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Is Catching Students Who Cheat on Homework a Lost Cause?

Posted by on Wednesday, March 31, 2010 in News.

Jeffrey Young’s latest “College 2.0” article for the Chronicle of Higher Education is titled “High-Tech Cheating Abounds and Professors Bear Some Blame.”  In the article, Young reports on recent research by David E. Pritchard, a physics professor at MIT, indicating that students frequently copy answers to online homework problems in science courses, sometimes by copying their peers, other times by copying solutions posted on Web sites.

Pritchard’s research approach was clever: Instead of looking for matches between student answers and homework solutions posted on the Web (the approach used by plagiarism detection tools like Turnitin and SafeAssign that detect cheating in essay and paper assignments), Pritchard measured how long it took students to submit answers to online homework problems.  Anything under a minute for a sufficiently difficult problem was considered cheating.

[Pritchard] and his research team found about 50 percent more cheating than students reported in anonymous surveys over a period of four semesters. In the first year he did his hunting, about 11 percent of homework problems appeared to be copied.

Why do students cheat on homework?  Several reasons are explored in Young’s article, including the notion that students perceive homework as busywork and so not worth their time.  Also, surveys show that students who wouldn’t think of bringing a cheat sheet into an exam find it acceptable to store formulas and equations in their graphing calculators, indicating that when there is a piece of technology “between” the student and the act of cheating, it’s not perceived by students as cheating.  One student interviewed by Young went so far as to suggest that since professors don’t do a good job teaching intro courses (because they don’t care), students shouldn’t be obligated to take the work seriously, either.

Here’s another possible cause suggested in the article: Professors don’t care anyway.

Some professors seem to believe that since students who cut corners on homework end up bombing exams, students get a kind of built-in punishment for the behavior, says Mr. Pritchard. Poorly performing students might even learn a lesson from their laziness. So the cheating will take care of itself, right? That’s the rationalization, anyway.

See the CFT’s teaching guide on cheating and plagiarism for more on this topic.

What are your thoughts?  Is catching students who cheat on homework a lost cause?

Image: “Victory!” by Flickr user Xjs-Khaos / Creative Commons licensed


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