To my friend M,
Next week, you’ll be teaching as an instructor-of-record for the first time. I am so excited for you, and for your students who will get to learn from a kind and insightful instructor. There’s been a lot of talk about cheating lately and, as someone who has been “around the block” a few times, I wanted to put together a few thoughts that might be helpful for you this semester.
Why Do Students Cheat?
In our large-enrolment introductory physics courses, few of the students are there because they are interested in the subject. Mostly, they’re enrolled because they need Physics 1 & 2 for med school (or another health track) or engineering. So while we see the beauty of physics, our students view the course as a hurdle to overcome — either a checkmark for their med school applications and (maybe) some preparation for the physics portion of the MCAT, or a “weed-out course” required by the school of engineering.
Physics has a reputation as a difficult subject: esoteric, highly mathematical, nearly impossible to master. So when students who would rather see the course in the rearview mirror struggle with physics problems, they have little motivation to seek out help through proper channels: going to office hours, asking their TA for help, checking in at the physics resource room, or collaborating with classmates. After all, why should they struggle to learn something they don’t care about? Then, later on, on high-pressure final exams for which they haven’t properly prepared, students cheat because they need a certain minimum grade in the class and can’t imagine earning that grade without the outside assistance they’ve grown to rely on.
At the same time, resources that feed students answers under the guise of helping them learn (ie: Chegg) are now available, and growing fast in the student collective consciousness. Worse still, there is a negative spiral: students who use Chegg feel defensive about it and tell stories about how bad their instructor is, how difficult physics is, how modern work requires resourcefulness, and how everyone is doing it. These stories create feedback when other students hear them: I thought the instructor was okay, but maybe he really isn’t very good? I thought Chegg was cheating but if everyone is doing it then maybe I have to as well, in order to keep up?
Here are some student comments from our university’s subreddit about cheating this past semester in the introductory physics courses:
I’m not outraged nor am I surprised. Cheating happens all the time.
People say “don’t cheat it’s wrong” but I guarantee each and every one of us have done something academically unethical.
It’s college and in these times your GPA is now apart of who you are… So why wouldn’t students use ALL their resources to better themselves?
In summary: students cheat because they see their classes as hurdles to overcome, feel pressure to succeed, and are given permission from their peers since cheating is commonplace and acceptable. So what can we do about it?
Preventing Students From Cheating
Everything in education that is done well needs to start from a place of compassion. How can we help students avoid the allure of cheating? The equation below suggests three starting-points:
- Help students to see physics as something more than just a hurdle to overcome. Share your joy and enthusiasm with the class. Invest time in developing lectures and homework problems that are genuinely interesting. Go deeper, too: understanding physics fundamentally changes how we view the world. Compare a neophyte’s reaction to the bowling ball pendulum to that of a physicist, for example. Help students understand how their studies in physics are actually vital to their future careers in medicine or engineering by bringing in relevant, real-life examples from those fields.
- Reduce the pressure of high-stakes exams by instead having multiple tests. Which do you think students would find more stressful: two 20% midterms and a 30% final, or a 10% test every week for seven weeks? The two approaches do equally well at assessing student learning. If you have the support to do standards-based grading (sadly, we don’t in our department) then invest the time and energy in doing that. Decrease the pressure by giving students plenty of useful, quick feedback about their performance by using formative assessments like quizzes (I like quizzes that have a multiple-choice component that can be graded instantly and a problem component that can graded overnight and returned 1-2 days later with detailed commentary).
- Remove students’ permission to cheat by establishing unambiguous rules about what is, and what isn’t, academic misconduct in your class. Do this in the syllabus, spend 15 minutes in the first class talking about it and giving examples, and explain how you will respond to first and further offences. At our university, further offences are out of your hands, and go straight to the Dean. Don’t establish a rule you can’t or won’t enforce. Have students sign an honor pledge and make sure they understand the university’s Academic Integrity Code (and know it, yourself). Enforce your rules strictly: if you give them an inch, they’ll take a mile.
Catching Students who Cheat
Our university has a subscription to GradeScope, a platform that allows student work submissions and streamlines grading. I suggest using it because it makes it easy to store and compare student work. TurnItIn is integrated with Gradescope, and it is a good idea to use TurnItIn if your students are submitting any longer written work.
Don’t use textbook (or Sapling or LON-CAPA) problems directly as they can be easily found online. If you’re not sure about writing your own problems, re-write textbook problems. Be sure to change all names and places, and rephrase as fully as you can. You might as well be clear about this with students so they don’t waste their time searching.
Where possible, seek ways to give each student a customized problem so they can’t copy someone else’s answers directly (and you’ll be able to notice if they do). Here are some ways to do this:
- Have students use their student ID number (or the Nth digit in their student ID number) as one of the parameters in a problem
- Create multiple different versions of the same assignment/test by (a) rearranging the order of questions on the assessment, (b) reordering the answers in multiple-choice problems, (c) changing the values of some key parameters, and/or (d) using similar but non-identical problems
- Some of the biology instructors have been using scripting in PDF forms to customize assignments. Students type their name / ID number at the top of the page, and the values of key parameters on the page change as a result. You can create such forms using Adobe Acrobat.
- Ask questions that require students to use their knowledge of physics in a context that requires a written response. Context-rich problems are good for this, if you require that students write a couple sentences explaining their reasoning and results.
Even with all the preventative measures in place, you will likely still find student submissions that duplicate the work of others, either online or other students in your class. If you’ve been thorough and deliberate in establishing and explaining your response to academic integrity issues, and given students plenty of timely feedback on their learning, the next steps will be clear and unambiguous, and you will have a good response to the inevitable sob stories.
If you find your original problems on Chegg, you can submit a DMCA takedown request, which typically takes a couple days to process. Chegg also stores the IP addresses of its users. If you suspect students were cheating on a test or exam using Chegg, the Dean can request records as part of their investigation. More information here.
Hope this helps! Your friend, -D.