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Telling a professor that other students are cheating

  1. Jan 24, 2016 #1
    I know that this is a common problem, but it's still quite frustrating. I spend hours upon hours on homework, and get a B. They spend half an hour, and get an A because they found the solutions online (I also have access, but do not use them). The exams come directly from the homework, so they memorize the solutions and also get an A.

    I want to tell the professor that maybe he should consider using different questions, however I don't want to come across as a "tattletale", since I feel as though the mature choice is just to let it happen. After all, this is a 300-level physics course, we're all adults. The reality is that I will learn more, so maybe it's childish to even consider telling the professor.

    Last edited: Jan 24, 2016
  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 24, 2016 #2
    Oh my goodness, I know exactly how you feel. It's extremely frustrating, especially when the other students just get away with it.

    I am in the exact same situation as you (well, I was last semester). I may have been the only one (or among very few people) who actually did the work, without looking at a solution manual (though I too had access to it). The frustrating thing is staying up late for several nights figuring out the problems and accepting the loss of points if something isn't quite right, when everyone else gets essentially a perfect. What's worse is if, like you said, the tests can't correct that.

    If it's any consolation, these people, if they even make it into grad school, probably won't do well. Also, I'm noticing many of them struggle in later classes whereas the material isn't so bad for me. However, if they're in their last year, well, they may very well not do well in their jobs if they lack work ethic. Just don't let them try to drag them down with you. I make it clear I do my own work.

    I didn't do any of this, but I wish I did, so here are some options:

    1. Meet with the professor and inform him that this is going on. I'm sure it's okay for you to say you don't want to name names if you're uncomfortable with that. It may be the professor just doesn't know it's going on.

    2. Leave an anonymous note for the professor if you're too uncomfortable to even do that.

    Honestly, nothing bad can come of reporting them, if you ask me. You're obviously in the clear (especially if the professor decides to up the difficulty because of this--you'll still be fine because you're actually learning the material). Then you have to ask yourself why it would matter if anyone even found out you were the one to "tattle" on everyone else? Based on your past posts, I see you're going off to grad school anyway. Of course, this may all just be my regrets talking.

    Finally, you say

    In an ideal world where students lived in a vacuum, this would be true. But what happens if you need a higher grade and the professor would curve if everyone would do badly? Then the curve is lower only because the class cheated. You may not need that curve, but you never know. The mature choice is to not cheat in the first place, and they clearly didn't take that path.

    If I sound frustrated, it's because I was pretty fed up with those kinds of people at the end of last semester.

    EDIT. As a further elaboration on option 1, it'd be okay to tell the professor that you'd like to be anonymous. I'm sure they'd understand.

    And, I will also add that the cheating students not only gain an unfair advantage over you, but also anyone else who is an honest student.
  4. Jan 24, 2016 #3


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    I would suggest you have a discussion with the professor about what his expectations are (and perhaps what your university regulations are) with respect to looking up solutions online.

    I think today this is nearly impossible to circumvent. Students are going to look things up online. For some, it will be the only source of their responses. For others, they'll do the work and then check online as a means of verifying that they've done a good job. I'm sure there are some who will even have run into the problems because they were working ahead in the course and have already encountered them (well, it could happen, anyway....) As mentioned above the idea is more that students who blindly copy answers aren't going to be all that successful in an exam. But if the exam questions are very similar to the assignment questions, those who have good answers to the assignment problems are likely to do well. The thing with that is that professor should be providing assignment solutions anyway and if you got less than a perfect score on the assignment, you should be studying those solutions. So whether other students looked up solutions online or not should be moot by that point. If the professor isn't providing assignment solutions, you have a legitimate complaint about the course and there are avenues to address that.
  5. Jan 24, 2016 #4
    I understand that part of doing homework is using other resources... the professor does post solutions after everyone has turned in the homework. So i suppose you're right, that it only affects the homework grade and not the exam grade.
  6. Jan 24, 2016 #5
    But there's a difference between "resources" and "solutions for the problems in question."

