Ah, cheaters… they shall ever be with us.
True story, this, and recent, too—from the course I taught in winter semester, which finished in late January. Names have been omitted for obvious reasons, and there’s a little follow-up on my philosophy regarding cheaters and how to deal with attempted cheating in a class.
THE SECOND-HAND TEXTBOOK
As the rest of the students all leave the classroom, the STUDENTS asked to remain after class approach the PROF at the front of the room, and hand him their textbooks.
The PROF flips through the books, confirming that, yes, all the questions in units that haven’t yet been studied have all been completed, obviously by some other student during some previous semester. It’s a second-hand book.
So, according to the enrollment list, neither of you is retaking this course. You must have bought a second-hand book from another student, and were using it to cheat?
Cheat? No, I… I didn’t realize I was cheating…
You were showing me someone else’s work in a second-hand book. And taking credit for the work.
Well, but I did all the questions at home, on A4 paper. I only showed you the textbook, but I…
If you answered the questions on A4 paper why didn’t you show me that, instead of the book? I have students who sometimes want to sell the textbook, so they write all the answers in a notebook and show me that. That’s fine.
But you were showing me someone else’s answers to the questions. Besides, I can’t know that you really did the questions at home, right? Do you have these A4 papers here now?
No, they’re at my home. But tomorrow…
If I say, “Show me the A4 papers tomorrow,” how do I know you won’t just write all the answers tonight?
And how do I know you won’t copy the answers from this textbook instead of doing the work?
I’m sorry, but that’s not fair to the other students. And I can’t just trust you, for obvious reasons, right?
All I know is, this is not your work, and you took credit for it.
STUDENT A glances at STUDENT B, who is standing nearby, quietly watching, and seems unwilling to wade into the deepening quicksand. STUDENT A seems to realize her gambit isn’t going to work out in her favour, and nods acquiescence.
Yes, professor, that’s right. I realize I was cheating, I knew it was wrong. But please be generous…
I am being generous. I haven’t kicked you out of the class yet.
Er… thank you professor. But what about the marks?
Oh, you will get zero for the homework checks you cheated on already. You did write your paragraph assignments so… let’s see. You get 6/10 so far.
I’ll allow you to receive credit for future homework assignments, but you need to buy a brand new textbook today. I’m keeping these two finished textbooks until the end of semester.
Ah… How many more homework assignments will there be?
I’m not sure, but probably one paragraph assignment and four textbook homework checks.
Please, give us more homework!
Wh- … what?
I need more homework! So I can earn my grade!
This is a winter intensive course. We have six days of class left, including a midterm and a final exam. That’s four days of regular class.
Yes, so you can give us a LOT more homework. So I can earn more grades.
STUDENT B, evidently caught for the same offense, stands nearby, eyes wide and her mouth gaping in disbelief.
You can give us SOOOOO much more homework. A lot of homework! Every day… a paragraph every day, too!
I… don’t think the other students would appreciate your request.
But… please? I need to earn my…
You were cheating. You realize I caught you CHEATING? That I could just give you a zero for the homework component of the course, according to the rules on the syllabus? And now you’re trying to tell me how much homework to assign in the class? You can’t be serious.
Listen, you want me to give everyone more homework because you want to salvage your grade. That’s not fair to other students, is it?
Well, what else can I do now?
Accept that being caught cheating has consequences. Do everything you can to get the best grade possible in every other area. Write all your blog posts, participate actively, and buy a new textbook today so you can get credit for future homework assignments.
And be thankful you weren’t kicked out of the class.
Yes, professor, but please be generous…
I AM being generous. I haven’t kicked you out of the class… yet.
Er… thank you professor. But what about my grade?
The PROF looks at the STUDENT B, who is still wide-eyed and can’t believe her ears.
He shakes his head, and thinks of SISYPHUS.
Oh, and… in those remaining six days of class in the winter semester, the student I called Student A also managed to:
- arrive, the next day, 110 minutes late for the midterm exam (for which 120 minutes were allotted)
- skip two more classes (and miss two more homework checks) without a valid reason offered
- complete 25% of her course blog work
It’s possible some of that comes down to demotivation after being caught cheating, but she she’d already missed class several of times (and, when you’re only having 14 sessions, that’s a lot), and was already on track to do poorly on the blog. Which is one of the reasons I don’t worry too much about cheating: most of the people lazy enough to do it, are too lazy to cheat intelligently, and are usually too lazy to do well in the other areas where it’s hard or impossible to cheat.
As for this technique, buying a second hand book and passing the previous owner’s work off as your own, it’s not really a new gambit, but to seems to have caught on this year. Like bears discovering fire, it wasn’t a “thing” until suddenly it was one: between last fall semester and the winter semester, I caught a few people trying it. Never more than one or two per class, but enough for it now to be a “thing.”
This post is old, I should note: I drafted it in February, after finishing my winter intensive course back in January. At the time, I spent a little time thinking about cheaters and cheating, especially because one of my students from the Fall 2017 semester who received an F (for not doing his work) made lurid provably false accusations of widespread cheating in our class. But while not everyone was cheating, as he claimed, probably a couple of cheaters did get past me.
