The Second-Hand Textbook

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.

Enjoy:


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.

PROF

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?

STUDENT A

Cheat? No, I… I didn’t realize I was cheating…

PROF

(dubiously)

You were showing me someone else’s work in a second-hand book. And taking credit for the work.

STUDENT A

Well, but I did all the questions at home, on A4 paper. I only showed you the textbook, but I…

PROF

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?

STUDENT A

No, they’re at my home. But tomorrow…

PROF

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.

STUDENT A

Yes, professor, that’s right. I realize I was cheating, I knew it was wrong. But please be generous…

PROF

I am being generous. I haven’t kicked you out of the class yet.

STUDENT A

Er… thank you professor. But what about the marks?

PROF

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.

STUDENT A

Ah… How many more homework assignments will there be?

PROF

I’m not sure, but probably one paragraph assignment and four textbook homework checks.

STUDENT A

(pleading)

Please, give us more homework!

PROF

Wh- … what?

STUDENT A

I need more homework! So I can earn my grade!

PROF

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.

STUDENT A

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.

STUDENT A

You can give us SOOOOO much more homework. A lot of homework! Every day… a paragraph every day, too!

PROF

I… don’t think the other students would appreciate your request.

STUDENT A

But… please? I need to earn my…

PROF

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.

STUDENT A

Well… but…

PROF

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?

STUDENT A

Well, what else can I do now?

PROF

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.

STUDENT A

Yes, professor, but please be generous…

PROF

I AM being generous. I haven’t kicked you out of the class… yet.

STUDENT A

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.


  1. 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.

gordsellar: Your host on this site. I'm an SF writer, homebrewer, and expat teaching at a university in South Korea. My policies for commenters on this site can be read here.

View Comments (6)

      • When I was at Sookmyung Women's University (2005-08), my courses all had "absolute" grading. At Daegu Catholic University (2013-14), it was all curved. At Dongguk University back in Seoul (2014-15), most courses were curved, but some were under "absolute" grading. I guess it depends on the university.

        Personally, I find curving evil. I realize that mentioning the curve seems like a non sequitur, given the topic of your post, but my thoughts were triggered by:

        "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."

        I think the curve leaches away some of the justice of what you're saying here. I'm not saying I disagree with you; I actually think you're spot-on. But the idea of rewarding those who work hard is undermined, at least somewhat, by a uni-mandated curve that says only 3-4 people in your class may receive "A"s. Other hard workers will have to settle for a "B," which isn't just at all, especially if those kids have done "A" work.

        • Huh, interesting difference in experience: as far back as I've been giving grades in Korean university classes, I've always had to abide by a curve... all the way back to 2003.

          I don't think mentioning the curve is a non-sequitur, though I will say what's called a "curve" is usually more of a grade ratio. I think it's an especially unfair practice when students aren't randomly sorted. (In all the places I've taught general ed English courses, the students have been sorted by major, with the assumption that, say, the top Music or Physical Education majors would get "A" in their all-Music or all-Phys Ed major language courses, even when, compared to the English or Engineering or Biotech or American Studies majors, they didn't really warrant anything about a C+ at the best, and at worst the majority would be flunking out if forced to compete fairly.

          Like you, I despise the curve in principle and wish that my colleagues (both Korean and otherwise) would put the brakes on the grade inflation so that fairness could reign. Indeed, I often tell students that I think general education English courses should be Pass/Fail courses, where fail just entails a retake until one can pass. I think that would refocus students on doing the work so they can pass, where when they think they're earning a credited grade, they do weird stuff like cheat or obsess over absences or missed homework checks or whatever. Grading is, I find, the single biggest distraction from learning, at least within the educational institution. But the idea seems too alien somehow.

          However, in practice I guess I just must have fine-turned my expectations just high enough that most of my classes conform to the curve without my having to adjust downward more than one or two grades a semester. Or, rather, I've just designed courses where the level of grind I ask of students is just enough that students self-sort into A, B, C, and D/F in approximately the exact numbers we find make up the curve.

          The twist? We were told last semester that the grading curve would be abolished. Imagine the look on my face. Then, I think it was later the same day, we were subsequently told that an "unofficial curve" would be "required" of us instead. (I think someone doesn't understand what "unofficial" and "required" mean.) To be more specific, we were there told that this new, unofficial, required curve was going to be even more stringent than the one being abolished. There were complaints, since we were told late in the semester, and so they put off the change until this year. (I think. I'm not sure. They haven't announced it officially, at least not to us foreign teachers.)

          Sometimes it's all just a little too Joseph Heller to wrap my brain around.

  • "Or, rather, I’ve just designed courses where the level of grind I ask of students is just enough that students self-sort into A, B, C, and D/F in approximately the exact numbers we find make up the curve."

    I hear you. I've done that, too. Because of the curve, my team leader at Daegu Catholic advised me never to assign a number grade ending in "9" because I would get calls and visits from students begging to pump the grade up just one more point in order to nudge it over to the next higher letter grade. Advice like that, while practical, erodes the fairness/justice quotient even further because it introduces even more artificiality into the system. Yeah, grades probably are "the single biggest distraction from learning."

    • I'll confess that sometimes I tell students, "Sorry, it's the grading curve," just to cut short the begging and pleading. People at least accept that as inviolable fact, when they're prone to try argue if you say, "But 89.2 rounds down, while 89.7 rounds up, okay?"

      (Or, worse, to argue, "I know I was supposed to write 14 paragraphs, but the three I did bother to write were really good! Why isn't quality factored in?" for the Nth time after you remind them that you said, at the beginning of semester, that quality wouldn't factor in because practice the practice blog is about volume of regular output, not about editing or stylistic development.)

      I think looking for fairness/justice in a grading system is a bit like going to a nightclub to meet someone you can marry and settle down and be a homebody with, you know? Grades are about ranking and sorting people and invalidating learning and elf-development as an ongoing, individualized process. (It's inherently hostile to the truth of learning, which is that people who care to learn, learn at their own pace and in their own way, or they don't learn at all.)

      I get it that administrators and bureaucrats need grades so they have numbers to crunch and all that. But it's vile that they've got us all pretending grades are a useful, coherent system that's fundamentally necessary to educational institutions. (I know at least one prof, retired, from an American university where no grades are issued, but students get personalized feedback in classes, and everything is pass/fail, or rather pass/repeat.) Totally legit school, fully accredited, etc.

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