Professor or Policeman?

When I was in high school our history teacher expected us to cheat.  That’s right, she had fostered an environment in which everyone cheated on her exams.  During the exam she would noticeably be reading a book or working on filing papers in a file cabinet in the room.  This practice had been going on for decades.  She had been teaching at the same school for many years and had taught many second generation and some third generation students.  My senior year was her last year to teach before retirement.  So near the end of the year we got bold enough to ask her one day, “Do you know that everyone cheats on your exams?”  Her reply was a bit expected and unexpected at the same time.  Not only was she aware of it, but she thought it was making us better students.  She said that she had seen some of the cheat sheets that students would create in preparation for her exams.  She considered the preparation of those detailed cheat sheets a form of study.  All of her exams were essay exams.  She went on to explain that in her opinion in the real world outside of the classroom persons are allowed to use resources when they compose answers to questions, so why not let us do the same.

Was her technique a bit unorthodox and controversial?  Absolutely.  But now as I have been helping my child study for his AP history tests I am pleased with the amount of world history that I learned under her.

Cheating on exams seems to be a part of the learning experience that is not going away any time soon.  USA Today reported on what may be the largest study of academic cheating: “The Josephson Institute, a Los Angeles-based ethics institute, surveyed 29,760 students at 100 randomly selected high schools nationwide, both public and private. All students in the selected schools were given the survey in class; their anonymity was assured… Sixty-four percent of students cheated on a test in the past year and 38% did so two or more times… Thirty-six percent said they used the Internet to plagiarize an assignment…”    According to the Washington Post, ” The Center for Academic Integrity at Clemson University has reported that more than 75 percent of college students cheat in some way on school work or exams at least once during their undergraduate careers.”

One of the reasons why cheating may be so prevalent, is that faculty members do not want to go to the trouble of preventing it and enforcing academic honesty policies.  Faculty members may not want to invest the time and energy that it would take to investigate the incident, they may not want to invest the emotional discomfort of confronting the student, they could fear retaliation by the student, they could rationalize that failing students would hurt the institutions retention/graduation rates to which funding is tied.

One reason why so many cases of cheating in a proctored environment go unpunished is that investigating the incident often comes down to a he said / she said situation.  Technology is improving this situation as many virtual testing solutions and proctoring centers now can video the entire testing session.  Tools like SmarterProctoring also make it easier for the proctor to document the testing irregularity and report it to the faculty member.  But just as technology becomes more adept at deterring and documenting cheating, students are becoming more savvy in their cheating strategies.

I recommend that schools provide more than one testing modality.  If students take all of their exams through the same local testing center, the same virtual proctoring company, or the same human proctor, then their familiarity with the context could foster higher levels of cheating.  I consider it a good practice for schools to require human proctors for some exams as the presence of a close and constant live observer can be a strong deterrent to cheating.

So what do you think about it?  Should professors be policemen?  Or was my high school teacher smarter than we gave her credit for?