    If the homework is worth any significant fraction of the course grade, that puts cheaters at an advantage, and that's not even including the advantage of having extra time to work on assignments from other courses. Not only that, but I'd argue that ethically letting it pass is contributing to the watering-down of our educational system.

    That may be my regrets talking again, though.
  7. Jan 24, 2016 #6
    I try and explicitly describe the authorized resources, and even though most homework assignments allow the whole web, any and all web resources need to be cited, including the complete url.

    If you do not want to tell your prof in person, it's not to hard to set up an anonymous gmail account and use that to communicate your information and concerns.
  8. Jan 24, 2016 #7
    At my university, it is common that students solve their homework using solution manual or any other sources and because of this most professors do not give much weight on homework. Only 10% of 15%. The major weight is on Exams and projects and they are not directly from homework questions. if you understand the material well you can solve the exam. Otherwise you will fail. That's why I do not get bother whether student are cheating or not.

    I get angry from those students who try to cheat during the exam. They really drive me crazy

    You have said that they memorize the solution ...But this is physics and it should be understood not memorized
  9. Jan 24, 2016 #8


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    How do you know they're using online solutions to complete homework in thirty minutes? Are they flaunting it in front of you? Further, how do you know they're getting A's on the exam? Did they also flaunt this to you?

    I highly doubt they're simply memorizing solutions to get an A, unless your exams are multiple guess. In which case, your class has more problems than just students memorizing solutions. Maybe they're using the online solution to memorize/learn technique or learning the ways to solve those types of problems. I don't see a problem with this, other than that those students aren't putting in the time to think about solving problems on their own - which will bite them eventually. Regardless, they aren't cheating anyone but themselves - not you, the professor, or the class.
  10. Jan 24, 2016 #9
    I obviously don't speak for Dishsoap, but yes, you'd be surprised that some people will brag about copying solutions directly from the manual.

    I also strongly disagree with you when you say " they aren't cheating anyone but themselves - not you, the professor, or the class."
    Yes, they are cheating the class. If a professor curves based on the class's grades, and if the majority of the class cheats, the ones who don't cheat (and therefore would likely get lower scores on homework assignments) are at a disadvantage, especially, as is Dishsoap's case, if the tests are based on the homework. What's more is that they devalue the degree that the OP is working hard to get, and it is possible, even if the chance is small, that many of these students would in fact learn their lesson if they are caught.

    If these were one-person classes, then cheating would only be the student cheating himself, but in academics, where top performers are rewarded, yes, they're cheating other people as well.

    As was said earlier in the thread, certainly there's nothing wrong with using resources online with appropriate citation, but I really don't see the difference between looking the other way when students copy homework solutions and looking the other way when students copy test solutions (or, on a larger scale, looking the other way when academics plagiarize other academics). In either situation, certainly there's some obligation on the part of the professor/university to teach good academic practices.
  11. Jan 24, 2016 #10


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    Do we know the professor curves? No. Is there any reason to curve when students are getting raw scores in the A and B's? No.

    Homework should be worth nothing- in every class. Seems like the homework is graded in this course, however. Are those students cheating him because he got a B? No. He could have done the same, or at least checked his work. Whether the tests are based on homework or not doesn't change the fact that those students went into the exam and did quite well. They didn't have the online solutions available to them at that time, therefore, they did well within the constraints of the course. They learned what needed to be learned according to the examination metric.

    If the professor is too lazy to make exams unique, then they probably wouldn't care anyway.

    This is why I don't like curves, especially in lower level classes. Students start competing among themselves, instead of competing against the material they need to learn. That's not the point of a curve.

    How do you reference sources? That seems unenforceable and silly.

