking to cheat.
It’s not like Garret left a fake copy of the exam on a public copy machine or in a hallway, where an otherwise innocent student would stumble upon it and only then be tempted to cheat. It’s more like a bank marking the money (or placing exploding dye packets) in its vault; does the bank really have a moral obligation to alert bank robbers in advance that they’ve marked the money, esp. when the robbers shouldn’t be in the vault in the first place? Ok, maybe alerting them would be a deterrent of sorts, but it also telegraphs your defenses and allows them to plan around it. At best, alerting would-be robbers or would-be cheaters seem supererogatory.
In Garret’s case, uploading an actual test with wrong answers still provides the student with the live/real test questions in advance, i.e., it’s an opportunity for the student to look critically at the questions and legitimately answer them correctly on their own. They still could have done the right thing, even at that point. But they didn’t choose that path (to the extent we choose anything.)
Anyway, in ethical or white-hat hacking, honeypots are the norm and generally not considered wrong, at least when placed in areas of a network where access is supposed to be denied. So, yes, it’s a honeypot, but that’s fine.
My main concern with this strategy is that Garret just created a ton of paperwork for himself, as well as bad-will among some of his students. I would’ve focused more on prevention upstream rather than prosecution downstream. But I like the commitment to rooting out cheaters.
“we may presume that any student there is looking to cheat.”
This is a mistake. Some students seem to be unaware that the site is used to cheat, but belive it to be good for studying. Genuinely interested and academically committed students have informed me that they use it to study. Not to mention that it does appear to be a source of study material, rather than a cheating site.Report
“Some students seem to be unaware that the site is used to cheat, but belive it to be good for studying.”
I’d want to see the receipts for that claim. And even if some small fraction of Quizlet’s users (at the college level) are that naïve, that doesn’t mean we can’t reasonably presume a student there is looking to cheat.
It reminds me of the good-old days of Napster, which was nominally a P2P file-sharing site and not an music piracy site. Maybe some folks have used Napster in an unproblematic way that doesn’t violate anyone’s IP, but that’s not how the vast majority of folks use it.
Same with essay mills that supposedly are only meant to give you “inspiration” for you to write your own essays, or interacting with ChatGPT for “ideas” or as a study aid but not for copy-and-paste AI plagiarism. Again, maybe some folks do use those services unproblematically, but that doesn’t seem to be the norm.
Ultimately, this may be an empirical question that we can’t answer here without actual data.Report
If it’s an empirical question the charitable presumption is not that students are there to cheat but there to learn. Or are they guilty until proven innocent?Report
Well, I don’t have any hard data about Napster users either, just a lot of anecdotes, but I’m comfortable presuming that the average Napster user was just trying to get free music and circumvent IP licensing and other fees. Of course, that’s not enough in a court of law, but we’re not in a court of law here; we’re just talking about what’s reasonable to assume.
And given Garret’s experiment, he has shown (and extracted confessions) that many of his students did in fact cheat via Quizlet, and I’m willing to bet most or all of them also knew that Quizlet enables cheating, which is why they were there in the first place. If otherwise-honest students were merely looking for a study aid on the site, and they found what appears to be an actual exam but with obviously wrong answers, I’d reasonably expect those students would recognize the obviously wrong answers or at least try to figure out why the exam showed they were correct answers (which it can be reasonably presumed they didn’t do, since obviously wrong answers aren’t defensible upon reflection or study).
Anyway, if students aren’t penalized without a confession, that might avoid the (fair) point you’re raising about presuming guilt. For the record, I don’t make formal accusations of academic dishonesty without a confession, which is usually pretty easy to get…Report
According to friends with teenagers, it’s common to turn study guides into quizzes and upload them to Quizlet; to use it to study for AP exams; and they’re often directed to do so by teachers, who treat it as a database of practice tests.
There’s some evidence that their initial encounter with Quizlet is that it’s not cheating to use it and that it’s sanctioned. It’s possible some students thought their classmates had turned his study guide into a quiz and then “learned” the wrong answers he uploaded.Report
So, the idea is that some students went to Quizlet to look for a study aid, found the exam, and memorized the “correct” answers, which they reproduced in the actual exam? That doesn’t sound like studying at all, which makes me skeptical of the alleged intention of looking for a study aid in the first place.
Rather, how a fake exam might be used as a study aid is: a student finds the exam, is extremely puzzled by what’s presented as correct answers, and tries to figure out what went wrong with their own reasoning. If the answers were obviously wrong, or with any subsequent discussion with the instructor, a good student (who’s merely looking for a study aid) would realize that the Quizlet exam was not to be trusted.Report
So, yes, basically. Think of it in another common context: student uses last year’s chemistry or calculus exam to prep for the final then goes in and takes the presumably new-to-them final (in person), and it turns out a couple of the practice questions were reused. I think the student would describe themselves as having studied and gotten really lucky that some of the questions were on the exam. This is pretty common (and often recommended.). Apparently sometimes students turn study guides into quizzes – the equivalent of sharing flash cards.
We have a similar situation here – except the practice test is full of fake answers and it’s not clear the test environment was controlled at all.
I think it’s reasonable for some students – maybe not at this institution from what’s been said about the honor code but I don’t know how it’s treated there – to be completely confused. They didn’t steal the real test. They studied by taking what they thought was a practice test that luckily overlapped with the real test, and then got busted for cheating.
