Thursday, November 18, 2010

Is It Cheating?

Is it cheating when students find a bank of potential test questions online and share them before an exam? Is it cheating when students study together, making up questions they think might be on the exam? Most people would say the second was definitely not cheating, but reasonable people might disagree on the first.

Recently, two hundred senior students in a 600-person management course at the University of Central Florida turned themselves in for cheating after their instructor, Richard Quinn, took to youtube to harangue them about what they had done. Apparently, some students had downloaded questions from a bank of test questions - one source said 700 questions - and handed them around to other students. Many recipients said they thought this collection of questions was a legitimate study guide. The actual test included 50 multiple choice questions taken directly from the question guide.

Later on, Instuctor Quinn found a copy of the question bank in the letter slot of his door. He then examined the test results, found that the results curve was unreasonably high, did some further analysis, and identified a large number of suspicious papers. That's when he took to youtube, announcing that all students would have to retake the exam, and stating emotionally that he felt personally betrayed. He also said that no further action would be taken against students who came forward and admitted cheating. A third of the class did so.

In their defense, some students stated that Mr. Quinn had strongly hinted early in the course that he wrote his own tests. They claimed they had no way of knowing he would be using questions straight from the online resources that go with the book.
One might also that students who learned 700 answers (if they did) had probably learned the course content pretty well, as long as they were good questions.

There has been an international, emotional response to this story. Some laud Quinn as a folk hero standing up to declining values in an increasingly shoddy world. Others bemoan the fact that these cheating students could create the next Enron. Many commenters lambaste Quinn as a lazy instructor using canned tests. A few question whether the real cheat is charging college tuition for a 600-person lecture class in senior year, taught by an instructor instead of a professor, and judging student learning solely by means of a multiple choice exam.

Nobody but the students themselves knows what they were thinking when they studied the questions provided to them. Were they innocently cramming on practice questions, or did they know they were looking at questions very likely to be on the exam? News travels from one year's class to the next about what exams are like. Kids often pass on their textbooks, their notes, and their past corrected exams. Many colleges and professors have a policy of making past exams available as handouts or in the library to give students a sense of the level of performance required to do well. Of course, that means writing a new exam every year(or occasionally using a question from years ago to encourage students to make good use of those powerful learning tools, old tests).

My daughter attended Stanford University, where students were strongly urged to work together on problem sets and homework assignments, where take-home exams were common, and where a student honor code replaced proctors during exams. She then took a post-bac pre-med year with undergraduates at Johns Hopkins. There, any consultation with other students on homework was considered cheating, and exams were strictly proctored. During an organic chemistry lab final, students working in the lab were not allowed to speak a word for several hours as the instructor wandered among them with a clipboard, peering over their shoulders.

Which experience do you think fostered a love of learning and a strong inner sense of integrity? Which created a frantic sense of isolation, competition, and anxiety?

We live in a world where the answer to almost any simple factual question can be found online. Many employers would argue that what matters most in business and in other fields is the ability to synthesize and communicate complex information in order to solve problems that require input from many people. In such a world, grading students based on fifty multiple-choice questions drawn from the textbook publisher's data bank strikes me as both naive and inadequate.

1 comment:

Meredith said...

Not only that, if you needed to ask a question during that Organic lab final, they DEDUCTED 5 points from your grade automatically. For EACH question.

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