Monday, November 15, 2010

Cheating, professors, students, and "the system"

There was this article at The Chronicle of Higher Ed on ghostwriting academic papers that has attracted lots of comments and some attention. I was really shocked by this. First, I knew about the existence of this stuff back when I was a student, and it has only gotten easier to make contact with potential ghostwriters over the Web since then. Second, why do people feel it is the professor's job to suss out cheaters like this?

Here is my take: too many people go to college these days because they need the validation of the degree, not because they are interested in learning anything. Because a college degree now is what a high school diploma was a generation or two ago (in terms of job requirements), there are plenty of motivated people who just want to get through their classes so they can get a decent job with some security. The system doesn't care if they have any particular knowledge, just if they have a degree. This encourages gaming the system, so it is only natural that some people make a living serving that niche.

I don't work too hard to catch cheaters myself. I follow all the security rules set up by my University, I don't put too much weight on things that are easy to fake (like online quizzes), and I give out old reference exams to level the playing field a bit so students don't feel like they need to buy copies of my old exams. Anything obvious I crack down on, since otherwise it can be very demoralizing for my hard working students, but I have too much to do to try to worry about all the ways a student can cheat on an exam.

That said, I don't collect my assigned problem sets, because I am not a jailer keeping my students from free time. The ones that want to learn do the assigned work and learn. The ones that don't, don't. I tell my students that they will get out of my course what they put into it, and I focus on the ones who are trying to learn, not the ones who are gaming the system. There will always be cheaters, and people will always try to game the system. Many of the rules designed to catch cheaters make life much more difficult for everyone.

I still believe that the cream will rise. I have a hard time thinking that someone who pays ringers to do all of their work for them will be able to pass an oral board exam in medicine, or stay on the job for very long as an engineer, or make it as a bench scientist, making their "fake" credential a very expensive gold star. If someone can learn the material without doing the assigned work, that means they have talent, and I wouldn't mind working with them if their "fake" degree gets them in the door. The bigger problem in my mind is the disconnect between the credential and the competence of the credential-holder. We see academics complain about this all the time when recruiting postdocs. It seems just as true in every other field. Buying papers is just a symptom.


GamesWithWords said...

I think I had a reaction both similar and dissimilar to yours. I should preface this by saying first that my experience with undergraduate students is largely limited to selective schools. How this generalizes, I can't tell you.

Basically, the author described writing the kinds of essays I'm used to reading -- cribbed from Wikipedia, clearly misunderstanding the fundamental issues, lots of extraneous words that don't mean anything. I don't think they're all paying someone. Nonetheless, the constraints of the grading system is that the lowest grade we can give is a B-, and that is usually reserved for people who didn't really do the assignment. So all sorts of bad papers get a B+ or even A-.

That is, if the point of this essay was that students are getting away with highway robbery ... well, even without cheating they get away with highway robbery. It's hard to get worked up.

But there are the occasional students who are smart and put in the time. There's no way somebody cribbing Wikipedia come up with an impressive essay, the kind that would catch attention. Paying someone won't buy you that.

Hermitage said...

Cheating irrationally annoys me, as someone from a STEM field. It may very well be that ghostwritten works are easily snuffed out, but I spent my entire undergrad observing others exchange exam/homework solutions, carry them into closed notes exams and make As. I would argue that some of them (not all) were just as smart/dumb as I was, but no employer knew that when making the first cut of people to interview and I didn't make the hurdle.

As I said. Irrationally. Annoyed.

Hope said...

If someone can learn the material without doing the assigned work, that means they have talent, and I wouldn't mind working with them if their "fake" degree gets them in the door.

Um … I wouldn’t want to work with them. This is probably the kind of person who thinks that they’re too special to do their fair share of the shitwork around the lab.

Of course, some “assigned work” is sheer torture and drudgery, and it doesn’t really help students learn the material. In those cases, it’s hard not to sympathize with the perpetrator.

But on to your larger point: The bigger problem in my mind is the disconnect between the credential and the competence of the credential-holder.

Yeah, I agree. And I find it highly ironic that academics complain about this when they are a crucial part of the system that foists this lie on society.

Really, I would like to know, when it comes to profs w/tenure, what do they risk if their grades don’t follow a bell curve? Who is it that steps in and forces them to pass a student that they know should fail? Isn’t the whole point of tenure to give people freedom to do the right thing as they see it, whether it’s researching an unpopular topic or bucking the grade inflation trend?

prodigal academic said...

Your "selective school" undergrads experience a different grading world than I did as an undergrad at a "selective" school, where I knew plenty of people who failed courses for turning in crappy work, even in the humanities and social sciences.

I also hate cheating, and I take some (what I would consider reasonable) precautions. I just don't think it is worthwhile for me to spend hours of my time working on stopping cheaters (which is what it would take) vs. improving my course for the people that want to learn.

If the work is pointless, I don't care if they do it. For most of my classes, the grades were determined primarily by exams, so if someone can ace exams without doing the homework, more power to them. In my experience, many of the people who did well in classes without doing much of the assigned work were lazy people out to game the system (who end up unqualified, and I don't want to work with them), or they were really talented and didn't want to waste their time on what is for them busywork. These people I would love to work with.

I also don't get this reluctance to fail people. I don't have tenure, my grades don't look like a bell curve, and I give people what they earn from A to F. I get slammed sometimes by students, but no one in administration has ever asked me to change a grade (including when I was a TA).

GamesWithWords said...

What do you mean by "even" in the humanities and social sciences?

prodigal academic said...

That didn't come out right--I didn't mean to insult social science and humanities! What I was trying to do is to distinguish between problem solving oriented classes (like math, chemistry, physics, genetics, and most engineering courses at the undergrad level) where grading can be set up to be non-subjective and more subjective courses like literature and psychology.

In your comment, you said the lowest grade you can give is a B-. We routinely gave F's every place I have ever been. Those F's are pretty easy to justify (on an exam with a class mean of 70 and a high score of 100, 45 is clearly failing), so very few people ever dispute it, and if they did, they would lose.

At the grad level I think grading in all disciplines is pretty subjective, but at the intro level in say math, a solution is either correct or it isn't. There is wiggle room if the grader gives partial credit (not all do), but when I was a TA for our freshman level course, there were very few judgement calls I needed to make when grading. We got a detailed grading guide and applied it. Something like out of 5 points, 2 points for the right equation, 2 points plugging in the right numbers, 1 point for doing the calculation, -1 for significant figures or incorrect units. Very different from grading an essay or free response, where you can more arbitrarily say the best essay is an A, the worst essay is an B- or whatever, and work from there.

I've taken science classes as an undergrad where the exam means were close to 45% with the final grades curved, and I would agree with you there that the absolute grades are as subjective as setting the worst essay to a B-. It is just my experience that it is more common to set up exams with target means near 70 and not curve the class.