I think maybe a good and confident student would realize the test was bad not that they were wrong. But how many of those do we have? How many would say that they thought they were right but the practice test convinced them they must not have understood the material when it showed them the wrong answers? How ‘obvious’ are the wrong answers? Are we talking cartoonishly obvious or what a professor thinks is obvious? (Not the same!)
I guess my worry is that some used the Quizlet as a study guide and got worse because of the sting. No doubt some cheated, but I’m not confident that this method identifies them.Report
Quizlet is in fact a study resource. It is simply a platform that allows users to generate flashcards and test themselves on flashcard decks. Some users may generate flashcards on the basis of stolen exam materials that ought not to have been uploaded to the internet. This does not make Quizlet a cheating site. It is a study resource.Report
If you’re a grad student, it’s possible you’re not familiar with my earlier comparison to Napster, which peaked in popularity in early 2001.
It was billed as a peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing site, and its own policies vehemently denied it should be used to illegally download music, which is what the vast majority of users did, even if some users used it innocently. Here’s what their IP policy said back then:
If you know anything about Napster, you already know this is laughable. Just because a site posts such a disclaimer means very little or nothing toward the question of whether it’s a legitimate site and not meant to enable crimes or cheating. You can probably find similar “policies” in pirate sites today, as well as dark-web sites that primarily promote illegal or grey-zone activities, from prostitution to contraband to weapons.
P.S. Back in the day, music companies and artists also uploaded fake files of songs to Napster to combat IP theft. Those fake songs ended up to just be noise and wasted the user’s time and storage space in downloading it, which disincentivized dipping back into the Napster well in the future. Would you say that strategy was unethical, too? (Some fake files contained malware, and that’s a different scenario and discussion.)
Back to Quizlet: again, it seems to be an empirical question of whether the site is mainly used by wanna-be cheaters or not. Maybe it’s reasonable/very charitable for you to assume innocence unless proven otherwise; but I think I and others have seen enough to also reasonably conclude that it caters to cheaters primarily or at least way too much to be considered an innocent “study resource”…
Source of the above quote: https://web.archive.org/web/20010206225422/http://www.napster.com/terms/Report
Many in these comments allege that students falsely believe that Quizlet is a study resource, rather than a cheating site. The implication is that Quizlet is in fact a cheating site, not a study resource. This is false. Quizlet is a study resource. While some students may use it to cheat, by relying on resources that ought not to have been uploaded, the site is explicitly designed to be a study tool.Report
Why does it matter if they’re explicitly told not to use online sources when answering the exam questions? The briefest perusal of the site indicates students can post their own poor quality notes. I don’t want anyone looking at this as a source, regardless of cheating, but because it doesn’t help anyone learn.Report
At the very least, it’s a tool for avoiding learning how to do philosophy.Report
While I sympathize with the impulse to redesign the exam (honestly, the point of philosophy is to construct your own argument, or at least explain why you agree with someone else’s. Multiple choice is missing the point!), I don’t see how this prof did anything wrong. Charges of “entrapment” are absurd: he didn’t send out emails saying “Hey, you want the answers to this exam???” He didn’t force anyone to go to the website he posted his wrong answers on. The responsibility is on the students who not only didn’t feel like studying, but obviously didn’t bother to learn anything in this class in the first place! I understand philosophy is hard and universities are fast becoming diploma mills stamping out good little white collar workers, so the incentive to cheat is there, but that doesn’t make it acceptable. “Poisoning the well” is the wrong analogy entirely – what he did, rather, was put a tracer compound in the cookie jar and then watch to see who’d stolen from it. Like a bank putting a dye bomb in a sack of dollar bills before handing it to the robbers. The cheaters don’t deserve your sympathy, they deserve their Fs.Report
I don’t think Professor Merriam is unethical. But I think he had a non-realistic expectation about human beings’ rational capacity to act purely “out of moral duty”, i.e., to follow the academic honesty policy just because they are told that they have the duty to do so.
Descriptively, human moral psychology simply doesn’t work like that.Normatively, that is just too demanding a requirement (maybe it’s not demanding for some, e.g., Immanuel Kant, but not everyone is Kant).I really wasn’t surprised that so many students cheated in this experiment done by Professor Merriam. Instead of expecting students to follow the policy just because it is “the right thing to do”, I agree with Justin that it is more useful to consider “feasible cheat-deterring strategies for professors teaching large classes”.
If the instructor wants reduce the chance of cheating, the very first thing they want to avoid is reuse exams or use questions to which students can easily find answers online. To be clear, I think it is always morally wrong to cheat! My point is that there are things we can do to help students avoid doing wrong other than expecting them to magically become a Kantian.Report
It just isn’t practical to write completely new exams every semester. It is very time consuming, and there is only so many ways you can rephrase questions about what Kant would say about the murderer at the door, or what Mill would say about telling a white lie. I agree that prevention is better than punishment, but ‘just write new tests’ is not a viable strategy.Report
Imagine a neighborhood in which a few small bands of hoodlums go around preying on innocent people. They jump them, beat them up and otherwise assault them, and strip them of anything of value, leaving them for dead. Little is done to stop them, so their behavior continues.
Finally, a new police chief sets up an operation to stop it. He sends in some people who look like easy prey but can defend themselves. The instant the hoodlums attack, the police jump out and arrest the perpetrators. After a few days of this, all the hoodlum gangs are in jail.
Now the big trial comes. The hoodlums’ attorney argues that the police operation was a bad one because it’s just human nature to assault seemingly defenseless people on the street, and because the police operation ignored this and ‘enabled an assault’ (even though, obviously, what it enabled was an attempt at assault the police knew would be unsuccessful), and because it demands too much of people to expect them to allow innocent people to go their way in peace.
