Every semester, faculty on the Announce list-serv get a Sexual Assault Profile Report e-mailed to us. Identities are withheld, but it summarizes information about sexual assaults reported to the Women’s Center here at SCSU. It contains information such as: how many, where they occurred, who the attackers were. The WC does not even bother with the pretense of using the word “alleged” in this report, despite the fact that according to the report only 20% of the cases resulted in some consequence to the attacker; attackers apparently are presumed guilty.
I chide the WC for assuming guilt, but don’t get me wrong — I think it is vitally important for people to know this information. I applaud their efforts to get this information to the university community. If the number of reported assaults is on the rise, and it is (15 in Fall 2008 vs. 10 in Fall 2007), we need to know about it. Female students need to know that they need to take precautions, and other people need to know what to watch for. If it is on the decline, we also need to know this so that we have proof that our efforts are working and give credit where credit is due.
Similarly, I believe there needs to be an official report by the Student Affairs Office providing an overview of the number of cases of alleged cheating (notice I included the word ”alleged” — I’m old school in the fact that I presume innocence; the Women’s Center is so ahead of the times that they drop this quaint old concept). Students and faculty need to know how many students were brought up on charges of cheating, how many of them were punished, and how they were disciplined. Right now, nobody knows anything. Students know cheating occurs — and they admit it when surveyed. But nobody knows what the punishment will be. I believe that the fact that nobody knows how widespread cheating is or how cheaters are punished causes more cheating.
When I was teaching at Saint Louis University while I was a graduate student, I strongly believe I had a student cheat on an exam. He received special testing privileges allowing him a quiet room and extended time. He told me this a few days before, and showed me the documentation from Disability Services, so I told him that I would put him in one of the study rooms in the building and he could take his exam there while the rest of the class was taking the exam in the classroom. (I didn’t want him taking it early and telling people what was on it, or taking it late and learning what was on it before he took it.) That turns out to have been a mistake on my part. He knew he would be alone, isolated in a room with only a small glass window in the door, at the same time I was down the hall proctoring 44 other students in another room. After their exam finished, I would wait in the lobby of the building for him to finish the exam, since he received extra time.
On the day of the exam, he came to the room where everybody else was starting their exam, and I gave him a copy and told him to go to a specific wing of the building, choosing one study room in a particular corridor that contained about a dozen such rooms. When the rest of the class finished their exams, I looked through all the windows of all the doors in this wing and he was not in any of the rooms. I figured he stepped out to use the restroom. I went to the lobby and waited. I checked back 20 minutes later and still could not find him anywhere. I decided to just relax and go to the lobby and start grading the exams. When his actual time was up, I went and looked for him again. Still nowhere to be seen. I was starting to get angry. My parking meter was expiring and I was worried about getting a parking ticket. (I did in fact get a ticket — the little creep cost me $25.)
About 25 minutes later, he waltzed into the lobby and gave me his exam as if nothing was wrong. I asked him where the heck he had been and he said he was in one of the rooms. I told him he was NOT in one of the rooms, as I checked all of them several times in the last hour. He said he went to the bathroom a few times. Regardless, he was late and I should have wiped out his whole exam right then — he broke the rules. I took his exam anyway and left annoyed at the whole situation. When I got home, I looked at his exam and could not believe what I saw.
Before every exam I give, I give students a set of practice questions to give them a better idea of what they will need to know. I give them solutions to the questions if they show me they have made a serious attempt at answering at least half of them. And I tell them that I will use at least one of those questions on the exam, giving them an incentive to really study from them and make sure they know the answers. I think it’s a great system. Not so much this time.
His exam was about as bipolar as an exam can get. For any of the questions that were similar to the ones I had on the practice problems, he answered perfectly. Too perfectly. Verbatim from the answer key. And I mean three sentences verbatim, word for word exactly what I have on the answer key. But on the questions that were about different material than the practice questions, he was so far off that it was not even funny. Every answer was pretty much the exact opposite of the correct answer. His sentences were more much shorter, and much more vague. It seemed pretty clear to me that he took the exam somewhere, had the answers on him (or looked them up online, since I put them up on the web at that time) and copied down what he could. For the rest, he had to rely on his brain, which wasn’t working so well that day.
