Is this cheating or is it networking?

I’m a TA for a large undergraduate course that’s required for premed and bio majors. As I was grading the first exam of the course, I was scoring an open-ended question that was vaguely worded. So I was surprised when many of the students put together the exact cookie-cutter answer the professor was looking for.

“How on earth did they know what she was asking here?” I said to another TA. “Did you guys cover this explicitly in review sessions?”

The other TA answered, “No we really didn’t talk about that too much. But I think a similar question was on last semester’s exam? She refused to let them have a copy of that to study from, though. So I don’t know how they could have seen that.” She frowned at her pile of exams, “I’m having the same concerns with another question.”

A few minutes and a brief internet search later, we figured out that the exam from last semester was still posted online and although it was not available to current students, the exam and answer key were still accessible to last semester’s students. So, basically, any student who knew a former student would have had an answer key prior to the exam since the professor re-used the same exam from the preceding semester.

Upon review, it became clear from the lack of variety in responses to the open-ended questions that most of the students who had scored well on the exam had seen a copy of the answer key. For instance, one question asked students to draw and label the structures of the pituitary gland. The professor, on the answer key, drew the organ from an unusual angle. Many of the students did the same, although this was not how the pituitary gland was drawn in the text, in lectures, or in most online resources.

We, of course, immediately alerted the professor to the situation. She promised to make the next exam ‘harder’. In my mind, this was not a sufficient response to the inequities of the present exam, because the students clearly did not have access to the same study resources so I don’t think it was a very fair test.

Students who were able to get old exams and answer keys were simply using all resources at their disposal to study—although from a pedagogical perspective, if students simply reiterate answers they may not understand well, they’re clearly not getting much information out of the course. On the other hand, I sympathized with students who did not have access to the old exam through their social connections, studied hard, and did not score as well. I worry that they might be discouraged from putting in honest work in the future because of this experience.

What would you do in this situation? As a TA, I feel really frustrated and can imagine what the students who didn’t have the answer key feel. Of course, I think the professor should not have re-used last semester’s exam. I personally thought the professor should have done a mea culpa and not factored this exam into the final grade but she said that was not an option. I really hope she will create new exams in the future and I’ve even offered with the other TAs to write the next exam. But I just don’t have a lot of power in this situation.

Although I personally don’t think the students cheated in this case, since the answer key was so easily available, there’s a fine line between them and these guys, who, in my opinion, clearly cheated—although they seem to think their behavior was justified as ‘networking’.

Briefly, the link goes to a case where a professor re-used old exam questions although he took pains not to allow copies of his exams to fall into students’ hands. Some students managed to photograph their exams behind his back and passed them on to friends in the course. The thread was started by a student who did not have a copy of this exam, found out others did, and wasn’t sure what to do about it. Many responses posted on the thread were along the lines of this one: “Life isn’t fair, bruh, time to make some friends.”

Reading what those students wrote makes me wonder– what are the differences between cheating, slightly unethical behavior, and networking (especially in 2018 where such lines are completely blurred, even in the highest office in America)? Is cheating just networking to a greater extent?

The pre-med students who have been rewarded with high grades for ‘networking’ don’t seem motivated to outgrow this behavior either—CNN revealed radiology residents cheated on their board exams by basically the same means—which, frankly, could put our healthcare at risk.

I’m feeling naïve in my belief that students come to college to learn (as I did), or that they’re here for anything more than a grade on a transcript and a fat salary down the road. But, especially for pre-med and medical students, academia is set up to reward grades over knowledge, students learn to game this system by ‘networking’, and it’s difficult to know what, if anything, to do to change that.

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2 Responses to Is this cheating or is it networking?

  1. This is such a frustrating situation. In an ideal world you be able to create all 100% unique tests for ten years straight before reusing material, but that’s just not realistic. My feeling about this is that even though you can’t police every instance of “networking” style cheating, you can deduct credit for students failing to demonstrate that they have comprehended and synthesized the material such that they can use it to evaluate critically. In the case of the anatomical drawing, this is a flat out reproduction, as one would trace from a textbook, but fails to demonstrate comprehension.

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  2. Megan says:

    So, an update– we helped the professor write all new material for the second exam, and we’ll do the same for the final. She was reluctant to ask us TAs for help on the first exam, but, as it turned out we’d all rather put in a few hours to writing test questions than have to wrestle with the grading issues you’re citing above (it can be REALLY hard to assess understanding vs memorization on test questions, and you still need a consistent grading rubric for everyone). Students are taking the new test as I’m writing this comment, and I hope they actually studied rather than relied on their friends’ tests– or else they’ll find themselves in real trouble!
    I think another lesson to learn is not to hesitate to ask for help. As it turned out, the prof was dealing with a sick baby around the time of the first exam!!! I can relate to that, and would have been so happy to help out if she had asked. Although I and the other TAs couldn’t have thrown together a whole new exam, even rewriting 50% of the test or just tweaking the short answers and shuffling the multiple choice selections around would have really helped the situation! We’ve put in so much effort teaching the students that it was frustrating for us to see students succeeding without trying. I think her pride stopped her from asking us for help. I’m going to try not to make that mistake in my own future.

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