Monday, November 5, 2012

Winning Back Honesty

It can be said that human beings in general are akin to water in that they seek the path of least resistance. The epidemic of cheating and unethical behavior, especially in education, has become more rampant in the past decades largely due to the inception and development of the Internet, which has made dishonesty easy. Schools as early as middle schools to as advanced as prestigious universities are experiencing this problem, thus the increase in the number of cheating and other unethical behavior events is not isolated to any specific age group, but permeates a majority of them. So the question is what can educational institutions do about this problem?

A number of individuals argue that it is important to understand the psychological triggers that lead to this unethical behavior and counter them at the source. However, the efficacy of such a mindset is put at risk when unethical behavior is motivated by rationalities such as “need good grades, but don’t want to work for them”, “I don’t need this class for the future, but it is required so cheating doesn’t matter”, “I have too many other important things to do” or even “everyone else cheats (despite having no evidence of this) so why should I have to work hard?”. How does society challenge a mindset that is basically predicated on laziness and apathy? Complicating the problem is that there is rarely a single governing reason for cheating, instead numerous reasons similar to those above are intertwined, thus attacking one reason in isolation cannot be the strategy, yet attacking multiple strategies is overly complicated and may create excess necessary work for instructors that will not be compensated.

One of the most counterproductive elements regarding cheating is how society tries to obfuscate the blame. Instead of blaming the cheaters themselves people apply blame to the school, the instructors, the parents, peers, heck it almost seems like some would rather blame Taylor Swift versus actually blaming the cheaters. Frequent is the ridiculous claim that instructors drive ‘justifiable’ cheating because they don’t clearly demonstrate the relevance of the class or make the class interesting. Even the most plausible excuse for cheating, forgiving plagiarism because students don’t have an explicit definition of it, seeks to defer blame because it suggests that someone else should have taught students both the definition of plagiarism and that it is unethical because these students are so inept they cannot do these two things for themselves. Until society is prepared to place the onus of cheating on the individuals who are actually committing the action there is little that can be done to genuinely stem the problem. The first step to placing the onus of cheating on individuals is to apply significant punishment to those who cheat.

There are three chief elements which encapsulate the problem of cheating in education: students cheating on tests, students plagiarizing work they find on the Internet including purchasing papers from paper mills and instructors changing answers on tests. Addressing the first element raises an immediate question regarding test structure. The most obvious way to address students cheating on tests is for the instructor to give essay tests. It is very difficult to cheat on an essay test when the questions are not previously known, especially when test questions are scrambled and alternated between rows. Essay tests also have the advantage of judging whether students not only understand the basics of the subject, but can also translate those basics into more complex ideas over regurgitating memorized facts. This methodology can also psychologically demonstrate to students that there is meaning behind understanding the basics. The chief disadvantage of essay tests is the additional work demanded of instructors to create and grade them, especially in large (30-40 student) classes because no additional salary or respect is drawn for this additional un-required workload.

Regardless of whether or not an instructor uses essay tests or another testing format, an important element to limiting cheating is to control the situation by creating a standard and uniform testing environment. For example one such environment is outlined below:

- On the day of the test when students enter the classroom they place their books and all other objects brought to class against a sidewall including the removal of caps and hats then students sit at their respective desks.

- The instructor creates two separate tests using the same questions, but in different order. The instructor hands out the tests facedown along with a #2 pencil to alternating students in such a way that a student is surrounded by individuals with the other test. This strategy heavily limits the positive outcomes for a student who decides to look at another student’s paper or makes it incredibly obvious to anyone proctoring the exam that someone is looking at another’s paper. For example a 30-student class with a 6 x 5 square desk arrangement with tests A and B would see a distribution as followed:


- It is thought among ethicists that a vast majority of people are honest because they are not faced with temptation, not because they stare down temptation and walk away from it. This psychological reality may be why the laughable ‘Entrapment’ defense in the criminal justice system even exists. The two above steps are designed to reduce available ‘cheating’ temptations, thus reducing the amount of work any proctor has to engage in to provide honest evaluation.

- When the period begins the students will be instructed to turnover their tests and begin. During the test if the instructor sees anything that is not a #2 pencil or the test in a student’s hand or on/around his/her desk that student will receive a zero on the examination and be sent to the principle’s office.

- The instructor will proctor the exam from the front of the room watching for any inappropriate behavior. If any is witnessed the instructor will place a small token on the desk of the offending student and make a record of the offense. If a single student receives three tokens over the course of an exam then there will be a predetermined consequence. It is understandable that some individuals may view this element as worrisome because of the possible power abuse that can result. For example it is no secret that there are situations where instructors and students do not get along and that dislike can evolve into bias. In the above situation credibility involves a instructor-said student-said structure because other students are taking the exam. However, with the above testing environment it is unlikely that such a system will be heavily utilized. Students will be able to inquire on the reasoning behind any tokens after the completion of the test and will be able to appeal if he/she believes that a three token ‘performance’ was unfairly/inaccurately awarded.