I hope almost anyone can see that all these things are preposterous. We are not helpless to stop ourselves from doing terrible things like assault innocent people and cheat on exams. Most people manage to restrain themselves.
What does enable cheating and immorality is a de facto policy of letting evildoers off the hook over and over again. When bad behaviors are known to be cost-free, more people are tempted to engage in them, and they come to feel more normal. The longer that goes on, the more work needs to be done to clean up the mess.
It’s really amazing to me that any of this is not obvious to all.Report
The following is obvious:
(posted twice, oops)Report
Things not being obvious is one reason many of us went into philosophy.Report
The problem here–I’ll leave it to readers to decide exactly what kind of problem it is–is that Quizlet is not exclusively a website for cheating. It is a website for studying. Students can create and take quizzes on it for practice. The analogy is to purchasing, say, a book for taking a practice LSAT or GRE exam. Plenty of students use it in this way, whether to solidify their knowledge in an area *or* to begin to develop such knowledge.
What the professor did was to upload a quiz to it that (knowingly) had wrong answers on it. The professor thereby participated in the spread of misinformation. We have no idea what sort of effects that may have (had?) beyond the effects the professor has diagnosed in his class. The misinformation may be limited to his class, or it may have spread to others. It may or may not have effects in the future, depending on the nature of the knowledge. There’s no way to know. Such spreading of misinformation is a problem, even if the intention was not explicitly to do this.Report
Quizlet tracks how many people visit the page in a given window of time. As far as I can tell, no one visited the final between December and the start of the month. During finals week the visits spiked. I don’t think I’m misleading the general public here.
As for my students, while it wasn’t my intention, a positive side effect here might be that they learn not to trust just anything that the find on the internet.Report
But does this constitute cheating? It’s very unclear to me why believing misinformation on the internet is a form of cheating.
Sure, if you had uploaded a PDF of the fake exam, with all the same identifiers as your actual exam I think there would be a good argument as to saying that a person with that PDF was violating academic integrity, however in this case a student could easily have misread the title of the flashcards or simply have assumed that it was just a typo. I don’t think any reasonable student would believe that someone had uploaded a copy of an actual upcoming exam to the internet on Quizlet out of all places. If I had come across such a think I would’ve just assumed that the uploader had written the wrong year by accident.
Of course, it would be copyright infringement for a student to have uploaded or accessed such document, but that is generally outside the purview of academic integrity.
At the end of the day I don’t think what was done here was unethical, but I also do not see why this constitutes any kind of academic integrity violation.Report
I changed fields a few years ago late into a philosophy PhD. I used Quizlet for bio and chem courses and it was an amazing resource. You can make arbitrarily complex flash cards and study them using their mastery tracker, which automatically detects those concepts you need to study more and those you need to study less, etc. I would recommend responsible use of Quizlet to any college student.
The only thing is that Quizlet really pushes you to make your flash cards public and even link them with a university name and course number. It recommends public flash cards/study materials based on what you are studying. It is very unfortunate, for the reasons in this thread, but also because studying someone else’s materials is often unhelpful and potentially misleading if the material is taught in different ways.
From my experience on Quizlet, I could imagine a situation where someone was trying to study questions from the course and was recommended this/portions of this study guide, especially if they linked their studying to the course and others made flash cards from the exam. If your students are using Quizlet, make sure to recommend that they do so “offline” in the website’s private modes.Report
It’s not the same as a practice LSAT book bc that book has the real answers. If students were really looking at this quizlet material as student produced study materials, then they would take seriously the possibility that the students that produced it didn’t understand the material. Students make mistakes. And if they thought like that, they would have realized that the obviously wrong answers were wrong and not copied them into their exam. But they didn’t approach it as a student produced study guide— they approached it as a list of answers to an exam that they mindlessly copied. Which is to say they cheated.Report
As misanthropic as I am, I don’t think that 40/96 kids in a class are intentional cheats. Even if they are, that indicates more a ‘systemic’ problem than a personal vice. They should not be punished.Report
It is a systemic problem at this point. And the main reason the system creates these problems is because professors and administrators lost the will to punish.Report
Many of you don’t want to, but you really should be asking yourself whether an institution (grading and examination) is worth saving if saving it requires escalating levels of surveillance and ever harsher, authoritarian methods.Report
“Many of you don’t want to, but you really should be…”.
The suggestion to reconsider institutional flaws is a good one, and worth taking seriously. Why include the distracting and patronizing language of a Twitter hot take?
(But I guess y’all aren’t ready for that question yet!)Report
Yes. If you don’t like it, there are many easier careers to break into that don’t require that of us..Report
You can also try to start the long difficult process of reforming the system. We have been working in the wrong direction the last 30 years or more, the capitalist model has infiltrated education so that grades are just as alienating as wages –as in both cases, the alienation derives from a means-ends view of education. Grades are supposed to evaluate the quality of a students work, to give them feedback. But the best feedback of course is comments on papers. a grade of C might just leave a student befuddled. But it is the entire culture that is corrupted in this way, not just the university. In the. last 50 years university administrators have been catching up with General Motors (or gone beyond them, insofar as they are not unionized.
