Whole Lot of Cheatin' Going On

November 23, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

Some of Jenn Lena’s students plagiarized. She says she feels “angry, disappointed, and sad.” I’ve felt the same way.

She also posts a video of a management teacher at UCF who discovered widespread cheating on an exam. Two hundred students out of 600 used advanced copies of the exam questions, probably from a publisher’s test bank.

The students were dishonest, of course. But when so many students cheat, cheating begins to look less like a personal defect and more like a rational response to a situation. The elements of that situation are all too familiar: large anonymous classes, multiple-choice tests, pre-packaged test banks from the publisher, and other things you can probably think of. What these create is a tacit agreement all around that the map (a score on a test) is more important than the territory (what the student actually knows or can do).*

My grad school’s language requirement is a good example. To pass it, I had to take a standardized test (ETS, I think). I could have cheated – gotten someone else to take the test for me, copied from another test-taker, sneaked notes or books into the exam – and as long as I didn’t get caught, I would pass the test even if I couldn’t understand a word of French. I didn’t cheat. I filled in the little scantron ovals, and even though I could speak, read, and write French at only the simplest level, I filled in enough of the right ones to pass. To conclude that I knew French was a travesty. But the school looked only at the map, not the territory. Their message was hard to miss: “We don’t care whether you really know French; just pass the damn test.” As long as the map looks o.k., we’ll ignore the territory.

At Brandeis the language exam was different. I was an undergraduate there, and a sociology grad student told me about it. “You go to Everett Hughes’s office. He gives you a piece of paper with a reference for an article in some French journal and says, ‘Go read this article. Come back, and we’ll talk about it.’” No map, all territory. And impossible to cheat on.

Now it’s Thanksgiving, and final exams are almost upon us. What is it that I really want my students to able to do? Choose the right answers on multiple-choice items that they have no advance knowledge of? Does that resemble anything that they might encounter outside of a college course? In real life, if the answer to a question is at all important, we want people to have that question in advance. We want to find out what they think and how they think and how they can use what they know.

UPDATE, Nov. 24: Timothy Burke at Easily Distracted had a much more thorough and wide-ranging reaction to the UCF cheating incident. The true function of managment courses and programs, he says, is not so much education as it is “a pre-screening device that saves employers the effort of having to consider an almost infinitely large pool of possible candidates for managerial or professional jobs. . . . . In that context, it’s hardly surprising that students would cheat.”

* Student of semantics will recognize this formulation as a variant (if not a distortion) of Korzybski’s dictum, “The map is not the territory”


PCM said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
PCM said...

I'm not a big fan of exams and usually don't give them in my class. I can't think of anything I remember from college that I learned from an exam.

But I do give exams in my intro classes (multiple choice and true-false) because I think these classes are more knowledge based than, say, a senior seminar.

I'm not so interested in the knowledge from any particular exam question than from the learning, knowledge, and academic discipline that hopefully comes from students actually studying for the exam.

[Also, can I just mention I'm posting this from 38,975 feet in the air with in-flight wifi. No doubt one day soon, pointing this out will sound as silly as telling somebody, "I'm calling you from my mobile phone!"]

Miguel said...

I agree with PCM. Like I have said to Lena: I admit have cheated in some ocassion for example when faculty of sociology agrees about to put exams condensed in one week, one and even two exams by day. Cheating sometimes is simply a survival strategy in front the cruel system of evaluation in where students are understood like robots who live for university tasks.

This is my reason for cheating, but ultimately, exams don't seem the better way to evaluate students.

brandsinger said...

For my grad exams, I think up two or three likely situations / challenges that align with / are analogous to what we've covered in the course. Then I ask students to figure out a strategic solution and defend it as compellingly as possible with reference to what we've discussed and read. There is no cheating possible.

PCM said...

I cheated occasionally in high-school. But I never did in college. Why? Because my college had an honor code. It wasn't perfect, but I strongly suspect it resulted in much less cheating than had the exams been proctored.

If you make cheating a game, then it's fun to beat the system and not get caught. We had to sign a pledge on every paper and exam). Professors were not allowed to even be in the room, when students were taking an exam.

[For student papers now, I use turnitin.com, which I suspect makes getting away with plagiarism almost impossible.]

Miguel said...

[For student papers now, I use turnitin.com, which I suspect makes getting away with plagiarism almost impossible.]

What if they change the words and the syntax?

Jay Livingston said...

