Monday, March 23, 2009

Cheating and UVA Law

Several news sources have reported on a recently released study that claims that 56% of business school students cheat, apparently because of something called "perceived peer behavior." The logic goes something like this: I think that my classmates are cheating, so I myself have to cheat in order to keep up. While B-School students apparently are the worst offenders, one can't ignore the possibility (likelihood?) of similar misbehavior happening elsewhere in post-secondary education, including law school. Honor codes and systems are a pet interest of mine, so I'll quickly detail the evidence that cheating (however you define it) could take place at our institution.

To wit:

1. Except for exams in 'first year' classes, all exams at UVA Law are self (or "flex") scheduled. This means you can take the exam at any scheduled timeslot. Typically one has two chances per day (AM and PM) for two weeks.

2. Many professors' exams are neither wholly closed book nor open book. Many alternatives exist, from least to most restrictive, including:
(a) statutory supplements only;
(b) self-made outline only;
(c) any outline, self-made or otherwise;
(d) textbook and self-made outline;
(e) textbook and any outline, self-made or otherwise.
3. At places like UVA Law, where the honor code is largely self-monitoring and self-enforcing, points 1. and 2. becomes more even more important. There is no way of knowing whether one is cheating because of the large variation among permissible materials on the exam. He has two outlines open plus his book, but how do I know that is impermissible?

4. Some professors have periodical evaluations throughout the semester that count toward one's final grade. Many of these evaluations are take-home, online, or are in some way unmonitored.

5. Grades matter, especially in the zero-sum game of a forced curve. The curve ensures that one student's success means another's failure. Employers make hiring decisions based on grades. It's a competitive world, EITE, and grades provide a way for employers to distinguish among largely homogeneous hiring pools.

All of this indicates that a systemic incentive and opportunity exists at UVA Law for students to cheat. I advance no public position on whether cheating happens, but merely note that a deviant fellow willing to get ahead would find ample means to do so. Hence my humble recommendations towards encouraging honesty:

1. To students: turn in anybody you see cheating. Another's dishonesty takes opportunity or $$ directly out of your pocket or an honest person like you. While I find honor systems that punish those that fail to turn in their compatriots distasteful, you owe it to yourself and others to uphold the honor system at UVA. There are many mechanisms in place to ensure a person will receive a fair and private trial, so don't let concerns about kicking out an honest person stop you from reporting cheating.

2. To professors: at the least, make extraordinarily clear what materials are allowed in the exam. This encourages compliance and prevents against creating an opportunity for a student to either knowingly or innocently circumvent the rule. At most, consider making all evaluation opportunities entirely open book. This measure virtually prevents against cheating, absent prior knowledge of the evaluation's contents. Certainly you can make an exam challenging enough to ensure a fair curve. The excuse that "I need to find a way to distinguish among students to give grades" probably only distinguishes those who memorize well from those who don't, rather than evaluating true understanding.

These two recommendations proactively address possible cheating at UVA Law. Curb opportunities for dishonest "perceived peer behavior" and I have no doubt that most students will do the right thing.


Anonymous said...

While a UVA law student, I thought about the cheating issue. I never knew anyone who cheated (or at least who admitted to cheating) nor even heard about cheating being discussed.

However, the possibility always bothered me. I stayed away from closed-book exam classes for this reason. I knew that I would never cheat, and I also know how easy it would be for someone else to just take a peek at that outline on their computer because they just couldn't remember the case they wanted to cite. I'm not saying that my classmates would actually do this, but it would always be in the back of my mind.

Anonymous said...

I totally agree that the university should either adopt an all-open-book policy, or all-closed-book policy. While the former is likely easier to enforce (because anything would be permitted in an exam), the latter would likely lessen the obsessive outline-making and sharing of previously made materials, which could lead to more "original" student output.

Anonymous said...

Exams should be made and administered to replicate the MBE. Creativity can be graded based on in-class comments. This would eliminate cheating, provide quick grades, eliminate accusations of discriminatory grading, prepare students to take standardized law exams, and encourage thoughtful comments (instead of just any kind of participation).

Anonymous said...

I don't think there's any reason to change the way exams are given. Closed-book and open-book exams each have their advantages and it's helpful for professors to be able to choose among those and other intermediate options.

There is some risk of cheating, but I think most students care enough not just about the Honor Code (hard to say how many really care about that), but about their own personal integrity to cheat. I also question how helpful looking at an outline during a closed-book exam would be. Sure, it might help you remember a case you forgot or refresh you on a conception for which you're drawing a total blank (I concede that this could be a major boost and also a major temptation). Therefore, there's a chance that it could save you from getting a really bad grade. I doubt, however, that it would help you get a great grade. On a closed-book exam, professors are not looking for who memorized the most cases or concepts. They're looking for the same sorts of things they always look for (critical thinking, putting concepts together, etc.). I think the reason that some professors offer closed-book exams is that they view outlines and class notes as stifling, rather than facilitating, critical thought.

Anonymous said...

I believe that professors really don't spend that much time analyzing our exams. They probably glance over it, make sure it is not too crazy. Slap on a B+. Then go back and raise or lower grades based on who kissed their butt the most, who missed class, etc.

Anonymous said...



Anonymous said...

11:47 AM -

The professors have to submit their initial blind grades before they find out who got what and then add or subtract based on participation. I doubt the school would be cool with them giving all B-plusses and then creating a distribution based on participation.

J. Crew Model said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
J. Crew Model said...

Couple points:

1. I don't think the law school should REQUIRE professors to adopt an all-open or all-closed book policy, due to the wide variation in classes. What materials you'd need to test competence in tax probably aren't the same for property, for instance.

2. One student's cheating that prevents him/her from getting a terrible grade affects his/her fellow students just the same as if the cheating transformed B+ knowledge into an A grade.

3. The arc, if you will, of my post was just to explore some ways to decrease the perceived peer behavior that (apparently) drives cheating in grad school. No number of rules will prevent everybody from cheating, but the right combination of rules will allow most students' personal integrity to inform their decisions.

Anonymous said...

I am the only one who thinks the whole system is ridiculous and that students have no right and should have no authority to expel one an other?

We compete with each other. Turning one an othe in is one thing. Having students anywhere near the expulsion decisions is absurd. Students should be able to testify, but our "jury system" is unreasonable.