This is a big utopian dream, but here is one thing that may help, if anything can. Incorporate discussion of student’s experience of education and the quasi marxist critique, thought it is also on a good Burkean could defend (I think.. not an expert). I found that students are quite open about the pressures they feel to get that A, about how secondary school teachers encourage focus on the result–grade.. rather than actual understanding or learning. Or more charitably, falsely believe that by focusing on the reward, more real learning will occur. It is not that this never works, it is very effective esp in getting people do necessary but tedious work (Think of all the painful memorization that is required to start learning a language).Report
Thanks for the response, Gordon. I think this thread is pretty well done, so I’ll just say here that I agree with you on some of the points about students’ attitudes toward university being a poor motivator and introducing perverse incentives, but reject the Marxist presumptions that seem to motivate your analysis.
I’m in favor of reforming the system, but in a different way, I think. I also haven’t seen much attention given to what seems to me to be a central consequence of much of this: if we simply give up on giving students grades that others can trust, then it’s hard to see why we won’t immediately put the majority of academics out of work. (Maybe you think it would be worth it, but I think that would be the consequence).
I’m not much inclined to continue the discussion in this thread, but it might be a relevant line of inquiry in response to an article I intend to write for Daily Nous quite soon. I’ve promised myself that I’ll get a little more done on my own work before I do that, but it should be here within a few weeks, all going well. Take care until then.Report
The university institution doesn’t *require* escalating levels of surveillance; these levels remained pretty steady throughout the 20th century. The instutition requires that escalation in the context of the takeover of our social world by Big Tech. Your position amounts to ignoring that world-historical contextual shift, isolating it from all critique here, and trying to pin all of this on universities, as though this escalation requirement were somehow baked into the institution as such. It isn’t. The internet has taken over the world. That’s what happened here. The rest of us are just trying to deal. That’s the whole story.Report
I didn’t say anything about the university, I spoke specifically of examination and grading (and, in a wider sense, perhaps of credentialing).
Due to technological development, our practices of examination and grading are, as they say in the military, OBE — overtaken by events.
We can “deal” with this, as you put it, by increasing surveillance: only do in-person exams, institute enhanced measures to prevent internet access, enhance these measures further as devices shrink, AIs do not require internet access anymore, etc. until we are (I’m confabulating) in a situation where examination halls have airport-style body scanners and individual Faraday cages with 360 degree camera surveillance.
I first got confronted with this in 2021 when my then-home university procured a veritable panopticum of “proctoring software” that absolutely nobody should be forced to put on their personal devices. I refused to use it.
Or we can seriously think about whether our old ways are worth clinging to, if this is what it takes to “deal” with the real world changes.
This aside, there’s many more reasons to question examination, grading, and credentialing. The anxiety it causes students. The adversarial relationship between professor and student. People getting their egos tied up in “not being fooled”. All this just ultimately hurts educational attainment.Report
In your last paragraph you gesture at some disvalues to examinations, grading, and credentialing. Genuine question: do you also see values in examinations (seeing if someone learned the material presented to them); grading (delineations of who did better than whom at a given task); or credentials (difficult-to-fake assurances that someone is able to do a suite of tasks well)? Or do you think these were all started for bad/misguided reasons and are being maintained for mere inertia?Report
I think there’s merit to the things you list; a good example would be the various existing licensing exams that confer certifications that someone is able to do a certain task safely and properly.
I also think the social and practical benefits of such exams are significant enough to permit fairly draconian surveillance to ensure the efficacy of the exam.
But I think it is a mistake to enmesh examination with education, have educators be examinators, treat university degrees as certifications of practical ability etc.Report
So, then: you think that it’s worth deterring cheating on a licencing exam, because society has an interest in ensuring that people who drive cars, perform surgery, build bridges, etc. do it competently enough not to cause a risk to other people.
But you don’t feel the same way about philosophy, even though you are apparently on the market to become a teacher of philosophy.
Why not? Do you think that the ability to reason things through and the habit of being intellectually modest, etc., have no effect on the well-being of others or the preservation or improvement of society?
It’s remarkable to me that so many people who are paid to teach philosophy repeatedly proclaim, in public, things that imply that there is no benefit to the work they do.Report
Hey Justin, it’s been a minute. Glad to see we’re still speaking different languages.
First, just to be clear, I’m on the market to be a tenured teacher of philosophy. I’ve been an untenured teacher of philosophy for a while now. I quite like it, I think I’m good at it, and I believe in what I do. Please don’t condescend to me.
Second, I think it is immensely important that people have “the ability to reason things through and the habit of being intellectually modest, etc.”. That’s why I’m favoring the primacy of education over possibly-hurting-education credentialing.
However, I’m not sold on a “ability to think things through” license. I wouldn’t even know what that’d be for. It is practically important that, say, an architect has the skills to build safe houses. Hence we only let people be architects who demonstrate these skills.
I don’t think it is important that … what? … only people with the philosophy license are engaged in thinking things through? That’d be wrong, in fact.
Conversely, due to the ubiquity of people who want to think things through, as many people as possible should receive education in philosophy.
I could be okay with a licensing exam for philosophy, if there’s a need. Perhaps that’ need is just teachers and perhaps the PhD is just that exam. But I don’t think that this is best achieved through constant examination pressure, three courses per semester, twice per course.
Indeed, I quite like the law school model. Undergraduate students get educated in general skills that they hope to leverage to pass a more specific exam (LSAT). They move on to vocational training that, again, prepares for and culminates in a more specific exam (Bar).
