Cheating and Course Design

It is that time of summer when many of us begin thinking about our return to classes. We work on our syllabi as we design new courses and redesign old ones. A number of articles at the Chronicle for Higher Education have me thinking about one of the most challenging aspects of teaching: student cheating.

  • Here is their recent article on how an Economics professor tracked cheating in his course. This article raised several concerns that I also have:
    • First, he had a major concern with the perception of students that a significant portion of their colleagues cheat (they estimated between 30 and 45%). His comment: “such an overestimation of the real amount of cheating can become an incredibly damaging social norm”. I agree! I’d be curious to see whether Wesleyan students think a similar portion of their colleagues cheat.
    • Second, what is cheating? A look at Duke’s honors code (where the Economist teaches) suggests to me that there may be some areas that Wesleyan’s honor code does not quite addressed. The article mentioned specifically that “‘Obtaining documents that grant an unfair advantage to an individual is not allowed”. In this case, that document was an exam from a prior year that the entire class may not have access to. Now, this prohibition may be implied by Wesleyan’s honor code, but is “improper assistance” a clear enough phrase? I hope so.
    • Third, what is the purpose of honors codes in this process? At Wesleyan, we have students reaffirm their pledge to the honors code with a comment and signature on exams and papers. I find this very interesting as I never had to do this in all of my years at UCSD as an undergrad and UC Berkeley as a graduate student. I just always “knew” that cheating was something I shouldn’t do and that I could get in trouble for doing. Such a pledge seems superfluous, though I understand that the psychology of requiring the pledge may help discourage cheating in some individuals.
  • An article that appeared earlier this summer,“NYU Prof Vows Never to Probe Cheating Again—and Faces a Backlash”, discussed a professor who found that pursuing cheaters with Turnitin only led to a very dissatisfying teaching experience. In particular, he found that students do plagiarize; that pursuing this required he spend more time with those students rather than the students that don’t cheat; that it poisoned the atmosphere of the classroom; and that it may have hurt his salary. Now I have used Turnitin before and I had a much less severe experience. There were a couple students who were, it seems unintentionally, writing with insufficient acknowledgment of their sources. But I was very concerned that the use of turnitin violated the trust I share with students, that it led students to believe that I suspected they are cheaters.
  • Finally, last Fall a story appeared about a writer who confessed to writing students’ papers. This so-called “shadow scholar” made me doubt my current strategy for preventing cheating on research projects. On such large projects I have students turn in a range of smaller assignments (outlines, bibliographies, rough drafts, etc.) primarily to help them with the writing process. But a small part of me also hopes that it discourages the purchase of papers online. However, from this article, I come to realize that students are able to purchase the services of writers who will also complete all of these small projects on the way to completion of the final project. I’m not sure there is a way to address this.

So, once again, here I am at the beginning of a new term trying to consider whether and how I might deal with the prospects of plagiarism and cheating. The key questions (no answers yet) include:

  • Do I even try?
    • Of course, one should pay attention to the obvious cases. I’ll never forget the freshman (not at Wesleyan) whose paper began with the statement “After three years of research, we have concluded…” It only took a second to google a couple sentences and find the real research article that was the original source. But what about the less obvious cases?
  • Should I use a system like Turnitin?
  • Is it possible to use Turnitin without harming the atmosphere of the classroom and the student-teacher relationship?
    • Perhaps I should just have students use the service to check their own work before turning it in? Does that even make sense?
  • Do Wesleyan students think that cheating is a problem here?
  • What about the use of “performance enhancing drugs”? Wesleyan’s Code of Non-Academic Conduct was mentioned in Inside Higher Ed for including a ban on such drugs. But can we even monitor that?