Thinking it over after that, I’ve come to the conclusion that if you’re teaching required courses, cheating is inevitable in your classes, and that you can only do so much to prevent it. Cheating becomes a sort of arms race, and you have to be smart about how much energy you put into catching cheaters it before it starts to suck away energy you should be using positively elsewhere.
Yes, that means binning any ethical objections to cheating: yes, cheating is unethical, but such a moralistic view isn’t useful in defining how far one is willing to go to grapple with the inevitable cheaters: exhortations and scoldings fall on deaf ears, which is both exhausting and embittering.
Instead, conceptualizing it in terms of academic survival strategies helps: think of a tapeworm, and you’ll be on the right track. A parasite may live off the work of others but at what cost? The tapeworm’s strategy for survival necessitates constant dependence, swimming in feces, and being unable to survive outside of someone’s guts. It’s an inglorious fate shared by the cunning cheater, if she or he is lucky: regurgitation, flunked exams, and a grade in the D+ to C range at best, is a sad sort if aspiration—especially when you realize that in many cases, a D is worse than an F in most Korean undergrad programs. 1 And of course, that’s the best case scenario.
If you design your course and grading scheme correctly, the worst case scenario is that cheating is a form of shooting oneself in the foot, because homework is just a “grind” mark anyway: the thing that separates the As from the Bs. Cheaters, in the meantime, prevent themselves from ever getting within spitting distance of a C, because the cheating self-sabotages exam performance (assuming a well-designed exam) and in-class assignments… and that’s if they avoid catching an F along the way.
Not that they don’t try: usually, you end up being faced with sort of mini-arms-race: if you check whether they’re using someone else’s textbook, they keep buying second-hand textbooks… and just copy the answers into a new book at home. You switch to a new textbook, and they start scouring the internet for second-hand copies from other campuses. In the end, someone who wants to cheat will find a way, and typically they’ll even put more energy into faking doing their work than doing their work the normal way would even require.
Of course, you can go all the way: have students do nothing outside class, never assign them homework, and thus head cheating off at the pass. This is not only possible: I know a number of professors who do exactly this. Personally, I don’t understand how a university course can be run this way: it feels a lot more like the classes I took in elementary or middle school. In my class, students are expected to do homework, and classtime is for going over difficult material, reviewing answers, and doing other writing exercises.
It’s not really necessary to eliminate cheating altogether, after all: because cheaters invest so much energy into avoiding learning what the class is supposed to teach them, they ultimately end up shooting themselves in the foot, the same way chronic gamblers do. (Smart teachers always rig thing so cheaters fail, after all.)
They’re also chronic short-term thinkers: they focus on the annoyance and boredom they’re sidestepping, but not the F they’re guaranteeing for themselves in the long run. Not that they don’t care about grades: they really, really do. They just don’t feel obligated to earn them, or don’t believe they can earn them, or… well, whatever. Hell, most dedicated cheaters seem unable to even reconsider the strategy. Evolving past it is just too energy- and time-intensive (and far too unpleasant) for most habitual cheaters.
Of course, if we’re talking about “academic survival strategies” it’s worth remembering that the range of viable strategies is determined by the environment: students get deep into this habit of chronic cheating when they’re able to get away with it, and because it’s incentivized by the structure of at least some (and probably the majority of) the classes they take. Cheaters cheat because cheating works, in other words; and it works especially well in an education system dominated by multiple-choice tests that aren’t constantly updated and revised, and when rote memorization and reegurgitation offer a shortcut past actually learning how to do things on your own, and where flunking out of university is an astonishingly rare turn of events.
Not that you can do anything about that context—trust me, no amount of pushing will ever achieve change even on the most glaringly obvious problems—but context still matters, and on some level it’s arguable that those students who are habitual cheaters became that way because they were trained by the feedback received following previous cheating attempts. (This is true, more than anything, in how incredulous they become when they actually get caught, and how hard they flail about trying to defend the indefensible, sometimes even claiming they didn’t realize that copying another’s answers was cheating.)
Realistically, the best you can do is to construct things to amplify the intensity of their self-sabotage when they cheat, as well as constructing things so that the apparent motivation (a grade) is subverted to simulate the actual purpose (learning). If you do that, you’ll inevitably reward the people who’re willing to grind their way through the groundwork, while the cheaters will have enough rope to hang themselves without any extra energy input from you.
You do this as much as you can, in small steps, cutting off new avenues of academic fraud as they emerge among the student population, and then refocus your energy where it belongs: on teaching those, however few or many, who demonstrate a real desire and willingness to learn.
Somehow it seems the norm (at least everywhere I’ve worked in Korea) that if you flunk a course and retake it, the F is removed from your transcript, at the cost of a slight cap on the highest grade you can receive—but you can still get an A for your first retake. Get a D in a class, and it’ll be on your transcript forever.↩