"BU Investigating Whether Students Cheated on Online Exams"

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

So reports the Boston Globe (Deirdre Fernandes):

[O]n Saturday night, BU chemistry professor Binyomin Abrams sent an e-mail to one of his classes warning them that he had become aware of potential violations of the code of conduct and that there are consequences to cheating.

"We have learned that some of you have used various means, including websites such as Chegg [a tutoring and homework help service], to get help during the quizzes given remotely," Abrams wrote. "Doing so is a clear violation of the academic conduct code."

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  1. It’s my belief that systematic cheating at large universities (though I have no specific knowledge of BU) is a real problem, especially in revenue-generating larger classes where there is little incentive to look for it.

    Mr. D.

  2. They should go back to the traditional oral exam.

  3. How is this news? Every year at every university I’ve taught at there have been highly persuasive evidence of students cheating on calculus/statistics exams even thought they are in class exams. I don’t believe it’s endemic but the sample sizes are so large.

    Heck a few semesters ago one of my wife’s students tried to change her grade when my wife didn’t log out of her computer.

    1. Yeah, I was thinking the same thing.

      I would be surprised if there was a large university class where nobody cheats, especially if cheating includes collaborating on homework assignments.

  4. One question that this bring up is why our courses are structured the way they are. Are exams even relevant? For what purpose?

    In the real world, if a person consults the internet to solve a problem, there is nothing wrong with that. In contrast, consulting another person to do your work for you may be more problematic, since it is possible that the person taking the course lacks sufficient knowledge to solve problems independently. But in a way, isn’t this what entrepreneurs do? Don’t they organize the work of others to solve problems that the entrepreneur could not solve on their own?

    Let us say that a student memorizes a lot of material and does well on an exam as a result. What is gained? Well, it really depends. If that student does not thereafter retain the knowledge or skills, something is gained, since the student can relearn the material more rapidly later if they need to, but I am not sure that the return on investment is really all that much.

    My tentative feeling is that students ought to be evaluated on their ability to solve real world problems more than their understanding of particular fact patterns. For example, when I took chemistry, I learned about electron orbitals. But I am highly uncertain what problems this allows me to solve in the real world. I understand that maybe this understanding might give you a clue about what chemicals can go together or understanding the properties of matter when chemicals are joined. But my grasp of why this is practically important is not on a firm foundation. When I took chemistry, we did not start from a more practical point of view and then dive into the theory that would help us make sense of the real world. Instead, there was a tendency to start with the theory, and then we would talk about applications of that theory to the real world. Hence, I do not feel comfortable messing around with chemicals in a practical sense. We did do labs, but it wasn’t clear to me what practical problem such lab exercises were supposed to address, although they were used to illustrate the theory we were learning. I suppose that if I had specialized in chemistry, rather than just taking one year of general chemistry, this would all be much clearer to me. But still, that does indicate that what I was taught first did not have the most “bang for the buck” so to speak. I have a foundation for further learning, should I choose to go further. But I really cannot do much that is useful or interesting in my life with the chemistry knowledge I have right now.

    I think this model of education is backwards. We ought to teach people interesting and useful things they can do, and then use that as a motivation to gain a better understanding of more general theories. Instead, we start with more general theories and skills, expect students to memorize this set of knowledge and algorithms, and if the student goes no further they haven’t really gained any skills that will be useful to them in life. No wonder so many students are unmotivated.

    This model of education also teaches students to be passive. Often, the real reason that students seek to do well in a class is merely to get a good grade, which is usually based on pleasing another person rather than themselves. Wouldn’t it be better if, instead they sought to learn so that they would have the skills to solve a problem that interests them? It seems to me, that our whole system of grading is a way of artificially incentivizing people to do work that is not particularly useful. The system of grading shifts power from the student to the teacher (more so than would otherwise naturally exist due to their superior knowledge of a particular subject), meaning that the student is learning what the teacher wants to teach rather than necessarily what the student wants to learn or that which is useful to the student to accomplish some goal that the student has.