Take grading out of this and you get all the benefits of education without credentialing and cheating isn’t even a thing. Students are in your courses to improve themselves towards a goal that is not directly related to you or your course material. No “will this be on the exam”, no “this will ruin my GPA”. “Cheaters” aren’t even deserving of the name, and genuinely hurt nobody but themselves. There’s no grades they could “devalue” or credential they could be mistakenly awarded.
I do run my own courses according to this vision. I mostly teach non-majors, and in fact many pre-law students. It is *monumentally* more important to me that every student in my class has the opportunity to receive a foundational education in philosophical thinking than that I correctly credential them. I can share how I implement this if you want to know.Report
Over the years, I’ve sometimes given quizzes. When I do give them, I make sure I create a new quiz every semester (easy when you also change the readings or topics to keep things fresh) and I create different quizzes to different sections during the same semester. I also change paper assignment topics every semester. I don’t understand why some teachers insist on teaching the esact same syllabus and using the same exact materials semester after semester, sometimes for decades. That seems lazy, which this guy wasn’t, as we know from the effort he took to entrap his students.Report
1) I do mix it up every semester. That’s why only 45 of the 80 questions on the final carried over from last semester.
2) I didn’t entrap anyone. Entrapment is when you entice someone to do something illicit that they otherwise wouldn’t have done. I didn’t make them go to the website, I just got there first and set up a camera.Report
Yeah, if you just teach 4 entirely new and different classes every semester, you can totally avoid this!Report
It really wouldn’t be that hard to use only in-person assessment, with paper and pen only. If you want to assess them over longer than one class period, okay: make the midterm happen over two class periods. Final exam periods are already usually two or three hours.
Even some online courses have the option to take midterms and finals in a classroom.
It’s not the perfect solution (e.g., no long essays, with multiple drafts; it doesn’t apply to short quizzes). But it is available to many of us most of the time and makes a lot of these difficulties just go away. No?Report
Not in this case. It’s an online class with students spread far and wide.Report
I would encourage you to imagine the following scenario. You are up for a fancy job at a fancy school. Your friend in the department lets you know that he has some insider knowledge of what you should say in your interview to get the job. Would you seriously decline his offer? Would you fault someone who didn’t?
(This is unfortunately how cheating likely feels to many of your students. I’m not saying this is how it should be, but it is how it is.)
Now here is why I find what you did cruel. Let’s imagine your friend who reached out to you was a bit of a stickler deep down, and decided to offer this ‘advice’ as a test of your moral scrupules. In fact the information he was offering to pass along to you was false — the opposite of what you should say in the interview. Would you regard him as a good friend?Report
When you say “this is unfortunately how cheating likely feels to many of your students,” I take you to be implicitly saying that the students are making a mistake to feel this way about cheating. Meanwhile I am not sure if you think the job candidate who takes the advice is making a mistake to think that taking the advice is fine.
If taking the advice is fine, and students are confused about whether cheating is fine, then in the case where your friend misled you, we can say he was a bad friend because he led you astray when you were doing something fine, whereas the students who are led astray were not doing something fine.
If taking the advice is bad similar to how cheating is bad, then I would say what your friend did was not very friendly but it was certainly an effective teaching tool for you. Maybe it’s bad to teach via punitive means like this, but it’s certainly a lesson you’re not likely to forget. My friend is not a good friend but he might be a decent teacher.
Certainly if my friend asked me to turn in a 7 page paper on Hegel in a couple weeks or else he was going to do something that left a bad mark on my transcript and potentially hurt my chances at getting a job or getting into grad school, I would not think of him as a great friend. And yet we routinely do that sort of thing to our students. So I’m not sure “would this behavior mark someone as a good friend” is a great test for whether a teacher ought to engage in that behavior.Report
Is there a rule saying it’s wrong to accept such advice? If my friend tells me to dump shares of his company and I know to act on his advice would be illegal insider trading, then the joke is on me if it turns out to be a lie or error and I lose my shorts on shorts. If the students are told they can consult online materials and past exams, then it would be cruel and wrong to trick them by posting false answers. If they’re told that it’s prohibited cheating to look up exam answers online, then whatever happens after that is their own fault and nobody else’s.Report
I would also be a bad friend if I gave letter grades to my friends or constantly corrected their grammar, or made them schedule appointments with me during office hours. Should we stop doing that as well?Report
Could this be why I don’t have more friends?Report
Maybe I’m just naive, but I really dislike the adversarial relationship between professors and students that our current educational paradigm sets up. I don’t think this is a normal or natural thing. You don’t see people engaging in dishonest communication as much in typical relationships. In other areas of life we have a strong incentive to send accurate and honest signals about ourselves. I think this is because many kinds of interactions are mutually beneficial or mutually harmful, so our interests ideally should be aligned with the interests of others. I think academia (and one could argue, capitalism more generally) artificially sets up a zero sum game. Things like strict grading curves do this explicitly. Ultimately, I think this is an issue with the way academia interfaces with capitalism. I don’t know the solution, but I think some clearly harmful aspects of academia include the permanency of grades on your transcript, the high monetary stakes, the concurrency if learning and assessing (I generally think it would be better to allow students to build a large knowledge base before being forced to prove their knowledge – learning requires time and repetition in varied contexts to really be cemented), and the way our culture ties academic success to identity.Report
I’m inclined to think that this is fine. But given some of the comments about what, exactly, is supposed to be wrong with cheating and the extent to which responding to it is worrisome, I think it’s important to bear in mind a couple reasons that I haven’t seen mentioned, and rarely even hear voiced. I suspect the failure to notice/discuss them is partly due to the charitable attitude dedicated and caring instructors generally adopt toward their students (a good attitude!).