    What's different from this and study groups? A whole lot of nothing.
    Last edited: Jan 25, 2016
  12. Jan 24, 2016 #11
    Anecdotally, there are more physics courses that curve than those that don't, but I will emphasize the anecdotally. It's a fair point to make, and it can be an issue. It's unfathomable to me to defend cheating on homework even if those students do well on the exams. It's a mockery of the educational process to pass off work as your own when it's not.

    I'm going to have to disagree with you on what homework should be worth. Whether it's a good idea or not, homework being work a higher percentage of points encourages the students to actually do it (and if they don't have to, some of them might fool themselves into thinking they understand the material when they don't), and if done well can provide a stress-free way to give interesting problems to the class. Yes, the other students are cheating ones who don't cheat, because it's possible, even if it isn't common, that someone who cheats ends up getting a higher grade in the course than someone who legitimately works hard and--importantly--actually understands the material. Academia isn't a vacuum, and important decisions--scholarships, graduate admissions, etc.--are in part determined by grades.

    You're right, some do well on the test. I think this has more to do with bad exam writing than it does cheating, and to excuse cheating in one area simply because students succeed in other areas doesn't make sense to me.

    Exams aren't always the most important aspect of grading. Imagine if an engineering student cheated on all his exams but built a fantastic prototype for his semester design project! Should he be excused for cheating on the exam simply because he engineered something well? The only point of the course is to learn engineering, right?

    This is unfortunately possibly true, but still no excuse for inaction.

    I agree with this, but the majority of the students cheating also could have the side effect of convincing the professor he's doing a great job with the material, which sadly isn't always the case.

    See Dr. Courtney's answer. Arbitrarily declaring something "unenforceable" is no excuse for not trying to instill good academic practices in one's students.
  13. Jan 25, 2016 #12
    I personally give all the problems a good try. However, if I'm stuck, I'll look up the concept/what I'm supposed to do, whether it be in a solution manual or, god forbid, Yahoo Answers. There are some things I know I wouldn't have figured out otherwise. If I have a choice between getting stuck on a problem and not solving (and not learning how to solve) it, and learning how to solve those problems, well... I'd rather choose the learning. I actually learn it if I've gotten stuck on it and then use other resources to figure it out.

    What I'm against is if students' FIRST APPROACH to a problem is to pull up Google/Wolfram and type the problem in.
  14. Jan 25, 2016 #13


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    This thread has me revisiting my first year Physics experience, from many years ago. Our lecturer would set us a 30 min test every fortnight, and it was a full year subject. Half way through the year and just before one test, the lecturer fronted the class and said he'd had learned that some students were upset to have just discovered that others had known the test questions were the same as those from the previous year, and were available in the university library.

    He acknowledged the questions were the same as last year's, adding: "And what's more, they are the same as the year before that, and the year before that, AND THE YEAR BEFORE THAT! And I'll continue setting the same questions until everyone scores 100%!"

    I could see his point. I just wished I had have been in the group who knew of this!

    It is just one example of many why I say the key to succeeding at university is networking!

  15. Jan 25, 2016 #14
    There are only four people in the course, and we are all good friends. We know each other's grades, and our progress on the homework (since we are allowed to work together). The class is at 3PM, and they will come in at 1PM and proudly announce that they haven't stated it yet and say "fortunately the solutions are available!"

    And I can't help but feel like they are cheating me. The class is not formally curved but, for instance, if everyone misses a homework problem it may be thrown out.
  16. Jan 25, 2016 #15


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    Regarding ModestyKing's response, I think it's ok to use resources to check your work or point you in the right direction. However, my rule would be that you should never turn in a solution which you don't understand. You should not be copying anything, you should always do all the calculations by yourself.
  17. Jan 25, 2016 #16

    Andy Resnick

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    Ok, you answered my question (which was the same as Student100's)- let's assume you do know for a fact that they are violating classroom policy. Unfortunately, it's also true that 1) you are all 'good friends' and 2) the class size is miniscule.

