It’s so bizarre to me that since the forced online learning movement started, so many math faculty—and not just at my institution—have been worried about cheating.
It’s not a new phenomenon. Students who want to cheat ALWAYS will find a way to cheat. This happens all the time, and everywhere. Every single place I have worked, I have caught a student cheating. Sometimes it’s blatantly obvious like having a piece of paper literally labeled “cheat sheet” beside the exam, sometimes it’s a notecard sticking out of a purse, sometimes it’s a phone not-so-discreetly cradled in a hand, sometimes it’s writing “let a be a prime” (which no one does except someone in a stackexchange answer forum on precisely the problem in question). Other times it’s more subtle and a group effort. At larger universities for mass finals, TAs would pace the hallways and regularly check the bathrooms, sometimes finding notes and solutions on pieces of paper tucked behind toilets or written on the walls of stalls. Even with my online contracting for Art of Problem Solving, I’ve caught sixth graders plagiarising in an extra-curricular math course (think about what THAT reality does to your outlook on mankind.).
So why is it that we’re so worried about cheating now? Because it’s now so “easy”—as if it weren’t before? Because it’s more obvious to us that it’s possible? Because we’re dreading the extra work trying to minimize it creates? Because the process once you catch a cheater got streamlined? I honestly don’t get it. English departments have been dealing with this issue for years—the internet has been a bane to their take-home essay and paper-writing existences. Decades ago, many students would purposefully join fraternities and sororities and athletic groups and clubs in part because of the test banks they’d keep. This isn’t new. Is it just now that math is suddenly thrown into the online/modern spotlight that we’re so concerned?
Or is our fear more philosophical than practical? Deep down do we really believe people will do anything to get ahead, especially if they suspect they won’t get caught? That whether we write it off as stress or societal pressure for good grades or family pride, people will backstab and cheat their way to “success”? That cheating is a bad seed in human nature that now is being given a perfect greenhouse in which to bloom? Certainly the LSATs in their administration take a bleak approach to human nature; having sat for the exam I know that you are fingerprinted, must show photo I.D., can’t bring a phone, and are not allowed to leave the room during the exam. They know THEIR customers. Why don’t we?
Despite my belief that it will happen regardless, and despite my underwhelming and frustrating outcomes when following through with academic integrity cases, I have been societally pressured to continue to do something to try to minimize cheating. Here are some tricks I used in-person and pre-pandemic to address cheating that still work in a co/post-pandemic online setting:
- Reuse problems as infrequently as possible. In upper-level courses this can be difficult. In abstract algebra, say, classifying all groups of order 8 is a drastically longer and harder exercise than classifying all groups of order 7. But for lower-level classes like calculus or differential equations or linear algebra there’s zero excuse for reusing more than 10-15% of problems. The benefits I see are that it keeps my mind fresh—you’ve got to do SOMETHING to keep yourself from becoming stale after teaching calculus 10 times. Moreover, it decreases the usefulness of any test banks, online or frat house.
- Do not give out solutions. A lot of colleagues do this, and many students demand it. They all argue that it helps students learn, and makes them feel better in a security-blanket/better-course-eval way. But what actually helps students learn is feedback, not perfectly worked out solutions. If students get appropriate feedback on a returned assignment, they shouldn’t need solutions. But if they still need clarification, they should be able to go to their instructor. Their instructor should be willing to go over exams and mistakes with students. That cannot and will not occur if solutions are released. Back to cheating—think about what’s more likely to be found online. (1) Returned assessments with your blood-red ink feedback. (2) Your well-organized and flawless solutions.
- When possible, give multiple versions of the exam. In an in-person setting this is especially good if you also have, say, seating charts or general knowledge of where students sit. And you don’t have to get too fancy with this. Suppose you have a multiple choice section. Just reorder the problems and/or answer choices. Whether students talk to each other online or peep at each other’s papers, if Student A’s #4 is Student B’s #7 and A’s answer is D and B’s answer is E—you’ve done something nontrivial to “catch” this type of cheating. It only helps if you’re using some online system where there are actually random number generators.
- For the upper-level courses, if you’re giving a semi-standard exercise that you know is challenging, before you administer the assignment start looking online for solutions. Chegg and sites like that are much more for the lower-level calculus courses. Mathoverflow and places like that are where to go for upper-level. You may want to rethink assigning even a “classic” problem if there are too many easily-available (correct) solutions. Or, you may want to bookmark sites that say “let a be a prime” so when you’re grading you can be on alert.
That’s just in writing and returning the assessment. Here are some other suggestions:
- Be detailed with students as to what “cheating” means on a given assignment. Remind students regularly about this. There’s the obvious aspect that what materials are allowed will vary from class to class; there’s the sweet, if unlikely, possibility they’ll just forget what cheating means to you. But IF you catch a student cheating, and IF it’s “severe enough” that you have to take it further, the burden of proof is on you as the instructor. The students are innocent until proven guilty. So making sure it’s clear in writing (and emphasized to them orally because we all know students don’t read instructions) will only help you. Send emails before assessments are due, make it a tab in your online classroom platform, put it on your cover sheets.
- Be realistic that no matter what you do, there will be students who cheat. Think about which students are more likely to cheat. Students cheat out of desperation. So who is desperate? Those on academic probation or those at risk of being on academic probation. Those who have an F or a D but who “need” a D or a C (even if it’s mathematically impossible for them to get a higher grade, do you think given their grade they’ve figured that out?). Those who have a B but “know” they are A students. All of these people have great personal incentive to do anything for a better grade. Do all of those students cheat? No. Are those the only students who cheat? Also, no. But if you’re not looking out for ANY cheaters, you will never find them. So whether it’s my suggestions or not, come up with a starting point.
Still, with all these discussions now about cheating, and use of lockdown browsers and cameras for proctoring, and with companies like Respondus getting a lot of new contracts, I worry sincerely about the human nature aspect and the greater message being sent. What’s next? Minority Report-esque tactics on the border of espionage and entrapment (#Princeton)?
Vox had an article recently that echoed my sentiments, as did insidehighered. If we create an environment where it’s very clear that we are EXPECTING students to cheat, how could we be surprised that they meet our expectations? How is assuming they’ll cheat not in some way encouraging them to cheat? When we use lockdown browsers and make them Zoom in with a camera to be proctored, we’re telling students from the start that we do not trust them. We’re treating them like they’re guilty until proven innocent, yet giving them zero opportunities to demonstrate their innocence.