I informed him of this and told him that, in my opinion, it appeared that he cheated. Not once did he ever say to me, “I did not cheat.” If it were me and I were accused of cheating, the first thing out of my mouth would be, “I did not cheat.” He never said it once. I brought him up on charges with the Dean’s office and there was a hearing. I went to the Disability Services office beforehand and spoke with the person in charge there about the case, and he told me that he had had problems with this student in the past. The student was in their office taking an exam once and left to use the bathroom for about a half hour. This man finally sent a student into the bathroom to check on him and from behind one of the stalls, he hears papers crinkling. So this man brought him up on cheating charges too, and those went nowhere. I introduced him as a witness in my hearing, to testify to a pattern of behavior.
So we had our hearing and he finally gave his defense. Previously he had no explanation to offer me. Now he’s got a whopper: he has a photographic memory. He memorized all the answers verbatim but since he didn’t actually learn anything, he tanked the questions that weren’t from the practice solutions. This is the same student who, when working on homework, had to have answers explained to him about a half-dozen times and still would not understand it. Now he has a photographic memory. And at the hearing, he finally says the magic words, “I did not cheat.” I mention to the board that this is the first time he’s ever said that to me. The board, consisting of 3 undergrads, 1 grad student, and 1 faculty member, deliberates for about five minutes and finds him not guilty. Nevermind that he wasn’t where he was supposed to be at any point I was looking for him. Nevermind that he came back 25 minutes later than he should have. His photographic memory claim (which the board did absolutely nothing to substantiate) absolved him of everything. In their minds he had done nothing wrong. I walked out of the room stunned.
What are faculty supposed to do, short of videotaping all of their students taking their exams? Faculty have learned that when we bring charges of cheating, students walk most of the time because the standard of proof is apparently so high that a student can talk his way out of anything: claim you have a photographic memory and they believe you without asking you to demonstrate this phenomenal ability. That’s why many faculty simply give up trying and just look the other way. That’s why, when I see a student looking on another student’s paper, I move them to another seat. I want to take their exam and rip it up in front of them, grab them by the collar and throw them out of the room, and give them a zero, but I think it’s going to cause too much of a problem and ultimately I will be left unsatisfied with the solution. I have seen several faculty profiles on RateMyProfessors.com where the comments by students say that it’s so incredibly easy to cheat in this professor’s class because the professor just sits in the front and never even bothers looking up. Never walks the room at the start of the exam to make sure there aren’t items under the desk in one row that might help someone in the next row. Never bothers to see if there is anything on a student’s desk that they should not have. Never checks the calculator to see if, perhaps, they have a cheat sheet taped to the bottom of it. Never bothers to see if there is writing on the inside of the label of that Coke bottle. (Yes, students, some of your professors know about that trick.) Many of the students find it laughable. So they just keep on cheating. Why learn when you can cheat?
And for faculty, why try to fight it? Even when you catch a person red-handed, it’s an administrative nightmare for everyone involved, parents get upset at the whole thing, and in the end the student walks away clean. It’s just not worth it for most faculty. There is no mention of it in the student’s record, so that when it happens again and a pattern develops, that pattern remains hidden. And there is no public record that there even was a hearing, so nobody knows about it. At least in the case of sexual assaults, somebody is providing numbers so we have an idea of the size of the problem.
If students knew how many times other students tried to cheat and were brought up on charges, it might make them think twice about cheating. Then again, if students knew how many times students walked away clean from the hearing about their alleged cheating, it might just empower them to try even more. The whole process makes me sick to my stomach. That’s why I write two versions of my exams. That’s why I don’t give multiple choice exams. That’s why I don’t let students take exams late. That’s why I don’t allow calculators except for upper division classes with difficult math. I don’t want students to cheat — it’s not fair to all the other students that worked hard studying for the exam. And I know most students are good students. I have had students walk up to my desk during an exam to let me know that their pen ran out of ink and they are going to reach into their backpack to get another pen. They let me know ahead of time so I don’t see them doing it and think they’re cheating. The first time that happened, I couldn’t even believe it. I love those students.
Cheating is a huge problem on college campuses. But nothing is done about it because nobody knows how bad the problem really is. And the only way we’re going to know is for this information to be made public.