    This, quite naturally I think, causes a certain percentage of people to become turned off by the whole schooling process. And, since much of the knowledge seems inapplicable, increases the temptation to cheat. They might think: “Who cares if I really know the topic if I am never going to use that knowledge again?” To the extent that this is true, there is an incentive for students to cheat, because they feel that if they are successful, they will have lost nothing. In contrast, if the student was learning in order to gain a skill or to complete a project that they cared about, the idea of cheating would be less desirable, since they would not gain the skill they wished to gain for their own purposes and would be unable to complete the project they wished to complete.

    Much of the explanation for why the education system is structured the way it is now is because of scaling issues. Individual goals and motivations do not scale in a classroom setting. It is more convenient and administrable to have a standard curriculum for a whole class, and when it comes to some subjects (math, for example) even coordinate across schools or systems.

    I also think that this manner of training people is economically irrational. Why does a college degree, which takes only 4 years, so much more valuable than a high school diploma, which takes 12 years? How can someone still only be worth minimum wage after all those years of schooling? The answer, of course, lies in the very standardization that makes education scaleable. While the ability to read and write is extremely valuable, when everyone knows how to read and write, it is much more difficult to differentiate yourself based on this ability in the marketplace. The “essential workers” who tend to be at the bottom of our economic hierarchy in fact tend to be very highly educated. But the problem is, they didn’t gain skills that distinguish them when they followed the standardized curriculum, so that they are still easily replaceable. In contrast, in college, people actually start to specialize and thus gain more unique skills that cause them to have bargaining power in the marketplace.

    So the question arises. Why not start that specialization process much earlier? Why shouldn’t every student exit high school with some sort of skill rare enough to make them difficult to replace for some employer? To the extent that we are teaching students general topics that constitute basic theory but which they can’t apply to solve any real world problem in particular, maybe standardization rather than more individualized education isn’t actually more efficient after all. If standardization is more “scaleable” does that matter if the education that is provided isn’t meeting the goals we wish to achieve? And might students who are empowered to set their own goals be more motivated, less stressed, and happier both during their education and afterwards?

    I think the dominant paradigm of American education is going to be increasingly obsolete with online learning. More and more, students will be empowered to learn what they want to learn because they want to learn it. They will not worry as much about pleasing teachers or competing with other students as much as learning what they want to learn because they want to know it for their own purposes. Ultimately, students will learn to become their own persons, not, like so many people, dependent even as adults on others for employment, but instead having the capacity to be entrepreneurs.

    Given my philosophy, if I ever have kids, it is likely I will home school them. My goal would be to provide them with the confidence and independence to engage in entrepreneurship if they so chose, rather than needing to depend on others for sustenance. My education philosophy does not fit well with the dominant model used in America today, but I have a feeling that things will evolve in a manner that I would find more favorable.

    1. A lot of colleges will never reopen….

    2. If your high school took 12 years, than you were not doing it correctly. My h.s. took only 3 years.

      1. santamonica: You know exactly what I was referring to, don’t pretend otherwise just for the sake of trolling.

    3. That is quite the post. I’ll try to do a response justice.

      1. Internet (and other people) consulting. One of the issue here is, you need to know what to look for, what to ask, and if what you’re looking at and what people are telling you is reasonable. And you can’t do that with at least a baseline understanding of what’s going on. You may not know the exact details, and can look those up. But a rough understanding of what’s going on is important to having a clue. This applies whether it’s a science, or its a more concrete example.

      2. Memorization, fact patterns, theory, and real world examples. In terms of testing and evaluation, memorization and fact patterns are far more easily tested, evaluated, and less subject to examination variability than more “real world” examples, which are extremely time intensive. Memorizations and fact patterns aren’t a perfect answer, but they are a better answer than nothing, and they critically provide feedback on how well the education is going, for both the teachers and students. The ability to quickly “know” something, especially the basic details facts, rather than need to look up each individual detail is very important in being able comprehend the larger concepts needed. To give an example, imagine trying to read a book in another language, but needing to look up what each individual letter meant every time you hit one.

