200 Students Admit To 'Cheating' On Exam... But Bigger Question Is If It Was Really Cheating Or Studying

from the wait-a-second... dept

A friend passed on this Telegraph story about how 200 students in a Strategic Management class at the University of Central Florida came forward to admit to "cheating" on the midterm exam after the professor in the class, Richard Quinn, gave a lecture where he noted the evidence that about 1/3 of the 600 student class had "cheated" on the exam. He then gave them an option: saying that, if they admitted to cheating within a week,re they would be able to complete the class and the incident would not go on their record and they would not face discipline (they also had to take an ethics class). If they did not, and they were still caught, then they could face expulsion for violating academic integrity policies. You can watch the video of the lecture here:
Not surprisingly, the story of 200 students "turning themselves over" made all sorts of headlines. It's a good story of "cheaters" being pressured into 'fessing up... right? It's leading to typical hand-wringing stories about what should we do about cheating in schools. But, as I watched the video, the whole thing started to feel just a little bit off... My main interest was to learn two things: (1) what the students did to cheat and (2) how the professor was identifying who cheated. Both points seemed like pertinent details.

The answer to that first one surprised me. The "cheating" was that students got their hands on the textbook publisher's "testbank" of questions. Many publishers have a testbank that professors can use as sample test questions. But watching Quinn's video, it became clear that in accusing his students of "cheating" he was really admitting that he wasn't actually writing his own tests, but merely pulling questions from a testbank. That struck me as odd -- and I wasn't really sure that what the students did should count as cheating. Taking "sample tests" is a very good way to learn material, and going through a testbank is a good way to practice "sample" questions. It seemed like the bigger issue wasn't what the students did... but what the professor did.

In looking around, it looks like a lot of the students agree. They're saying that the real issue is that Prof. Quinn simply copied questions from the publisher, rather than actually recreating his own test, and noting that this seems like a massive double standard. The professor is allowed to just copy questions from others for his tests? In fact, some of the students have put together a video pointing out that, at the beginning of the year, Prof. Quinn claimed that he had written the test questions himself. As the article notes:
Can the UCF students be blamed for using all the available tools to study for the test? How were the students to know that Quinn would take his questions from the test bank, when he explicitly said that professors do not do so any more? Moreover, why did Quinn tell his students that he is the one who creates the mid-term and final exams, when in fact it wasn’t so?
The students have put together a video pointing out where he said (in the first lecture) that he writes the questions himself:
The local student news operation sent a reporter to speak to Quinn and ask him about the double standard and his copying of questions, and Quinn totally ignored him:
Now, there's a pretty good chance that some of the students probably knew that Quinn was a lazy professor, who just used testbank questions, rather than writing his own. That's the kind of information that tends to get around. But it's still not clear that using testbank questions to study is really an ethical lapse. Taking sample tests is a good way to practice for an exam and to learn the subject matter. And while those 200 students "confessed," it seems like they did so mainly to avoid getting kicked out of school -- not because they really feel they did anything wrong -- and I might have to agree with them.

We've seen plenty of stories over the years about professors trying to keep up with modern technology -- and I recognize that it's difficult to keep creating new exams for classes. But in this case, it looks like Prof. Quinn barely created anything at all. He just pulled questions from a source that the students had access to as well and copied them verbatim. It would seem that, even if you think the students did wrong here, the Professor was equally negligent. Will he have to sit through an ethics class too?

Filed Under: cheating, ethics, students, tests

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  1. identicon
    Mark, 19 Nov 2010 @ 11:19am

    Nice justification

    I see. So your argument is that since the professor is "lazy" that the students were justified in using those means (studying the actual test questions beforehand) in order to obtain a better grade.

    Let's expand on that a bit.

    Let's say there's an economic report that due to your position you have first access to. By using the information in this report, you stand to gain an advantage over other people in your market space and make lots of money. Is it ethical to use this information?

    Let's change how you got the report. Suppose the report was sloppily left in the recycle bin on a public computer? How about if a draft of the report was left in a trash bin? Maybe a third party was actually writing the report and allowed people other than the original author to view it (for a fee or not a fee)?

    Answer: At least for some of the above situations, that behavior would land you in jail (or at least heavily fined) for insider trading.

    In short, the poor ethics or habits of one individual should not be the basis on which you make your poor ethics decision. If you have questions about this, please review Philosophy 101, and read a short book called "The Plague" by Albert Camus.

    Was the professor lazy? Without more evidence, it's difficult to say. Possibly. Writing good test questions is hard.

    I used to write the first draft of my exams as I walked across campus. Then the next draft I would review the questions to make sure I covered the course material. The questions would then be reviewed for difficulty with a special eye towards exam time constraints. Finally, point and partial point values were assigned to each question.

    My thoughts on this were as follows. Organic chemistry is hard. Welcome to the real world, students. When you graduate, the president of the university is not going to hand you a book with all the answers to life, the universe, and everything indexed and cross-referenced. It's best to get used to this when the only consequence is a grade, and not someone's future, livelihood, or life on the line.

    Students who earned an "A" in my classes learned three things: organic chemistry, how to solve problems, and how to read critically. That's the point of a college education. Anything less and you've been cheated (or more likely you've cheated yourself).

    Is it ethical for for me to complain that other professors didn't put in this much effort into their exam questions? Possibly. Should that influence my ethics and standards? No.

    In short, poor behavior by others (even when directly affecting you in a similar situation) is no excuse for poor behavior by you. The attitude of "if it's not explicitly forbidden, it's OK" is also bogus.

    Situational ethics of this type led to the Savings and Loan mess, Enron / MCI (and Sarbanes-Oxely), and the credit default swap mess. Situational ethics of this type also lead to cost and time overruns on projects as well as poor project results. Read the anecdotal accounts in PMBOK for more information.

    However, as long as you get yours I suppose it's OK in your book.

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