Miguel, Turnitin casts a wide net. As a result, it returns a lot of false positives. I posted about it a while ago. I followed the link turnitin provided as proof the student had plagiarized. It took me to porn site.

Do they give multiple-choice exams in Catalonia? I thought this was an American invention.

Claude, I wish I could think of projects to use for a grade. I am envious of workshop courses. Studio courses – that’s easy. You take Life Drawing, you’re graded on how well you can draw life.
But what about Renaissance Art, or The Victorian Novel, or Sociology of the Family?

Peter, My exams usually have a multiple-choice section, partly or mostly because students prefer that type of question. But I also have sections that require them to think and write. Ppresumably you have landed by now and you’ve even survived the horritble, terrible, no good very bad things the TSA is doing. Wherever you’ve flown to, have a good Thanksgiving there. And a similar wish for all other readers of this comment.

brandsinger said...

Jay - You may have thought I was writing about "projects." I was writing about "exams." Two or three questions for an hour's worth of writing.

Miguel said...

Miguel, Turnitin casts a wide net. As a result, it returns a lot of false positives. I posted about it a while ago. I followed the link turnitin provided as proof the student had plagiarized. It took me to porn site.

Awesome tool for porn, then xD So, this method can work only with copy-paste plagiarism.

Do they give multiple-choice exams in Catalonia? I thought this was an American invention.

Yep, we have multiple-choice in some subjects, but most of exams consist in two or three questions to develop.

PCM said...

Thanks, Jay. I was actually flying home from ASC in San Fran. And once here at home I cooked a damn good turkey (if I do say so myself) slowly turning over open fire.

But back to the issue at hand:

False positives from turnitin aren't a problem because Turnitin is not a judge, but a tool (and a very good one). You don't fail a student because turnitin says there's plagiarism, you investigate.

What I find most interesting about turnitin is the incredible inverse correlation between the "percent" the website gives as potentially plagiarized and the quality of the paper.

"A" papers almost always score less than 10 percent. And any paper that gets 0 to 2% is always excellent. Papers that score as high as 50% might still not be plagiarized, but they're poorly written. The high score comes from using stock phrases, cliches, and unoriginal thought.

If a student scores 70% or 80% but I think there's lack of plagiarism intent (say the source is repeatedly cited), I'll show the student the report and we'll talk about writing and using your own words and I'll give them a chance to do it again. But usually there is a serious writing problem that goes beyond what I can help with.

When I get a full-on cut-and-paste plagiarism job I just fail the student. I give them fair warning and have no desire to waste my time on students who won't write their paper.

The only thing Turnitin can't beat is an original paper you pay somebody else to write. But my students generally lack the financial wherewithal for that.

The other thing that can beat turnitin (at least until google books finishes scanning everything), is any book from pre-1990 from (gasp!) before the internet.

I even tell my students they can probably get away with plagiarism if they (double gasp!!) go to the library and look at old books. Of course any student willing to put in that effort doesn't need to plagiarize.

Plagiarism is ultimately a lazy person's game. Usually, I suspect, for somebody who procrastinated too long and ran out of time.

whatisthewhat said...

For what it's worth, my students plagiarized on a paper by using definitions or transition sentences they found on-line. In other words, the plagiarized material was immaterial to the course content being evaluated, which was applied knowledge.
I also work at a university with an honor code.
One of the things that makes me very uncomfortable is when discussions of plagiarism transition quickly and without comment to an evaluation of what the professor's actions have been. I was not holding the gun, nor did I encourage them to pick it up.

Jay Livingston said...

Jenn, I've had students who have copied a definition. Sometimes, it was just ignorance of the rules. They figured a definition was like a fact -- as though they had written, "the capital of South Dakota is Pierre," a statement that doesn't require a reference or quotation marks even though they had to look it up. That may be more true my students than Vanderbilt students.

And in some cases, it was just cheating.

Your comment turned up around the same time that I was reading the “Modern Love” column in the Sunday NY Times. It was about the other kind of cheating. With both, I would say, yes, it’s bad, and people shouldn’t do it. But then I’d bracket the moral judgment and go on to ask the standard soc.-of-deviance questions: under what conditions is there more of it, under what conditions is there less of it? and who, what when, where, how?

From the “Modern Love” column and from my own reaction to student cheating, I know that these are not questions that immediately spring to mind for those who are directly involved. But they are questions, after the anger and disappointment, I’d ask about cheating if I wanted to understand it.