One reason why cheating is wrong: It’s insulting to the instructor. Expressing this reason can make one sound pompous and self-important (and I bet pompous and self-important instructors are especially bothered by cheating for this reason). But it’s true even for (maybe especially for) dedicated and caring instructors. I put a lot of time and effort into grading my students’ work. I do this largely because I want to give my students accurate and helpful feedback. The students have a claim on me to provide them with feedback for their work. They don’t have any claim on me to provide them with feedback for someone else’s work. And I’m not interested in providing such feedback. It’s a waste of my time, which is stretched thin, and a waste of my expertise, which I could have devoted to other students if I hadn’t just wasted it on grading something that I needn’t have graded in order to provide worthless feedback to a person who didn’t need (or likely want) it. In addition, there’s an implicit expression that I can be fooled; it’s not weird to resent being tricked, or having someone try to trick you, and to perceive this as insulting behavior is completely natural in most other contexts. I don’t think it does students any favors to pretend that it’s any different in the classroom. Again, expressing this forthrightly can be misread (or probably, in some instances, correctly read) as needlessly authoritarian. But I think it would be a mistake to fail to notice the way in which cheating is disrespectful and insulting toward the instructor.
A second reason cheating is wrong is that it degrades trust in the classroom. Students are, I think, generally not very aware of how much trust is involved in the student/teacher relationship. For the relationship to work, a significant amount of trust is required. For example, students need to trust that their instructors are not telling them things that they know to be flatly false, or that they ought to know to be flatly false. When it comes to grades, students have to trust that the instructor is providing accurate and fair assessments. If this trust is lost, then feedback and grades become largely worthless. I mention this in my classes when I talk to students about cheating. I ask them to consider how they would feel if it came to light that I graded their work in a capricious or irresponsible manner (e.g., throwing the exams down the stairs and grading based on where they land, etc.). Even if this is rectified, how could they ever go back to trusting my assessments? Would they feel confident that, moving forward, I would change my ways? Similarly, it strikes me as odd to merely fail a student for the relevant assignment rather than the course when they are found to have cheated. The breakdown in trust is the same: Why should I think that the next paper they turn in is their work? How can I go back to trusting them? This all might sound dramatic, but I really do think the destruction of trust in the classroom is about the worst thing that can happen for an educator. I need my students to know that I am, fundamentally, working with them toward a shared goal; but I need to know that they are, at least minimally, engaged in that shared project with me as well. Once they reveal that they aren’t interested and are actively subverting it (or once they learn that I am doing so), the entire project is endangered.
So: I’m not claiming these are the two main or most important reasons cheating is wrong (for that matter, personally, grade grubbing bothers me more than cheating does). I do think, though, that it’s completely reasonable to cite these reasons about why cheating is wrong: (1) it’s disrespectful and insulting to the instructor personally, and (2) it undermines the mutual trust that is required for education to succeed.Report
This is a wonderful comment, James. Thank you for both these important points, which I hadn’t considered in quite this light.Report
Yes, it’s insulting, and it’s fine to resent being tricked. But the student is not doing it to insult you. Feelings of insult and humiliation should not be driving your pedagogical policies. So I struggle to see how this point is relevant. As instructors, we must look past our personal feelings when designing policies to promote learning.
Yes, it degrades trust. But so do most mechanisms of enforcement, especially Professor Merriam’s. Do you really think that a professor deliberately planting false exam answers promotes trust? Why would students think a professor who resorts to those tactics is working toward a shared goal? Authoritarian anti-cheating policies to more to erode trust than a handful of isolated cases of cheating.Report
(1) To be clear, I meant my comment to be directed primarily at other comments in which people were having a discussion about what, if anything, is wrong with cheating. Nothing I said was meant to be an endorsement or justification Merriam’s actions (beyond justifying the claim that cheating is wrong.)
(2) Of course I don’t think that “feelings of insult and humiliation” should be “driving” my or anyone else’s pedagogy, and I wasn’t suggesting that. But it’s insulting to waste someone else’s time or to try to fool them into doing something they don’t want or have to do, and it’s reasonable to (a) convey to students that you don’t like this and (b) impose consequences on students who do it. It’s possible that you could do this in such a way that you let feelings of insult drive your pedagogy, and this would be deranged and obsessive (one professor I had as an undergrad leaps to mind). But that’s not required. I only think that the insulting nature of cheating is one (and not the only) reason for thinking it’s wrong. That leaves open how you should respond, and that will vary depending on lots of factors (e.g., How insulting was it? How sensitive are you to insult? Has it happened before?).
(3) I disagree that “we must look past our personal feelings when designing policies to promote learning.” This might be true of certain personal feelings (I can’t just decide that all Peytons will get worse treatment because I knew a Peyton once and I didn’t like him), but not all. Importantly, I’m definitely not required to simply accept being continually insulted or having my time wasted. That, of course, doesn’t entitle me to do whatever I want in order to prevent any insult or time-wasting. But teachers (like most employees) deserve a level of respectful treatment in their place of employment and it’s weird to me to think students would be benefited if we treated them as immune to expressions of resentment and the resulting consequences when they behave insultingly.
(4) Just to clarify: It’s possible to recognize that cheating is insulting without feeling insulted and nevertheless discouraging the behavior. I think acting out of that feeling can be fine (and can also not be fine), but isn’t required.
