The Law of Below Averages

by on February 10, 2006 at 7:12 am in Education | Permalink

I sometimes find evidence of cheating on exams but I rarely take action, I don’t have to.  Almost invariably the cheaters get abysmally low grades even without penalty.  Some people I know get annoyed when students without evident handicap ask for and receive special treatment such as extra time on exams.  I comply without rancor as the extra time never seems to help.  Over the years I have had a number of students ask for incompletes.  None have ever become completes.

I call this the law of below averages.

Addendum: Any student who attempts to take advantage of my lax attitude should first reflect on the Lucas Critique.  Comments are open if you have experiences to share.

1 Craig Newmark February 10, 2006 at 8:06 am

I like the name. It describes my policy toward missing midterm exams. A student e-mails minutes before the midterm to say he has the “stomach flu” or that his elderly grandmother has passed away, can he be excused from the exam? I say sure. But there is no make-up exam. The weight of the missed exam is applied to all remaining exams. (This policy is on the course syllabus and announced first day of class.) In my experience, students
hate this; they hate the “pressure” of high-weight exams. I’ve seen some truly remarkable recoveries from the stomach flu and other maladies. And the students who don’t recover, including ones who may have phony excuses, almost always don’t do well on subsequent tests. I don’t feel I am being taken advantage of, especially since I view midterm exams as for the students’ benefit, not mine.

2 meep February 10, 2006 at 9:27 am

My favorite cheating story: some years ago, when I was a math TA, another math TA came to me to ask how to handle this situation: one guy had copied from another on a calculus exam. Thing is, the cheater had picked his target poorly: he was the 2nd-worst student in the class. And, of course, the cheater didn’t have enough time to copy everything.

Basically, ignoring the cheating and grading the exam like all others, the cheater’s exam got an F and the target of the cheater got a D. I told my friend that ist seemed the problem took care of itself.

3 David Tufte February 10, 2006 at 9:54 am

I’ve found that this policy generally helps your student evaluations as well.

Students are convinced that those marginal points matter a great deal. So I give in on most arguments. The thing is, most of our grading is on an average rather than a marginal scale.

I have actually kept track of those concessions – they almost never make a difference. And I’ve done controlled experiments with my evaluations as to whether being a “hard ass” makes them worse or not. It does.

4 Rich February 10, 2006 at 9:56 am

Two stories:

I caught a grad student recycling work from a previous class. The evidence: comments from the previous professor on the back of a map. While that in and of itself isn’t really cheating, I noticed that the student never bothered to incorporate the professor’s edits into his draft. Side-by-side readings indicated that the only difference between the two papers was the inclusion of some statistical tables.

Another “stupid criminal” story involves a colleague. A student needed to make up an exam that he missed. My colleague granted the make-up and in the meantime the student sent out an email to his entire class requesting information that was on the exam. Unfortunately he recycled an email that my colleague used but forgot to take the instructor’s name off the mailing list.

5 John February 10, 2006 at 10:11 am

It’s relatively easy to catch people who copy whole tests, or spot cheating in people who take make-up exams. It’s marginal cheating that happens more often, and is more difficult to spot and stop. I would imagine that people who are willing to do it, (1) consistently get about a third of a grade higher than they otherwise would, and(2) don’t consider themselves cheaters.

6 Wacky Hermit February 10, 2006 at 11:49 am

I caught two cheaters once on a take-home test. It was supposed to be an in-class test, but a snowstorm intervened and I ended up having to give it as a take-home, with the directions that students were to take it individually at home without books, notes, etc.

I first noticed something was wrong when there were two papers that mis-identified the compound interest formula as “the area under the curve.” A quick check showed that the two had cheated. One student would work down the space allotted for the problem until reaching the bottom of the space, then break to a new column of work. On the other student’s paper, the steps were all identical and the column breaks were at precisely the same step, even though the work didn’t reach the bottom of the space. The two tests had been scored within a point of each other (there was one problem on which the students did not cheat).

I was all for giving each of the students half the test’s points. Seeing as how they’d completed one test between the two of them, it seemed only fair to give each half a score. But the assistant department head wouldn’t let me, because I hadn’t actually seen the students cheat. So I made them take their finals separately, and the student who’d copied did not pass the class.

The worst part about it (other than the sense of thwarted justice) was attending the graduation where the failing student was supposed to have graduated, because I had a family member graduating that day. The student’s name was in the program and everything, but she couldn’t graduate because she had just failed my (required) class.

7 Garble February 10, 2006 at 12:47 pm

I really wish that professors would crack down on cheating. I got B’s with a normal amount of effort. Why shouldn’t I cheat and get a B+? When you get out into the ‘real world’ Dealing with the lazy people, the ones that cheated, is a pain. If college is a signaling tool, it would be nice if it signaled that graduates were honest/ethical. I understand it’s a pain for you to bust cheaters. But isn’t it part of your job?

8 Michael Loewinger February 10, 2006 at 1:21 pm

So cheaters who get caught don’t do well anyway. But I always wonder about the students who are good enough cheaters to not get caught do. I certainly know people who have cheated a lot, passed classes they would otherwise have failed and then done fine. All my teachers of course say that they are excellent at detecting dishonesty and point to all the comically bad examples that they have detected. But I always want to shake them and say “How do you know!? If they’re good enought that you wouldn’t detect them, you’d never know you missed them.” Furthermore, the fact that almost all of the examples they give are comically bad kind of implies that you only have to have a low minimum competence at cheating to go undetected.

