By Sam Jiang (ME ‘19)
The opinions in this article are those of the author alone and do not represent the views of The Pioneer as a whole.
It’s a problem that finally caught the attention of administrators and faculty during the past wave of finals, but prevalence of cheating at The Cooper Union has long been a point of contention among “honest” students. It is especially heinous in certain curved classes, where undeserved high marks throw off the average, directly impacting everyone else’s grades. Only by understanding why and how cheating occurs can effective preventative measures be developed.
An inflated GPA is certainly appealing, but the real draw lies in how easy it is to get away with and how hard it is to prove. It’s not to say that nobody notices: with such a small student body, cheating is readily apparent and repeat offenders gain a certain notoriety. Even cheaters well-known among the other students aren’t at any direct risk of punishment, however: The ChE department’s recent letter to the students details how one might go about reporting academic dishonesty, but makes no mention of what, if any, actions would actually be taken in response to the report. The fact of the matter is, reputation just isn’t enough evidence. Notice how Snoop isn’t in jail despite being widely known as a botany enthusiast? Or, similarly, how Al Capone had to be arrested for tax evasion despite being an infamous mobster kingpin?
So, they’re safe as long as they’re discrete, right? As it turns out, even getting caught in the act is not enough: during last semester’s finals, one professor actually did catch several students cheating on the final, and even though the Dean was eventually called down, nothing came of it because verbal testimonies are meaningless: anything short of absolutely undeniable hard evidence runs the risk of turning into a game of he-said she-said.
In theory, it makes perfect sense for accusations of academic dishonesty to require rigorous proof; otherwise, a professor (or, indeed, another student) with a personal vendetta can easily get somebody expelled over a baseless accusation. But in practice, it means that the scary-sounding consequences of academic dishonesty are merely a vicious dog with no teeth. Only the most blatant, heavy-handed incidents actually result in punishment, with the vast majority of cheaters effectively granted amnesty. The risks are low, and the rewards are high; when personal integrity is the only thing at stake, it’s no surprise that cheating is such a widespread disease.
Knowing that it’s all but impossible to punish cheating after the fact, professors need to take a more proactive approach: by making it harder to cheat in the first place. The fact of the matter is that a lot of cheating occurs simply because of how easy it is. Much like how bike locks are primarily intended to “keep honest people honest”, there’s some surprisingly simple measures that can be taken to combat the most common forms of cheating, simply by making it a bit less convenient to do so.
Aside from the obvious phone-under-the-table trick, one popular ploy is “the Human Centipede”, a staple of Great Hall exams. A group of friends will sit together in a row, with the kid who actually studied passing their answers up from the front like a game of telephone. Multiple forms, even with the problem numbers scrambled, does nothing to deter this behavior as long as the questions themselves are repeated. As this method is entirely dependent on sitting among friends, it’s somewhat surprising that assigned seating isn’t the norm for large exams.
Another favorite is the “Better Late than Never”, usually used after short weekly quizzes, in which a group will share answers and correct their papers together before handing it in well after the time limit. This type of cheating could be curbed by more strictly enforcing time limits, as well as some basic attentiveness on the professor’s part. Then you have the old “Let’s Ask Yesterday’s Section Because They Took Literally the Same Quiz” trick, which… seriously, cheating should never be that easy. Invest some time into making multiple forms with different computations and this problem would basically go away.
The scale and extent of preventative measures varies widely from class to class, from professor to professor. As one student notes, “the school is pretty unbalanced with how it handles cheating. On one hand, based on the rules they have, it’s obvious that some professors clearly want to stop it, but there’s plenty of professors who do nothing.”
Some professors merely employed TA’s who hardly walked around the room, which isn’t much better than those professors who made no attempt at all. On the other end of the spectrum, during some exams, students were required to move their coats, bags and phones to the front to remove potential hiding spots for cheat sheets and notes, a trivial policy that at least appears to be effective.
The best were the classes whose exams came in several forms, in which equivalent questions were only conceptually similar; attempting to copy would be futile because two versions of the same question might have entirely different answers, depending on the wording and setup of the problem. Writing and grading such an exam takes much more effort than just having one set of questions in mixed order, but it goes to show that some professors are willing to put extra effort to prevent cheating. The Student Council has also provided additional suggestions in their recent letter to the engineering faculty. Hopefully, a better understanding of cheaters’ means and motivations will help students and professors work together to devise more effective techniques, preventing cheating before it ever happens. ◊