Written by Panos Ipeirotis
Last Fall, it was my first semester of teaching as a tenured professor. It was also the semester that I realized how pervasive cheating is in our courses. After spending a tremendous amount of time fighting and pursuing all the cheating cases, I decided that it makes no sense to fight it. The incentive structures simply do not reward such efforts. The Nash equilibrium is to let the students cheat and “perform well”; in exchange, I get back great evaluations.
But let me give you the complete story, as it contains tidbits that I found, in retrospect, highly entertaining.
How it all started: Tenure and Turnitin Integration
There were two new things the Fall 2010 semester:
First, it was my first semester that I was teaching being a tenured faculty member. This allowed me to be a little bit more relaxed and also stricter on things related to cheating.
Second, for the first time, our Blackboard installation had full integration with Turnitin. For those unfamiliar with these, Blackboard is a course management system, and Turnitin is a plagiarism-detection software. The integration meant that when students were submitting assignments, these uploaded documents were automatically processed by Turnitin to product originality reports.
Turnitin has a huge database of assignments (all assignments submitted to Turnitin become part of their database) and also checks the Internet to locate parts of the assignment that may be copied from a web site. (For those curious about the technicalities, the detection seems to happen by checking for unusual n-grams appearing in two or more documents.) For essay-based assignments, you can be assured that Turnitin will detect most cases of plagiarism.
So, given the ease of deployment, I decided to use Turnitin, for the first time. I loaded all my past assignments on Turnitin, from all prior semesters, and configured Blackboard to automatically process all new assignments through the Turnitin software.
First assignment out: Essay about WiMax, LTE and the future of wireless communications
The first assignment of the semester was asking students to study the technologies for “4G” wireless data transfer, and understand how the choice of the underlying technologies by the wireless carriers can affect their strategies. To make the assignment different than the one distributed last year, I also added questions about LTE, in addition to the WiMax questions that we were using before.
The assignments came back, and here is how the Turnitin report looked like:
Yep. 20 assignments appeared to have more than 20% plagiarized content. Some of them were false positives, but most of them actually had actual plagiarized content.
Trying to understand what is going on, I studied the reports in detail. Here is how one assignment looked like, with the highlighted parts indicating parts that have been copied from other Internet sources (e.g., bbtantenna.com, moopz.com, and so on):
This student created a report by using three buttons in his keyboard: Find site on Internet, copy, paste; Find site on Internet, copy, paste; Find site on Internet, copy, paste. Although it was not a blatant cheating case, it demonstrated a very alarming practice. Students get used to prepare reports by simply looking things up on the Internet and then just paste everything together, with minimum further editing. Even more alarming: no citations to the original sources.
I decided not to punish the students that engaged into such a practice, but I had to discuss pretty extensively in class why this is a very bad habit. This is not “research” as some students called it. It is habitual plagiarism that can have very serious consequences in their professional life. A quick check on the news of that week revealed quickly two articles about such type of plagiarism:
- ArsTechnica, Oct 8, 2010: Copied pleadings show there’s no honor among antipiracy lawyers
- Associated Press, Sep 30, 2010: Arizona US Senate candidate denies plagiarism
Not sure if the message came across but at least I tried to educate the class about what is plagiarism. Some of the students actually protested that I did not punish this behavior (they felt they had been educated enough in the past about this) but I decided to be lenient as it were just a couple of cases like that. In retrospect, I was being stupid. At least one of these students cheated again in a later assignment.
The blatant cheaters
But what I considered a deep problem was not this copy and paste behavior. At least these students were learning how to find information online, which was admittedly relevant. With a little bit of practice in citing properly their sources, and with some effort, these issues could be resolved. The deep problem was with students that were really cheating.
Here is the report for one offender, with 95% of the content copied from a student who took the class in Fall 2009:
There were other similar cases as well, but this one was the most extensive one. 95% of the assignment was copied, word by word.