9 Donald A. Coffin February 10, 2006 at 2:36 pm

I’ve mostly quit worrying about cheating. I give take-home exams, with rigid length limits, and with questions that force people not simply to look in the text for the answers. Open book, open notes. The grade distributions look almost exactly like they did when I gave in-class, closed book/note tests.

10 anonymous February 10, 2006 at 4:27 pm

I cheated in the classes i didnt care about. Im really surprised no one else in here cheated? Nobody ran into a situation where teachers gave exams on the same day? I would study hard for the one in my major, and cheated with a pal to make up for the lack of study time in the elective…
I think the whole cheater gets burned factor is kinda overrated… For instance im still not regretting looking over a pals shoulder for the answer to a history of jazz question.

11 Glen February 10, 2006 at 6:02 pm

I’ve often wondered what to think about students who get extra time on their exams because of a disability (not blindness or deafness, but ADD or the equivalent). Most of the time, as Alex says, the extra time doesn’t appear to help. But sometimes it might. I had one student who used the extra time and got the very highest grade in the class — two classes, in fact. I always wondered what I’d do if he asked for a recommendation. He never did, though, so I never had to decide.

12 cameron February 11, 2006 at 4:20 pm

When i was a student i had one professor that just gave a ton of work. I always took a incomplete in his class, and would always finish the class with an A the next term.

I know i’m a outlier in many ways as far as schooling goes, but i personally found the extra time to be just what i needed so i could really get into whatever i was researching for various papers for his class.

I also took 19 credits a term (the limit before you have to pay more money at my school), virtually every term.

13 William Sjostrom February 12, 2006 at 10:07 am

Many years ago, my first term as a TA was for a principles course for Dan Benjamin (now at Clemson). Students were seated by their quiz sections so the TAs could keep track of them. There were four in-class tests, plus the final. On the third test, I saw of my students very unsubtly looking over at the test of the girl in front of him (it was a tiered hall). I asked the head TA what to do, and he brought the problem to Dan Benjamin. He asked how the cheater was doing so far (basically low C) and how the girl he was cheating off was doing (struggling to get up to a D). So he said, let him cheat. The cheater’s grade plummeted on that test, and we had no problems with him the next time. My view is that part of the difficulty is that penalties for cheating are too severe. Consequently, students have big incentives to fight the penalty. The time involved ends up being too much bother.

14 anno-nymous February 13, 2006 at 7:28 pm

Quadrupole: “The class average on the quiz: D. Some people, you just can’t reach…”

Some people, like the entire class? Maybe he and the grad student were just very, very, very poor at getting the material across. (If the grad student was anything like most physics grad students I’ve had, his handwriting was illegible and his English incomprehensible). At any rate, it sounds like maybe the professor should have curved the grades to at least bring the average to a C or so. Since professors do get to decide on how to assign letter grades, after all.

15 Mike F February 14, 2006 at 12:34 am

I had a professor who had a policy of allowing students to miss any test without requiring a reason and would simply weight the final more. I only took the finals, and used the previous tests to study from. I got an A and probably would have got one anyways but only studying for one test is less work than studying for three or four.

16 someguy December 21, 2006 at 6:25 pm

I agree that this post demonstrates that above profs only catch the below average cheaters. It makes sense for them to think that, it must be comforting to think that cheating isn’t one of their problems. Half of the top students in the (highly ranked) program I was in were cheaters (Now they are phd or med students at highly respected universities). They knew their stuff, but they also double checked their answers with each other on tests… among other things.

17 Stephen Gordon December 21, 2006 at 9:29 pm

The best cheating-busting anecdote I’ve heard:

A professor had prepared and printed the exam papers the day before, and left them in his office. The next morning, he entered his office and realised that someone had been in during the night: things moved around, etc. But the stack of exam papers was still on his desk.

So he took the stack of exam questions to the photocopy room and chopped a half-inch off the bottom of every page. The exams were distributed and written. When they were turned in, the professor shuffled the papers a bit, quickly identified an exam paper that was half an inch longer than the rest, and called the offending student up for a quick chat.

18 Slocum December 22, 2006 at 7:52 am

“But there are plenty of possibilities on your own, too. Google is rather helpful for finding similar or even identical work.”

I have a friend who was given an assignment in a class and went home to work on it. He googled a couple of the distinctive terms and found that the instructor had stolen the assignment itself (without any attribution) from a professor at another university.

19 Weldon December 22, 2006 at 8:31 am

I’m amazed by all the stories. Where do you get the choices of reactions. The schools I know insist on written in class finals, even where it’s silly. A lot of this is the difference in subjects. You may have to worry about a multiple choice test, but not for an advanced Topology exam.

20 TW Andrews December 27, 2006 at 10:34 pm

So cheaters who get caught don’t do well anyway. But I always wonder about the students who are good enough cheaters to not get caught do. I certainly know people who have cheated a lot, passed classes they would otherwise have failed and then done fine. All my teachers of course say that they are excellent at detecting dishonesty and point to all the comically bad examples that they have detected. But I always want to shake them and say “How do you know!? If they’re good enought that you wouldn’t detect them, you’d never know you missed them.” Furthermore, the fact that almost all of the examples they give are comically bad kind of implies that you only have to have a low minimum competence at cheating to go undetected.

Seriously. I knew a number of people in college who cheated regularly and successfully. They typically recieved 1-2 letter grades higher than they would have without cheating, and perhaps more significantly, spent considerably less time on homework/studying.

It’s pretty clear that someone who has no clue is going to have a hard time cheating themselves into a pass. But a C student cheating their way to a B+, or for students who are looking to get into competitive graduate programs, a B+ to an A? That happens all the time.

21 hoojk December 2, 2007 at 9:10 pm

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