      Skills and not theory approaches:

      Theory is easier to teach, safer to teach, and gives a critical basis for skills, so they don’t do something stupid when trying it for the first time. If you’re doing a chemistry lab, you don’t just throw a few undergraduates into a lab with a bunch of chemicals, and have them not know what any of them do. It’s a recipe for failure You teach them about the chemicals first (with book learning), and how they may mix together. In a very controlled setting, you then let them do some of the skills. Driving is the same way. You teach people the theory of driving (left hand turns, stop signs, traffic lights, etc) before throwing them into the driver’s seat. This gives them a core understanding.

      Hopefully that answers some of your questions.

      1. Armchair Lawyer,

        I appreciate your thoughtful reply, even though I disagree with it.

        I do not believe there is much reason for students to study too much theory when it is not properly motivated. Students who take a year of chemistry and a year of physics in high school are qualified to do what, exactly?

        A minimum wage job. Or, in other words, exactly what they were qualified to do when they started high school. Because they can’t actually do much of anything with that knowledge.

        “Theory is easier to teach”

        This is the real reason for this approach. It is about scaling education. But why are we scaling something if it doesn’t bring the economic benefits we want?

        “safer to teach”

        Meh. Doing stuff isn’t risk free. But either is the car ride to school.d

        “critical basis for skills”

        Also meh. Students are not going to be all that motivated to learn things which do not help them solve concrete problems. We are wasting a lot of time here doing things exactly backwards. The probability that any student will use their theoretical knowledge of chemistry to solve any real world problem is low.

        I am not against teaching theory. For those students who concrete experiences cause them to become interested. Because theory is what allows a person to generalize and therefore gain true mastery of a subject. But it should not come first. The order is wrong. Most people do not ever use the theory they learn (to the extent that they truly learn it, since without application, it is separated from its contextual motivation), and for those people, we are wasting their time.

        Theory should be properly motivated by the students desire to gain some skill or complete some project.

        1. Students who take a year of chemistry and a year of physics in high school are qualified to do what, exactly?

          Well, if you expect them to turn those courses into a job I think you are being unrealistic. If you want to learn physics, or engineering, you have to start with some basic classes sometime.

          So one answer is the classes qualify them to study the subject in more detail, or use it as a basis for broader study. I doubt you are going to have much success studying to be a mechanical engineer if you haven’t learned basic physics.

          Of course, I’m old-fashioned enough to think that just learning the basics of these subject, and lots of others, is a good thing in itself, but I wouldn’t foist that notion on more practical-minded folks.

          1. It is not UNREALISTIC that people should be able to gain specialized skills over the course of 4 years. But instead of teaching people to ACT and DO, we teach them theory. Which renders them largely helpless in the marketplace and economically dependent.

        2. “Students who take a year of chemistry and a year of physics in high school are qualified to do what, exactly?”

          Just off the top, they should know:

          1)That a car wreck at 66 MPH is going to be well more than 10% worse than one at 60 MPH.
          2)That perpetual motion machines don’t work.
          3)That pouring bleach in your bath water won’t protect you from radiation.
          4)That homeopathy can’t work, because the dilutions involved leave less that one atom of the ‘active ingredient’ in the final dilution.

          And on and on; that is all knowledge you should be using every day.

          If you’ve never had high school biology, how do you have an intelligent discussion with your doctor?

          1. This too. Practical knowledge is useful for more than professional activities.

          2. Also (esp wrt physics, esp esp if teacher is good) that there are laws governing the behavior of everything, that these laws are mathematical, that in simple situations predictions can be based on them, that quantification is often crucial to insight, that rough estimates can be quite useful and are more doable than one might think, that science is a process of convergng toward truth not a received body of facts, that no degree of beauty or authority entitles a theory to trump experiment indefinitely, that a large component of science is just institutionalized humility, and that science is the primary reason why any objective measure of progress over the past 200,000 years (the period during which people walked the earth with brains as good as ours) looks like a hockey stick with essentially a right-angle explosion upwards beginning about 350 years ago.