(5) A philosophical aside: For broadly Strawsonian reasons, I actually think that expressions of resentment (or at least the ability to express resentment) are part of what’s involved in being in a fully moral relationship with another person. So eliminating or seriously mitigating the possibility of such expressions strikes me as treating students as not in full moral “communion” with their teachers. This is a good idea for very young children. Less so for mature adults. Our students are, admittedly, often in between, and this should be borne in mind when deciding how to respond. But your post makes me think you’re suggesting a treatment more appropriate to younger children than our students are. (One reason I think so: The majority of our students’ capacity to feel shame when caught.)
(6) Lastly, I basically agree with you about your concern about Merriam’s actions and its effect on trust in the classroom. That strikes me as being the best reason against it (better than facilitating cheating, for example). I’m not certain that this is enough of a concern to show that Merriam ought not to have done it, though. If cheating is sufficiently rampant, trust might not be on the table in the classroom, and interventions that wouldn’t be warranted in more trusting circumstances might be justified in order to try to eventually regain a condition of trust. This is especially the case given that the students primarily affected in this case cheated and had already abandoned mutual trust. But maybe this would really bother students who had no interest in cheating (I’d like to know what the non-cheaters in Merriam’s class think), in which case this concern might overwhelm his good intentions.Report
“Do you really think that a professor deliberately planting false exam answers promotes trust?”
While this may not be directed at me, my answer is this practice DOES promote trust among some people.
Back when I was a student (who didn’t cheat), I would have more trust in a system that catches cheaters.
If I were hiring graduates from a college, I’d have more trust hiring graduates from a college that was good at catching cheaters vs. a college that let cheaters slide.
Of course, this practice may erode trust among cheaters. But then again, I could argue that any type of anti-cheating method could have a similar effect. Such as walking around the classroom to make sure students aren’t using hidden notes for instance.Report
It’s been ages. I hope all’s well. I have a few concerns about this that I thought I’d raise. These aren’t about the ethics of the thing (unless we take some super-broad notion of the ethics of the thing), but here goes.
On the ethical issue, I guess I worry a bit about people in positions of power intervening if it boosts the probability that someone is tempted to break a rule. Consider so-called theft by finding. Thanks to the 1968 Theft Act, it’s illegal in the United Kingdom to keep cash you find, say, in a park or on a public street, if you don’t make an attempt to see to it that it is returned to its rightful owner (e.g., by bringing it to a shop, handing it to the police, etc.). I think if the police were to leave cash out and run stings where they punished needy people who found the cash and kept it we’d be outraged, in part, because we’d think that they were creating conditions that made it more likely that people would break the rule. I guess I don’t think it’s the job of the police to run tests of our moral character to find the points where we’d give in to temptation (and punish us once the point is found), but to enforce the laws that (legend has it) are there to protect the values we care about. It’s sort of kind of hard to run these operations without altering the probabilities that someone might be tempted to use resources they weren’t supposed to. (As has been noted elsewhere, we also shouldn’t just compare the status quo to the situation in which you intervene if you can intervene by lowering the probabilities that someone uses these resources by having them taken down.) Maybe you managed to do that and that’s a difference between your case and the case of the theft act. Maybe if you can do it, it’s not wrong (waiving delicate questions about the wrong of damaging the relations between professors and students) but it might be less than ideal given (1)-(3).Report
I asked ChatGPT (4) about this. FYI…
“on an online quiz cheating site for students, a professor replaced a quiz with one that had several incorrect answers that he could detect when students used them. Discuss the ethics of this action.”
When discussing the ethics of the professor’s actions, it is essential to consider different perspectives and the intentions behind their decision. From the professor’s standpoint, one may argue that they are trying to maintain academic integrity and discourage cheating. Education aims to cultivate critical thinking, problem-solving, and knowledge acquisition in students. Cheating undermines these objectives and might lead to a lack of understanding or skills in the long run.
On the other hand, the professor’s approach might not be considered the most ethical solution. By intentionally providing incorrect answers, they are putting honest, hardworking students at risk of receiving lower grades due to misleading information. This situation might also create mistrust between the students and the professor, as students may feel deceived or manipulated.
A more ethical approach could involve addressing the issue of cheating directly by implementing stricter measures, offering support to students who struggle with the course material, or exploring alternative assessment methods that encourage original thinking.
In conclusion, while the professor’s intentions may have been to uphold academic integrity, the chosen method might not be the most ethical. A more proactive and transparent approach to addressing the issue of cheating would be more beneficial for both students and educators, fostering a healthy learning environment.Report
In the real world of ethics, the professor committed an act of entrapment which is a crime usually associated with corrupt cops who use entrapment as low-lying fruit to capture those who might not have moved in that direction (while the big fish are left alone to continue their network of criminality) if not for the acts of entrapment. In addition, the larger goal of academic integrity, as described by NECHE, is to create ways to prevent or decrease opportunities for student academic integrity violations as opposed to creating more opportunities for students to cheat. The professor essentially brought reproach to both his college and himself, and he should be reprimanded; the students should be given another opportunity to retake another form of the exam, but possibly with a lower grade. In the era of rising availability of Artificial Intelligence, traditional take-home exams are not recommended. The professor, along with his colleagues in is department, should consider creating more authentic forms of assessment, etc.Report
My two cents:
Garret did nothing wrong and should not feel any guilt. If anything, we should thank him. As Prof L indicated above, some of us sometimes let cheating go without doing anything about it because it is stressful and time-consuming to report students for cheating and to deal with the whole thing. I am sometimes guilty of this. I sometimes look the other way when students cheat, not because looking the other way is right (indeed, it is wrong), but because I am too emotionally depleted at the time to deal with the whole thing. It’s weakness of will on my end. I know it’s not admirable, and I wish I were better than I am. In any case, I want to thank Garret. There have to be punishments for cheaters, not to get retribution against them, but rather for rehabilitating them, for deterring future cheating, for keeping the whole system of education going properly (which requires that people have faith that the system is largely honest), and for the sake of fairness to the honest (non-cheating) students.