The student, after receiving the notification that the assignment was processed by Turnitin (but without knowing whether it was marked as plagiarized), sent me the following, highly entertaining email (emphasis is mine):
Sorry for the confusion but the assignment which I handed in online was not the correct assignment. I was away for the weekend and wrote my homework on a different lab top not my own and when finished emailed it to myself. Yesterday after class i heard the news that my best friends grandmother had a stroke and was in the hospital and i went there to help out. Then i remembered that i had the homework to hand in. I asked my roommate to turn in the work for me. Since it was not written in correct program he had to transfer into a word document. I asked someone who had already done the assignment to send him theirs to he could format my answers into the correct format. In this process he accidentally copied the other persons work into document and not mine. The only way i realized is when i looked at the Turnitin receipt and saw it was not mine. Attached is my correct work and i am sorry for the confusion.
You cannot blame the student for lack of creativity in the excuse, can you?
What are the chances for the given excuse being true? Well, let’s see another page of the report:
Everything was indeed cut and paste from an old homework but, (surprise!) the number “2009″ from the old assignment was changed to “2010″. I am wondering what was the OS in his “lab top” that could do such a smart copy and paste.
Blatant cheating, attempt #2
Anyway, just for fun, I decided to run the newly submitted assignment through Turnitin. I could not really believe that he would try cheating again, what the heck, let’s put the assignment in the Turnitin database.I tried anyway. Here is what came back:
Yep, the “revised” assignment was actually 57% copied from an assignment from Fall 2009. And from which one? From the very same assignment from which the student copied to start with! You cannot make this stuff up.
At that point, I had to suspend him from the class, and refer him to the honorary council for further punishment. If not being punished for plagiarism, the student should have been punished for just being stupid.
The class announcement: “Who cheated? “
For processing the remaining cases, I decided not to confront students directly: the case above took about 3 hours of my time to get the student to admit what he had done, despite the overwhelming evidence.
Instead, I sent an email to the class. I just said that there were cases of plagiarism detected and whomever cheated, could come and find me. For the rest, I would report the case to the Dean’s office, provide the evidence and let them decide what to do and whether to pursue the case.
The result? Many more students than I was expecting were waiting outside my office during office hours. While nobody was willing to admit wrongdoing, most of them readily accepted that “took a look to an assignment of my roommate”, or “got some help from my fraternity brothers” and so on. Of course, Turnitin allowed me to easily find the name of the person that “helped” them. At that point, most students just gave up and admitted that they copied.
One interesting observation: Almost all cheating happened within groups with cultural ties. Koreans copy from Koreans. Indians from Indians. Greeks from Greeks. Jews from Jews. Chinese from Chinese. Not just in international students (we do not have that many in the undergrad program), but within US-born students. A result of socializing in similar student groups? Same fraternities and sororities? I do not have sufficient number of data points to make statistical claims but the pattern seemed very strong.
Excel-based assignment: The party continues
A few weeks later, I posted an assignment that required students to perform some Excel-based analysis. To make it easier to detect cheaters, I added some extra features that would make it difficult to just copy and paste from another assignment. (Font choice, re-sizing random cells in non-visible parts of Excel, defining variables with slightly different names, and many other small tricks.) I also modified past assignments by slightly changing the required formulas, and by modifying the parameter values in very slight ways (e.g., from price = 10.467, I used price = 10.468, and in Excel, rounded up in 2 digits, both showed up at 10.47)
When the results came back, it was a big mess. First of all, there were students submitting Excel spreadsheets with author names of their classmates. Or author names of past PhD students, who prepared solution keys in 2006. (And which have the incorrect solution as well.) It was also obvious to detect students who used layouts used in past solutions as some of them did not even remove the border formatting for the Excel cells. (Yes, if you double underline cells E5 to E9, and use a Garamond font just for that part of the assignment, there is a strong suspicion that you copied and pasted the solution from 2008, which had exactly these characteristics.)
One of the offenders was actually a repeat offender from the prior assignment and was also dismissed from the class.
Another one had a nervous breakdown in my office, crying loudly and uncontrollably for 2 hours. It was awkward. On the one hand, I wanted to prevent her from being embarrassed and I wanted to close my office door. On the other hand, I did not even want to think of being in my office behind closed doors with a female undergraduate student who is crying loudly.
