“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.