          3. And this student who knows all of the above points is still working minimum wage.

            Congratulations.

            The point isn’t that you have accomplished nothing. The point is that you have accomplished too little.

            If your baseline comparison is to total ignorance, then of course there is some value. But, the real comparison is to doing things better. I am not advocating abolishing high school. I am advocating producing students with actual skills that can differentiate themselves in the marketplace.

        3. I’ll disagee. A few points.

          1. “Students who take a year of high school physics and a year of high school chemistry are qualified to what exactly? Or, in other words, exactly what they were qualified to do when they started high school. Because they can’t actually do much of anything with that knowledge.”

          This is the wrong way of looking at it. That high school chemistry and high school physics provides the core base knowledge for learning in higher professions, whether that be medicinal chemist or aerospace engineer, or any of hundreds of other higher professions. It ALONE does not give you the knowledge to do these skills. But it provides the backbone knowledge on which other knowledge can be built upon. You don’t get to be an aerospace engineer without having high school physics. You also don’t get to be an aerospace engineer without passing 3rd grade reading. But just having 3rd grade reading doesn’t grant you any special job skills over second grade reading.

          2. “Safer to teach” (and learn).
          There is risk, and there is stupid risk. Know how something works before doing it. We don’t need kids blowing their heads off because we didn’t want to teach them “why” something works.

          3. Critical basis for skills.
          Still important. Even for minimum wage jobs. Ever thing about why the cleaners don’t mix ammonia and chlorine when cleaning the floors? Teaching a basic theory is important because it is generalizable. Just teaching the literal physical skills…isn’t really generalizable. It’s basically having someone be a robot. In today’s society, it’s a recipe for being replaced by a robot.

          1. 1.
            For students who have no idea that they are interested in being a “medicinal chemist” or an “aerospace engineer,” the motivation is not there. For students who already know they do not want to do any of these things, you are just wasting a lot of their time.

            2.
            Nobody said anything about being reckless. What? We seriously have to force high school students to sit in a classroom memorizing the periodic table of elements because they might hurt themselves if they actually did something? Wow. What are these precious toddlers going to do when they leave the boring cocoon that has been forced upon them?

            3.
            “Still important. Even for minimum wage jobs.”

            No. Not important. If you want to teach people not to mix ammonia and chlorine, you can just tell them at a high level. You do not need to explain electron orbitals or the different ways that atoms and molecules interact.

            First, get the student interested in the theoretical knowledge. Then, expose them to the theoretical knowledge on a voluntary basis when they are so motivated.

            The funny thing about all this theory is that the whole system would never work on a voluntary basis. Students have no choice but to learn knowledge that they are not motivated to learn.

    4. My goal would be to provide them with the confidence and independence to engage in entrepreneurship if they so chose, rather than needing to depend on others for sustenance.

      How does an entrepreneur not “depend on others for sustenance?” Does Jeff Bezos grow his own food?

      1. I agree. But I mean having economic power relative to other people.

        Jeff Bezos depends on others for food. But the people he depends on for food usually have less economic power than he does. This is about independence in the sense of being able to run your own life. Unlike the people who are forced to go into work in the middle of a pandemic because they are in a dependent economic relationship with their boss.

  5. Maybe this is a self-defeating mindset, but my own feeling is that gumption is more a natural resource than a acquirable skill.

  6. Meanwhile we have elect legislators not considering Constitutional requirements. They probably cheated before they forgot. We are reaping what we have sown, the whirlwind.

    It is a good time to be old. The conspiracy of ignorance masquerades as common sense.

  7. When I was a freshman at an Ivy university close to 30 years ago, one of my roomate’s buddies paid another friend in weed to take his intro biology final (500+ students so nobody noticed). The guy is now a hedge fund manager-go figure.

  8. It’s a tough time. It’s almost impossible to control students. I will post this/story on my website.

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