    Regarding anonymous notes to the professor- bad idea. If you have a complaint and there is evidence to back up your claims, make the complaint in person. Most likely, the instructor already suspects the other students are engaging in disreputable behavior. A non-anonymous complaint will *always* be taken a lot more seriously than an anonymous complaint. Lastly, given the class size, it's not clear how truly anonymous you can be.

    I agree with Choppy that a frank discussion with the instructor is a good idea, if for no other reason than to ask for help (you mention spending 'hours upon hours on homework, and get a B').

    Here's a question- if your classmates' behavior is so bothersome, why do you consider them good friends?
  18. Jan 25, 2016 #17
    It is frustrating, but this is part of a more general moral decline and can't be addressed in isolation, I am afraid.

    When I was getting my M.S. in mechanical engineering, I was a TA for the senior lab. Students were to do the experiments, then turn in a group write-up in proper format each week. In my second semester as a TA, I noticed something very strange: an exact repeat of two typos in an identical sentence from one of the previous semester's reports:

    "Through your investigation we founded that the heat transfer coefficient for this system ..."

    It seemed to jumped off the page at me! I was sure I had seen that exact wording the semester before, so I confronted the group who turned it in. They admitted that what was going on was that students were using the personal computer storage space allotted by the university to amass a collection of high-scoring lab reports for all the labs performed in that class. Most all of the groups knew about it and had access to the old labs in pdf format. All they had to do was print a new cover sheet. Further investigations found there were caches of scanned tests from many classes in the M.E. curriculum. One professor had 3 different tests he would rotate each year for his class exams. They had all three, so to study for the exam students would simply memorize his 3 tests. He even remarked how it was amazing to him that he had so many 100% scores recently when he used to get an average of 70% from those same tests! o_O

    I took this stuff to both professors. The lab instructor brushed it off as something like, "Well, they are only hurting themselves. I can't stop them." The other guy's solution was to take questions from each of his standard tests and "mix them together to make a new test." Very frustrating. These are future engineers who are going to be responsible for designing and testing things that can hurt or kill people if not properly manufactured!

    My personal solution is that when I land a teaching job (after I finish my PhD), I will write my own tests and I will not re-use the old ones. As for homework, I will disguise the homework problems by hand-writing up a problem set instead of picking problems from the book. I will make just enough changes so that the students won't know they are actually problems from the book, and they won't be able to simply look at the solutions manual. That is my plan to start impacting this problem on a personal level.
  19. Jan 25, 2016 #18
    It is not so easy to be creative for exams, retakes, and re-retakes on a number of courses each year. And it is bad for throughput.

    I want to teach, give my students the opportunity to learn something. I do not want to be police. I have reported egregious cases of cheating to the board of discipline, but I really need to get exceptionally motivated to do this, as it is a lot of extra work. And no fun at all.

    I do not think grades should be important. I tell me daughter (she is still in school) not to worry about grades. But I do wish that she would be a bit more interested in her subjects.
  20. Jan 25, 2016 #19
    Grades aren't important for learning the material, but things like scholarships, admissions, and even jobs can hinge upon certain GPA cutoffs.
  21. Jan 25, 2016 #20
    I am not worried about those things. I have already applied to graduate school and gotten accepted to six schools. And getting a B in one course would not kill me!

    This is true; I regularly ask him for help. I would not be surprised if he knew that others were cheating (I mean, people who have never gotten above a C are suddenly getting A's without help, and the one with a 4.0 comes in three times a week with questions?). I think next time I pop in with a homework question, I will just tell him. He's very fair and reasonable (and not lazy); he used to be the chair of the department.

    Also... I think I was exaggerating with "good friends". It's just the group that is in every class with me, so we've always sort of been pals and done homework together. Now though, my grades are suffering not only because the professor is making the homeworks more difficult (after all, everyone except me is getting A's... clearly he should make them more difficult), but because I have no classmates with whom I can work on homework. If I ask them a homework question, they just shrug and say they copied the solutions manual.
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