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
    Jerry Leichter, 20 Nov 2010 @ 10:39am

    Re: Re: "F" for Ethics 101

    OK, so if it wasn't cheating to get hold of the test bank, let's take the next step: Would it have been cheating to get hold of the actual test? Suppose someone steals *that*. OK, that one person is guilty of theft or whatever. They then choose to make it freely available. Is it ethical for others to study those questions? Aren't they "learning the answers to the questions"?

    How is studying from the stolen version (that you got "innocently") any different from using sample tests? Is it just the idea that with 700 questions in the test bank, learning all of them means learning all the material in the course? Well ... suppose as it happens there's only one sample test available. Say this is a new course and all there is to find is last year's version. How is studying from that any different from studying from this year's version that a classmate forwarded to you?

    I give you a choice of flying into bad weather with a pilot who passed his tests by memorizing questions in a data bank, or a pilot who actually studied the material in depth. You know nothing else about either. Will you really tell me that you have no preference for one over the other?

    This is ethics based on what you can reason away. This is ethics based on what you might get caught at. This is ethics based on the worst of defense lawyer's reasoning: Find something - anything - to make the prosecution's witnesses look bad, and maybe the jury will focus on them rather than on what the defendant actually did.

    Real ethics is about human beings. It's inherently about what they intended. Law tries to reflect that, but it can only do so in a limited way because we rarely have a way to really *know* what a person intended. But ethics is supposed to help a good person regulate his own actions. A person at least has a hope of knowing about his intentions.

    Does anyone here seriously believe that the students who used the question bank to study did so really believing that that was an efficient way to learn the material? (Anyone who believes that: Please get in touch; I have a great deal to offer you on a bridge in New York.) No, this is situational ethics at its worst: It's convenient to pass this course, I have an expedient way to do it - why not take it?

    Granted, people with that attitude will fit right in at some of our largest business institutions. Twenty years from now, they'll be the ones sowing the seeds of the next great financial scandal. If he's still alive then, perhaps Bernie Madoff will be there to show them the ropes in prison.

    Many years ago, when I taught college courses, my exams were all open book/open notes/bring what you want to help you. (Of course, as I pointed out to my classes ... what this meant was that the answers to the questions I asked *would not be in the books*.) People *still* cheated: I caught them copying from each other. After all ... if I'm allowed to use any reference material ... why can't I use the next guy's answers?

    -- Jerry

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