What to Do With Cheating Students?

(Photo: Alberto G.)

I’m nearly certain that a pair of students cheated on my final exam—the probability they had so many identical answers on the multiple-choice exam is infinitesimal.  If I pursue them, it takes me time, and there’s no assurance they will be found guilty.  If I don’t, I’ll feel badly about giving them an undeserved grade.  Even for fairly risk-averse students, cheating seems like a good idea.  I doubt that most cheating is caught; and unless the penalty is very severe (expulsion) and/or the students’ costs of contesting the accusation are high, and both are very well-publicized, the incentive to cheat for students with weak consciences seems overpowering. To salve my own conscience I’ll report them, although it’s probably a waste of my time; but I doubt that reporting them will deter their future cheating or deter others very much.

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  1. Mike B says:

    Perhaps you shouldn’t give multiple-choice exams that are easy for people to cheat on? Don’t complain that your house gets robbed if you leave your front door open. Free response questions that require students to show their work or significant amounts of writing are much much harder for students to cheat on. Moreover it is completely possible to design exams that allow students to come prepared with “cheat sheets” or open books. After all, classes should be teaching critical thinking skills, not rote memorization. I had one professor who would give “open everything” tests (although no internet and no collaboration) . He said that he conducted an analysis of that method with traditional ones and determined that he could achieve equivalent assessment while offering more challenging questions and generating less student stress.

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    • Patrick says:

      Your answer: blame the professor.

      1. Multiple choice questions can differentiate people who know material from those that don’t. They are standard on all types of exams, from the SAT to the GRE to professional licensure exams.

      2. One foundation of “critical thinking skills” is “rote memorization.” One cannot answer any question, say, whether New Deal policies lessened the depth of the Great Depression, without thorough factual knowledge AND a lot of critical thought.

      3. Many things can be “looked up.” As a physical therapist, at times I will reference a text to decide how to conduct a special test to determine a diagnosis, and determine what weight to put to a positive or negative test. But I cannot reference a text for every part of a physical exam.

      And even if a professor wants to give a True-False exam, a student should not cheat, and should be penalized for cheating.

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  2. rick says:

    Infinitesimal does not mean not possible. Wouldn’t the number of identical answers go up the better the grade? Were the wrong answers identical?

    Don’t give multiple choice tests.

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    • Neil (SM) says:

      It goes without saying that the correct answers were identical.

      Well, at least for some of us that goes without saying…

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  3. concernedstudent says:

    Report them.
    Yes, it may take time, might not work, and may result in some damaged teacher-student relationships – but if they DID cheat, they need to face the consequences of their actions. I’ve seen too many students escape unscathed from these kinds of behaviours – other students don’t want to ‘rat’ them out, professors turn a blind eye. What happens as a result? Undeserving students receive top marks while students who actually put effort into studying and worked honestly for their grades get knocked down. Furthermore, cheating students who don’t get caught will probably repeat it again – on their next exam or later on once they enter the workforce. Even if the students aren’t “convicted”, the accusation and defending process alone may be enough to deter them from making similar ill judgements in the future.

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  4. MRB says:

    Are the odds so odd if the distribution of answers is not random? IE, if the possibility of any given answer to a question is a uniform 20% (5 questions), then the odds of identical answers may indeed be low…

    but if the correct answer is chose 75% of the time, and a second answers is selected 15% of the time.. how likely are these two answer sheets are identical.

    Furthermore – if a student gets 100% (say through diligent learning), they will be identical to any other student who also got 100%…

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    • anon1001 says:

      I’d really like to hear the response to this. This issue of non-independence is always the first thing I think of when I hear about cheating allegations based on the probability of getting the same answers. Do you turn on every student that gets 100%?

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  5. mcw says:

    it takes two to lie. one to do it and one to accept it. take the strongest possible line you can with them.

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  6. Laura says:

    I teach English at a large state university. The process for reporting plagiarism is incredibly onerous and adds a significant burden of time to the faculty’s grading load. The incentive to such a process results in ignoring the cheaters (although I can’t stomach doing so; I always report plagiarism). I know of people who ignore plagiarism cases because reporting it takes so long, and often does not result in serious punishment for the student.

    As with other policies of universities today, it makes me wonder what we’re teaching students.

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  7. Karen White says:

    Well, I assume you mean that the two students a higher percentage than normal of “incorrect” answers that were identical, which would probably be a good clue that they were cheating somehow. All students who get high scores get a large percentage of correct answers in common. Did you have good evidence they were cooperating in the cheating–I usually assume that one is copying from the other) ? I know how hard it is for professors to call students on something like this. There are many ways that professors attempt to prevent it, but most of them come up short. One of my old professors somehow arranged for his questions to print out in random order on an exam, but the old style ones that were graded by hand, not multiple choice of course!

    I guess it all comes down to a problem in how students value their education. Too many employers are assuming that a degree is a kind of pre-screening for employees, even though a lot of those jobs wouldn’t really require a degree. Students go to college just to be employable and they know, deep down, that most of the courses they are taking don’t matter to them. For fields where it DOES matter, those students are disadvantage when they are taking courses with the students that don’t care. I would love to see a system where “grades” as such are eliminated since I don’t feel those do a really good job of distinguishing performance (and this is from someone who made straight A’s and high scores on standardized tests).

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    • Enter your name... says:

      The possibility that one student was being unknowingly victimized by the other had occurred to me, too.

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  8. Jimbo says:

    And just think, you are senior tenured faculty. If you are not tenured, or -even worse- an adjunct, your incentive to report is even lower, because you don’t know if you will be supported or not. On my last final, I’m rather sure that two sets of students shared answers on at least one question for each group, but I don’t know what question, and I have no way of proving it.

    It seems there are only two options – give a test with a finite set of answers – like multiple choice – and you increase the possibility of cheating. Or you can give essay questions which students hate and which are impossible to grade in a large undergraduate course where cheating is more likely to occur. I’ve tried giving multiple versions of the test with the question orders rotated and the answers varied as well, but it does not stop it. I can’t find a practical solution.

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