- At the end of the period students will place their completed exams in a box positioned on the instructor’s desk. The instructor will remove the box eliminating the ability to turn in the test (resulting in a zero) 30 seconds after the class period has completed. If a student completes his/her exam early that student will not be allowed to retrieve possessions until the end of the period. The idea behind this restriction is to mitigate additional distractions and inter-period cheating by granting access to electrical devices.

The above outline only addresses how to stem cheating in a single class it does not address stemming cheating between classes. Normally, especially in high school when there are multiple periods of the same class and students do not have a single testing session, opportunity exists during common periods for early period students to tell friends in later periods about the test revealing unethical details. For example someone who takes the exam in 1st period may tell a friend in a common 3rd period class about the test that the second person will take during 5th period. Multiple tests eliminates this cheating opportunity because individuals may not be getting the same questions, thus any information about specifics acquired from previous test takers will not be applicable.

There are two popular means of utilizing a multiple test methodology. First, three different tests are created, 1st and 2nd period are given test #1, 3rd and 4th period are given test #2 and 5th and 6th period are given test #3. Therefore, there is no reasonable time frame in which relevant test questions can be transmitted to other individuals either electronically or verbally. Second, three different tests are created and all students randomly receive a copy of a given test.

This second strategy has strengths and weaknesses versus the first method. The chief weakness is that cheating is only limited to a random probability of 33% for success instead of basically 0% for the first strategy. The strength is that keeping the multiple tests a secret will result in a 67% chance that the latter student involved in any cheating will have a lower performance probability due to inaccurate information. Therefore, those who attempt to cheat will actually have a significant chance at putting themselves at a greater disadvantage versus not having attempted to acquire unethical information in the first place. The long-term hope is that after realizing the inaccuracy of the illicit information, individuals will no longer seek the information viewing it as a waste of time.

Overall thought it stands to reason that if the idea is to reduce the ability of individuals to cheat the consistency of the first methodology proves superior to the benefit/cost risk structure of the second methodology. However, some caution must be taken, for depending on the circumstance after the completion of the test some students may complain that certain periods received more difficult questions than other periods which would raise concern that grades are more influenced by what period an individual was in versus what that individual actually knew pertaining to the subject matter. While a possibility, the above concern is rather muted if the instructor practices appropriate test design.

The second chief element to educational cheating is students plagiarizing work they find on the Internet. The first issue when developing a counter strategy to this form of cheating is to determine whether or not the instructor will include homework and quizzes in the final grade. If the instructor will include homework/quizzes in the final grade then the instructor can give numerous small ½ to 1 page long essay assignments that can create an ‘answer fingerprint’ for given students. This fingerprint will indicate a particular style of writing, sentence structure, word choice, presentation depth, etc. that can be used by instructors as a metric for longer more detailed papers to detect inconsistencies and potential plagiarism. Issuing the quizzes in class precludes the ability to use the Internet from the beginning to contaminate the samples.

If homework/quizzes are not going to count towards the final grade then the above strategy will more than likely not be successful for most students because in modern culture most students tend not to view the intangible rewards of knowledge that come from doing homework. If material is not going to affect the final grade most judge that there is little reason to actually perform the work. If the work is not completed then there is no ability to create a reliable ‘answer fingerprint’, thus there is no standard to compare to future works. In this situation it stands to reason that the total number of graded elements will be small, suppose two to four. If this is the case then one strategy to address potential plagiarism is to split the assignment into two parts. First, the students write the paper and second the students have to defend the position taken in the paper on a ‘written test’ in class. Basically the next class day after the papers are graded will be reserved for each student to answer a three/four question mini-test about their paper.

The idea behind this strategy is two-fold. First, for individuals who actually wrote their paper they should have a grasp of the knowledge that was required to formulate the ideas that produced the paper. If an individual did not write a paper, but instead acquired it from a paper mill there is a much smaller probability that the individual has enough of a grasp of knowledge to perform well on the test. Second, the point of education is to acquire established knowledge that can be used in the future not create ephemeral knowledge that disappears after a few weeks. Therefore, even if limiting plagiarism is not a goal the above strategy serves as a valuable purpose to advancing education, thus there is reason in doing it. One might argue that instructors do not have enough time to take such a strategy as it would waste class time which is limited as it is, but recall that this strategy is tied to large quality low volume grading thus only two to four class days will be used for the method. Note that these days are not ‘sacrificed’ because they do serve the purpose mentioned above.

A supplemental strategy for addressing plagiarism has been to utilize the online service However, the service does cost a significant amount of money (thousands of dollars for a one year license for even medium sized schools (1,000 students)). With the omnipresence of budget problems for most public schools, amplified by the continued emergence of charter schools driven by unsupported positive bias, paying this additional sum for this private service may be more detrimental to students than beneficial in how school funds are distributed.

