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Posted at 4:21 PM ET, 03/17/2010

New MIT study on student cheating

By Valerie Strauss

What surprised me most about a new study on cheating at MIT--which concludes that copying homework can lead to lower grades--was that students cheat at the prestigious school, which only admits brainy kids who don’t need to.

But of course, students cheat everywhere, even at the best schools; witness the recent grade-changing scandal at high-achieving Churchill High School, and, for that matter, the computer hacking scandal at high-achieving Whitman High School last year. Both are in Montgomery County and both are among the best secondary schools in the country.

In fact, according to the book, “Cheating in School: What we Know and What We Can Do,” by Stephen F. David, Patrick F. Drinan and Tricia Bertram Gallant, there are students cheating everywhere--from elementary to graduate school, rich and poor schools, public and private.

The authors define cheating as “acts committed by students that deceive, mislead or fool the teacher into thinking that the academic work submitted by the student was a student’s own work.”

Professor Donald McCabe, a Rutgers University expert on cheating, surveyed 80,000 students and 12,000 faculty in the United States and Canada between 2002 and 2005. He reported that 21 percent of undergraduates admit to cheating on exams at least once a year, while 33 percent admit to having obtained knowledge of a test before taking it.

But one practice to which at least half of students admit--copying homework or working with others when they aren’t supposed to--is not viewed by many undergraduates as real cheating. For example, more than 40% of undergraduates and 30% of graduate students (and almost 20% of faculty) do not think that ‘cut and paste’ plagiarism on homework is moderate or serious cheating.

That brings us to the new MIT study, conducted by Physics Professor David E. Pritchard of MIT, Assistant Professor Young-Jin Lee of the University of Kansas, and two other researchers.

According to the study, students who copy homework problems requiring algebraic responses wound up performing poorly on problems that required similar work on the final exam—by as much as two letter grades.

Students who copy more than 30 percent of their homework problems have more than three times the course failure rate as other students, even if they started the course with the same math and physics abilities.

The researchers followed four of MIT’s largest calculus-based introductory physics classes--a required course for undergraduates--between 2003 and 2006. The work of several thousand students was reviewed.

The authors tell teachers in the report that they can reduce cheating on homework by as much as 75 percent--with an associated reduction of course failure rate--by changing the format of the courses they teach and the homework they assign.

“We came upon homework copying through our research on learning in an online environment, rather than through moral concern,” said Pritchard. “But our results are so compelling that they place a moral imperative on teachers to confront homework copying and to reduce it.”

The authors developed a method to analyze students’ homework submissions in Pearson’s MasteringPhysics, an online homework and tutorial system. The report, called “Patterns, Correlates and Reduction of Homework Copying,” was published in Physical Review Special Topics: Physics Education Research.


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By Valerie Strauss  | March 17, 2010; 4:21 PM ET
Categories:  Higher Education, Research  | Tags:  MIT, cheating, education research  
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"According to the study, students who copy homework problems requiring algebraic responses wound up performing poorly on problems that required similar work on the final exam—by as much as two letter grades."

I don't find this at all surprising. The possibility of getting a lower deter only those students who WANT to get a good grade in the subject and believes they CAN get a good grade in it.

If someone told you that to be considered for a raise at the paper you would have to go to the Serengeti, stalk and kill a lion, and bring back it's head, you would 1) think the requirement had nothing to do with your work, 2) be unable to do it, and 3) most likely purchase a lion's head and present it as your own. A lot of academic work is viewed that way--completely irrelevent to any career goal, impossible to accomplish because of poor teaching. If the students also have background that haven't encouraged them to be automatically honest and are in an incredibly stressful situation where failure carries what they see as major penalities, they'll cheat just to get through an impossible situation.

Posted by: sideswiththekids | March 17, 2010 5:54 PM | Report abuse

What was the format change that the teachers are supposed to use?

I think the findings were rather obvious. If I have to work through an algebra problem I can remember how to do it. If I copy it, I can watch TV at the same time and tell you all about the show.

Posted by: celestun100 | March 17, 2010 8:23 PM | Report abuse

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