Estimated reading time: 7 minutes, 5 seconds

Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

Changing the Conversation Around Cheating #OLCInnovate


Estimated reading time: 7 minutes, 5 seconds

This is a question that appeared in the Q&A of my recent OLC Innovate keynote. I will discuss more today on OLC live with Nate Angell inshallah (join us at 3.15 ET/9.15 Cairo)

How have you approached faculty, or how would you approach faculty who are obsessed with students cheating?

To start, I think if you have rampant cheating, you need to ask yourself … if your goal is to cultivate ethical citizenship in your students, don’t you want people who would be ethical without the threat of surveillance and getting caught? Isn’t that what ethics is? Doing the “right” thing when no one is watching? (I mean there are many definitions and philosophies of what ethics and doing what’s “right” or “good” inherently means). I wouldn’t take a utilitarian view here. It’s not enough to graduate a person who is honest because they’re being watched and pat ourselves on the back. We need edu institutions to graduate people who are honest even when not watched. What’s a nurse who cheats, and what would she do to patients in real life? What’s an engineer who cheats, a psychologist who cheats? Why do they cheat?

I think it’s important to step back on two fronts when discussing this issue:

A. Are we labeling some behaviors “cheating” and blaming students when the behaviors either should be acceptable or are caused by something wrong with how we design our assessments in the first place? So might the behaviors not be *inherently* wrong?

B. Are we labeling assessments wrong/inappropriate when there is a systemic issue with the parameters/constraints institutions place on teachers that make it difficult to do better?

I will start with the first one even though it is harder to practically implement what I suggest, given B.

But even before that, I want to remind us again of WHY we are educating. When a university graduates nurses, engineers and psychologists, what we want to see is ethical nurses, engineers and psychologists, who will have intrinsic integrity in their work and life, not people who have good exam technique or who are able to comply when being watched? Remember this.

And let me tell you two quick stories of inauthentic assessment.

  1. I passed my Texas Driver’s license MCQ exam my second day living in Texas. I had never read Texas laws. I did not drive in Egypt. But I had good exam technique and I knew how to fool a test. I got 85%.
  2. I once took a First Aid course with the Red Cross (side note: my husband and parents and many in my family are doctors). The final assessment was a Multiple Choice test. I was never ever confident to actually act in a situation that required first aid (with caveat that there were almost always doctors in the vicinity), beyond minor choking and scrapes. Because this assessment was so inauthentic it did not make me feel I was capable. I also remember someone helping us cheat so we can pass. It was odd, to do that.

And now for the meat of this post
A. Behaviors that perhaps we should not be labeling as cheating…

So there are a few specific behaviors we usually consider cheating but I want to question that. The first is cooperation, the second is researching or looking things up online.

I want to ask, from an authentic viewpoint, once a student graduates and becomes a nurse, engineer or psychologist, will it be unethical for them to cooperate with others on a “difficult case” or to “look something up online”??? I mean, sure, in an emergency situation, a nurse should quickly make a connection not to give medicine X to the patient that has a certain underlying medical condition, but in many cases, it’s good to check things when there is time. It is also often useful to consult with others. Experience is probably what helps some information stick (i.e. common meds and diseases are faced often so it’s easy to remember eventually) whereas they may face unexpected or rare cases and these will almost always require doing research or asking others. I understand that a psychologist can’t look stuff up online while in the middle of a counseling session, but they can between sessions, and I assume, based on stuff I have read about their careers, they can also consult their colleagues on difficult cases. Case study assessments and take home open book assessments can help more than a timed exam, usually. if timing is important as an outcome, then a role play is probably better than a written MCQ or timed essay.

The point is, collaboration and research are good skills to have, we should foster them, in the right context, not discourage them. Assessments that consider these two behaviors unethical are likely inauthentic and probably very far from what these individuals need to do in life.

Here is also some text I tweeted earlier, specifically re nursing because someone in chat mentioned a situation of many nurse students cheating:

I read in text chat of my #OLCInnovate keynote that someone in a school of nursing found rampant cheating and they had to use software to prevent it.

I’m thinking: don’t you feel you have a deeper problem that ppl training to be responsible for human lives are cheating?1/3

When nursing students are cheating, I have strong doubts that the problem lies w the students. I have to believe they came into this with some care for human beings. Something must be wrong w the assessments that they are cheatable in first place. 2/3

And I have to ask how much time nursing programs spend on nurturing the values underlying the profession vs cognitive outcomes.

If cheating entails looking stuff up online… i would ask: in real life, isn’t it ok to do so? 3/3

B. Systemic institutional constraints
These range from large numbers of students per faculty, making it difficult to grade frequent authentic assessments, and grading as a system in itself. And standardized testing. And just cheatable exams.

If our system encourages students to see grades as the sole measure of success in college, and we give them exams that are cheatable and don’t focus on teaching values, assessing processes, and engaging students cognitively and emotionally and challenging them to see themselves as doing something useful and relevant with assessments, this can make it easier for students to seek shortcuts to higher grades. Some students will never cheat, regardless. Some students will cheat regardless. But some students in the middle will only cheat if cheating is rampant around them and they feel they would be “unfairly disadvantaged” if they didn’t… right? Also, unreasonable workloads and large unphased assessments can make it easier for students to cut corners to get through. Consequentialist thinking.

I need to see if Michael Sandel has a video on cheating? 😁

Anyway… Check out several podcast interviews by Arthur Chiaravalli on grading differently or ungrading here, including a recent one with Asao Inoue, Jesse Stommel & me

Harms of surveillance and anti-cheating (proctoring & plagiarism detection) tech

This was also a question in the Q&A.
Primarily for me: they don’t really solve the problem. They teach students to comply when being watched but not to be overall ethical human beings

  1. They communicate mistrust of students and convey that teachers see them as adversaries. Why???
  2. Companies collect students data to improve their algorithms and our institutions PAY them to do so
  3. They violate students’ rights without true consent (privacy of homes for cameras for proctoring; copyright for writing in plagiarism detection)
  4. Proctoring only: 
  5. When AI used, highly likely to discriminate on race and ableist lines, and gender also (Shea Swauger article).
    1. Normalize spying and ppl are expected to comply. Reproduce inequality 
    2. Problematic for people who have slower or less stable internet connectivity
    3. Increase student anxiety during pandemic – esp coupled w timed exams when ppl r having trouble w time management and focusing sometimes and in home environments that may not be comfortable/stable

Further reading on proctoring (Shea Swauger) on plagiarism detection (Sean Michael Morris & Jesse stommel).

On inequality in algorithms in general, Safiya Noble Algorithms of Oppression and on surveillance in general, sava saheli singh films Screening Surveillance .

All links in except the plagiarism one I linked above.

Finally, this is a good reading on the academic integrity spectrum from trusting students to verifying to observation: Tobin, T.J. (undated). The online Administrator’s semi-painless guide to institution-wide academic integrity (Link)


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