Another strategy for reducing plagiarism is to have students hand in rough drafts of their work a week before the due date for the assignment. Such a condition limits the opportunity for plagiarism because the instructor can see the development of thought and presentation in the rough draft and use that as marker of comparison against the final copy. If there are significant differences then the instructor can ask the student why he/she decided to go in such a radically different direction between the rough draft from a week ago and the final draft. An incoherent or insufficient explanation will typically only be given if work has been plagiarized. Finally to ensure proper boundary conditions there must be clear definitions of plagiarism given at the beginning of a class year along with clear consequences. Having students sign a ‘contract’ of sorts confirming that they have received and understood these ethical standard expectations would eliminate any ‘confusion’ regarding student comprehension.

The third and final type of cheating has actually emerged as significant only over the last decade. The increased importance of standardized testing has created an environment of additional pressure for some instructors who believe that the use of the standardized testing as an evaluation metric for schools and individual instructors is weighted inappropriately. This pressure has lead some to resort to cheating for their students, with some schools even having ‘answer correction parties’ for their instructors after the completion of a given standardized test. Clearly such behavior is inexcusable and precautions must be established to ensure that it no longer occurs.

While the best option would be to replace instructors with independent test auditors for national testing days, most school districts and/or states would not want nor typically even have money budgeted to pay for these individuals. Therefore, one option may be to ‘instructor swap’ where instructors from school A administer tests at school B and instructors from school B administer tests at school A. For most schools the logistics of such a temporary swap would not be difficult, but the swap itself raises an interesting psychological question among the instructors, a question similar in nature to that of the prisoners’ dilemma (PD).

In the swap scenario there are two compelling forces that may act upon the substituted instructors. The first force is the standard comrade support structure that exists in most occupations where Person A of occupation A looks out for Person B of occupation A and visa versa solely because they both have the same occupation. Therefore, the swapped instructors may not go out of their way to help another instructor that does not teach at their institution, but may ‘bend’ the rules a bit to assist in a positive manner.

The second force is the direct principle of the PD. While there may be a natural leaning towards helping a fellow instructor, that leaning is not guaranteed, especially in the same school districts with the weight of standardized tests on bonuses in a more evaluation heavy environment. In PD the best outcome is derived from the prisoners trusting each other and both admitting guilt; however, if one fails to follow through on this trust the consequences are disastrous for the individual that admits guilt. In the competitive environment that education ‘reformers’ are trying to craft among instructors if one instructor does not reciprocate assistance it will help him/her both in salary and job security. Therefore, this aspect of the PD may suppress any occupational equality bias.

Crafting appropriate punishments for cheating is tricky because the punishment must be severe enough that students have proper respect for ethics, but not so severe that it creates a self-catalyzing negative situation. Initially it can be argued that there is no such thing as a ‘too severe’ punishment for cheating (within the scope of common sense i.e. no death penalty, etc.) because cheating does not occur by accident, it is a willful and conscious occurrence. Factors like ‘family problems’ or ‘too much stress’ are frequently mitigated as rationalities because students that use them do not make instructors aware of the situation, thus it is viewed as a scapegoat or excuse not a negative trigger. Basically assigning any punishment severity to cheating is akin to giving a motorist a $2000 speeding ticket. Whether an individual exceeds the speed limit is entirely under the control of the individual (clearly stuck accelerators are not given valid speeding tickets, etc.).

While any punishment is justified from the standpoint of free action it may not be appropriate. There are larger issues to consider in that a single mistake should not create a situation that is ‘unrecoverable’. For example it can be argued that expelling a student for a single cheating event creates an undue burden on both the student and his/her family. However, just as there must be temperance in the first offence there must be the prospect of more significant punishment in the case of relapse. Therefore, one punishment option would be for a first-time cheating event to result in a zero for the given test/paper (as mentioned above) and a calendar year long probation period where further cheating will result in automatic failure of the class in which the second event occurred. In this punishment structure the student does not receive multiple ‘first-time’ event depending on the class, if the student cheats in class A then cheats in class B he/she automatically fails class B. In this system it must be recalled that cheating is a conscious choice.

Punishment for instructors changing student answers or other cheating is rather straightforward for as adults they should understand the consequences of such behavior. There should be no quarrel if an instructor is fired after committing such an act. One could even argue that such a penalty will not be misappropriated because high quality instructors will not need to cheat because a majority of their students will be able to perform at least adequately on the examinations, thus only low quality instructors will be driven to cheat. Granted the legitimacy of this conclusion is dependent on the influencing weight of standardized tests on instructor evaluation.

Overall while addressing the root causes of cheating would be ideal unfortunately such a strategy does not appear overly viable due to the psychological factors that embody those causes. Until society is willing to judge methodology as an important element to gained results, cheating will always be regarded as beneficial. Therefore, in order to ensure the importance of genuine understanding and accomplishment in lieu of fraudulent actions society must develop the mindset to detect and punish cheating. Education is one of the prime battlegrounds for morality. The battle against cheating is two-fold: ensuring that it is not a successful strategy and demonstrating the values of ethics and knowledge.

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