A complete and utter mess…
The wasted time
By the end of the semester, 22 students admitted cheating, out of the 108 enrolled in the class.
The process of discussing all the detected cases was not only painful, it was extremely time consuming as well.
Students would come to my office and deny everything. Then I would present them the evidence. They would soften but continue to deny it. Only when I was saying “enough, I will just give the case to the honorary council who will decide” most students were admitting wrongdoing. But every case was at least 2 hours of wasted time.
With 22 cases, that was a lot of time devoted to cheating: More than 45 hours in completely unproductive discussions, when the total lecture time for the course was just 32 hours. This is simply too much time.
The overall experience
When 1 out of 5 students in the class being involved in a cheating case, the lectures and class discussions became awkward. For the rest of the semester there was a palpable anxiousness in class. Instead of having friendly discussions, the discussions became contentious. Not a pleasant environment.
This, of course, had a direct effect to my teaching evaluations. Instead of the usual evaluations that were in the region of 6.0 to 6.5 out of seven, this time my ratings went down by almost a point: 5.3 out of 7.0. Instead of being a teacher in the upper percentiles, I was now below average.
The Dean’s office and my chair “expressed their appreciation” for me chasing such cases (in December), but six months later, when I received my annual evaluation, my yearly salary increase was the lowest ever, and significantly lower than inflation, as my “teaching evaluations took a hit this year”. (And I publish in journals not endorsed by Business Week, but I will leave this story for another time.)
Will I do it again in the future?
Was it worth it? Absolutely not.
Not only I paid a significant financial penalty for “doing the right thing” (was I?) but I was also lectured by some senior professors that I “should change slightly my assignments from year to year”. (Thanks for the suggestion, buddy, this is exactly how I detected the cheaters.)
Suggestions to change completely the assignments from year to year are appealing on the first sight but they cause others types of problems: It is very difficult to know in advance if an assignment is going to be too easy, too hard, or too ambiguous. Even small-scale testing with TA’s and other faculty does not help. You need to “test” the new assignment by giving it to students. If it is a good one, you want to keep it. If it is a bad one, you just gave to the students a useless exercise.
I also did not like the overall teaching experience, and this was the most important thing for me. Teaching became annoying and tiring. There was a very different dynamic in class, which I did not particularly enjoy. It was a feeling of “me-against-them” as opposed to the much more pleasant “these things that we are learning are really cool!”
Will I pursue cheating cases in the future? Never, ever again!
The future: How to deal with cheating?
So, how to deal with cheating in the future?
I doubt that I will be checking again for cheaters. This is a losing battle: as I use more advanced cheating detection schemes, the cheaters will adapt. I am not a policeman fighting crime. My role is to educate and teach, not to enforce honest behavior. This is a university, not a kindergarten.
Instead, I plan to use assignments that are inherently not amenable to cheating:
- Public projects: The database projects that use the NYC Data Mine data (see the projects from 2009 and 2010) is one type of an approach: the projects are public and it would be meaningless to copy a project from a past semester. The risk of public embarrassment is a significant deterrent.
- Peer reviewing: The other successful project is one in which students research a new technology, and present their findings in class; the only grade they receive is from their peers in the class. The social pressure is so high that most of the presentations are of excellent quality. This year, the student presentation on augmented reality was so amazing that for an MBA class we decided to simply show to the MBA students the recorded presentation.
- Competitions: In order to teach students how the web works, I ask them to create a web site and get at least 100 unique visitors. The student with the most visitors at the end of the semester gets an award (most often an iPod). I had some great results with this project (e.g., one student created a web site on “How to Kill Nefarian” and got 150,000 visitors over 8 weeks) and some highly entertaining incidents.
In other words, my theory is: Cheating (on a systematic level) happens because students try to get an edge over their peers/competitors. Even top-notch students cheat, in order to ensure a perfect grade. Fighting cheating is not something that professors can do well in the long run, and it is counterproductive by itself. By channeling this competitive energy into creative activities, in which you cannot cheat, everyone is better off.
Any other suggestions, greatly appreciated. I would be really interested in what others are doing to deal with the problem.
Bonus: stapling your homework is so yesterday …