Now, all that said, I don’t actually think there needs to be a further punishment in this particular case. So, if I were in Garret’s shoes or the shoes of Garret’s chair, I would not give students a zero on the test or an F in the course. It seems to me that there is enough punishment contained in (a) getting a terrible grade on the final exam (e.g., if a cheating student got a 30% on the final exam, that is a pretty bad grade in itself) and (b) the embarrassment (and maybe guilt) that many of the cheating students must feel right now (they must be thinking, “How stupid could I have been to think that those answers on the test on Quizlet were correct?”).
I guess part of my leniency on the punishment end comes from knowing that Quizlet is often used by students for studying. So a good number of the cheating students likely first went there, not with the intention of finding the exact answers to this exact test, but rather with the intention of finding answers to questions similar to those that might be asked on this test, that is, with the aim of helping them on this test. That is not clearly cheating: it’s not good and might be morally wrong, but it’s not clearly cheating either. Then, once the students got onto Quizlet and found this exact test, they should have told themselves, “I refuse to use this. To use this would clearly be cheating. This is my exact test.” But at that point it would have taken great strength of will to refuse to use the test found on Quizlet (i.e., it would have taken great strength of will to refuse to cheat).
Maybe some of my leniency on the punishment end also comes from personal experience. There have been a few times in my life (and once in the court system) where, although I was punished for wrongdoing on my end, I was punished in ways that allowed me to recover over the long run without losing too, too much. I am very grateful, looking back, for the people who showed me mercy: they didn’t give me a free pass or look the other way, but they also didn’t crush me. And they definitely could have.Report
Why do you think that rehabilitating students who are inclined to cheat requires punishing them?Report
I’m no expert on punishment. But I’ll try my best. Let me start by conceding that there might be some cheating students who do not need punishment to be rehabilitated. That said, I do think that the vast majority need it, at least if we are talking about getting the process of rehabilitation going in the near term. (The long term is different. Over the long term, personal experiences can lead people to change in significant ways. For a cheating student, maybe in the long term he or she is victimized by a cheating boyfriend or girlfriend, or is victimized by identity theft, or forms a close relationship with an extremely honest person and comes to admire honesty; and maybe in turn, over the long term, this cheating student comes to have a strong aversion to all forms of dishonesty and cheating, including in himself or herself.)
On the meaning of “rehabilitation:” I guess this word could just mean “the person stops with the offending behavior.” Alternatively, it could and usually does mean something stronger, namely, “the person stops with the offending behavior and is intrinsically motivated to stop the offending behavior.” Punishment obviously helps with the weaker form of rehabilitation, since it provides an external disincentive. But that in turn helps with the stronger form of rehabilitation. For once the cheating student stops performing the offending behavior (cheating) and does this repeatedly, the good habit of not cheating is in place. Although this good habit was put in place due to an extrinsic motivation, it is nevertheless a good habit. And once this good habit is in place, it is easier to start to work on the internal beliefs and desires and in turn to correct them. So this makes it easier for an intrinsic motivation to be honest (not cheat) to become ingrained in the person.
Maybe it would also help to think of cheating students as falling into different categories: weakness-of-will cheaters, cognitively motivated cheaters, and those who are mixes of the two or somehow vacillating between the two. Start, then, with students who cheat due to weakness of will: they believe cheating is, all things considered, not worth doing or practically uncalled for, but they do it anyway, due to some kind of appetitive failure. These students are going against their own best judgment. And they will feel shame, or guilt, or regret if they cheat. What they need to stop cheating is some kind of force that counteracts their appetitive problem. The threat of punishment for being caught cheating is a good candidate — and presumably the only available candidate (right?) — for being the counteractive force that is needed here. But an empty threat of punishment doesn’t seem sufficient here: following through with an actual punishment seems to be needed here. Now, once the punishment is administered, the cheating problem might or might not go away (i.e., rehabilitation might or might not follow). But I do think the punishment is needed for rehabilitation to have a chance in the weakness-of-will case. What would the alternative be? That the cheating student finds a way to correct his or her appetitive failing on his or her own? But how would that work? As I said above, there might be some cases (in the near term) where students are able without punishment to rehabilitate themselves (or otherwise to become rehabilitated). But I’m skeptical that there could be very many cases of this sort.
Now consider students who cheat, not due to weakness of will, but rather due to their believing that it is, all things considered, worth it or okay for them to cheat. Lots of my own students seem to be in this category. Lots of them seem to think that, although “society” says that cheating is wrong and ought not be done, “society” is mistaken about that. Many of my students seem to think, “I pay a zillion dollars for college, and I deserve a payoff for this in the form of good grades that will help me in getting a good, high-paying job; and if I need to cheat to get good grades, I’ll do it. It’s not admirable to cheat. But it is (overall) okay, given the screwed up, unfair world we live in.” Whatever exactly the thought process is here, the main point is that, cognitively, these students are, all things considered, in favor of cheating. I take it that, w