Monday, February 13, 2012

I Just Hit a Total Twilight Moment

So today while I was grading homework for a numerical techniques class I came across something interesting. I noticed that one of the student's solutions were a little too advanced for their level of experience. This lead me to suspect that they were pulling solutions from other places. I looked up one potential source of solutions and found a slightly modified version of what the student had given to me (or I should say the version that the student gave me was slightly modified. The thing that tipped my off was the use of a Matlab command that I had never seem before and I had to go look it up!). Also the reason why I looked at this potential source is because this is not the first student that has taken solutions from this source (the first two(!) students that copied solutions just did copy and paste). So I was not surprised when I found yet another student used this particular source to copy solutions.

What did surprise me was the name of the student. The first two students that copied solutions shared a similar root to their names, in that (names have been changed) one had the first name "John" and the second had a last name of "Johns". The third student that I just caught today also had a first name of "John". So of the three students that copied solutions from the same source (over three different homework assignments) they all had the same root name in their first or last name, and they are the only ones with that root to their name in the entire class. I mean, of a class of 25 students and the diversity of names in the US, what is the probability of that? I expected pigs to start diffracting through doorways, the Chicago Cubs to win the world series and other equally unlikely events to happen. But nothing did, so I had my little twilight moment and wrote this blog post.

On a related note, how do your schools deal with problems like this? Here at UNC there seems to be a disproportionate response between departments regarding this type of thing. In the chemistry department, I am told, if they find that you so much as talk to another person about your homework then they will give you a zero on the assignment, if you work with someone else then they will penalize you harshly, and refer you to the honor code office. But it is not like that means much since our honor code office has been doing so well in distinguishing themselves (sorry I meant extinguishing themselves). In other departments they rely less on the honor code office, and a majority of professors actually prefer to handle all such cases themselves since they view the honor code office as somewhat of a burden. So how is it where you go to school and have you had to deal with this type of stuff?


  1. Stone them?  May be hundred lashes on their bare bottoms?
    Did you ask them if they had help from sources that were not allowed?  If so, did you have options for them so that they can repent?  Or, let the honor code enforces deal with them?

  2. I think we take it pretty seriously here at U of M. The honor code has pretty stiff language. Initially I thought we were pretty much supposed to do all our own work without talking with anyone else except the instructor.

    I feel like most students here work together in groups, and then, after working together write up answers by themselves. I think this is not only appropriate, but probably the most beneficial way of really learning material. As near as I can tell, no matter what the honor code says, this MO seems to be acceptable for professors, etc.

    When people are caught deliberately cheating, as you indicated here, there are pretty stiff penalties from what I can tell.

  3. At CU reporting to the honor code office is seen as a burden.  They have an extremely lengthy and complicated "legal" system that involves a lot of time and hassle for the faculty member as well as the student.  If a committee of students similar to a grand jury find there was a violation of the honor code then there is a "trial".  There have been a number of cases where the student has hired actual lawyers and made a real mess of the whole thing.  Usually if the student fights it they can avoid any serious consequences even for relatively serious offenses.  Thus most faculty prefer to simply handle it themselves and will lessen the punishment if the student protests too much to avoid the whole honor code office mess.  It's a terrible system but nobody seems to care enough to try to change it.

  4. In my courses I encourage people to work in groups, but I require that they tell me who they worked with and that they work through each problem rather than simply copy another student's work.  I also grade fairly harshly when they don't show their work, which discourages trying to simply write down the final results.  I'm sure some cheating occurs, but hopefully not too much.

  5. We were allowed to collaborate together in our numerical methods class so it wasn't an issue.  However, if I was a grader of a class where collaborating was taboo, I think I would give zero credit and a warning before going to the honor council.

  6. "I feel like most students here work together in groups, and then, after working together write up answers by themselves."

    It's been my experience here that, in classes where we can collaborate, students work together in groups and then *try* to write up answers themselves independently.  In practice it seems half the group can actually write up the solution independently and the other half begs for help.  :)

  7. I think stoning and lashing is a little harsh in this case. We just talk to them, give them a zero for that part of the assignment and don't mention it again.

    The thing is the "textbook" (numerical recipes in C) for the class basically has all the problems already worked out (maybe no our exact problems, but enough to copy). The ironic thing is no one, as far as I can tell, has even attempted to copy solutions from the textbook. Very strange. We even tell them to use it, and no one has. That might explain why the average for the class is 60%.

  8. In this particular class we actively encourage the students to work in groups and to ask each other to explain topics. It helps the students who know a little to be able to learn some more. So far this class has been very work alone-ish. It's like they all just got out of chemistry.

  9. Just curious.  When would you stone and lash for what misdeeds?  Giving out zero is pretty harsh.  May be a good punishment is to ask them to explain their solution in the class.  If they know the subject, so be it, especially when problems are already solved in the book.

  10. Nick, My son is going through this exact process at the moment because he left a class to go to tutoring on the same class.  The teacher has accused him of sending his clicker in with another student because he was there for 1/2 the class then left.  Do you know the name of any of the lawyers that were effective in the past.  I will not stand by & let this form of legal bullying impact my son or his grade


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