College Cheating Viral Video -The “Deal” I Would Have Offered

by Darwin on November 21, 2010

Last week there was a popular video circulating where a college professor confronts his class after learning that somehow, students obtained access to the test key used for an exam and statistically, it appeared as though about 1/3 of the class cheated.  The video is somewhat lengthy, so I’ll break down the high points for you.  In the end, the professor offers a “deal” for those willing to admit to what they did – a sweetheart deal if you ask me.

  • Professor analyzes test results and it’s immediately apparent that something is amiss.
  • Average grade is much higher than normal after years of teaching the class.
  • Grades were bi-modal (unexpected) as opposed to a typical (expected) Gaussian distribution (the Bell curve). Bi-model distribution is indicative of two distinct data sets – cheaters and non-cheaters.
  • Anonymous student drops a note saying test bank results were available to students before the exam.
  • He cites a bunch of scary discussions he’s been having with the Dean, Academic Affairs, the Publisher, etc.
  • He offers them a deal.  For kids that fess up, they will be able to re-take the exam and the prior exam score will be removed.  So, their old good grade goes away, but they’re still able to get a normal grade with no record of this event on their record.
  • Admissions are allowed to be made anonymously, just to the professor, so others wouldn’t know they admitted to cheating.
  • For those that don’t fess up, they’ll be pursued aggressively.

Sweetheart Deal

The professor is clearly playing a game of good-cop/bad-cop with students.  While he expresses disappoint and disgust with their behavior, he’s acting as the good guy by proposing a deal with the Dean, Academic Affairs, etc.  to give these kids a chance at redemption.

This case is as much a study in ethics and cheating as it is in game theory.

See, the professor and the dean must surely be aware that it may be difficult to prove definitively that cheating occurred – even in cases where it did.  There might be some campus email evidence, but how does one prove that just because a student received an email that they opened it, acted on it, etc?  What about students that received the email, and didn’t want anything to do with it?  Should they automatically be expelled for cheating?  What about a student who didn’t get a perfect score?  They may have just had a good test, but wouldn’t they have aced it if they cheated?  I’m not defending these students, but rather, pointing out how difficult it would be to prove definitively that cheating occurred – especially with this much at stake.  You don’t think these kids’ parents have a team of lawyers getting geared up for a fight?  I’ve known parents to defend their children relentlessly and shamelessly, even in the face of obvious guilt – and most of these kids that did cheat probably wouldn’t admit doing so to their parents anyway.  So, there will probably be some kids that did cheat, but think it can’t be proven, that wouldn’t fess up if the punishment were severe.  So, in some way, the professor was kind of forced into offering a bit of a light sentence here.  In making it rather painless to fess up, he’d get a higher portion of cheaters to fess up and would have fewer to try to pursue through an ugly, prolonged process and possibly very costly legal battle.

Here’s the Deal I Would Offer

  • I would give them less time.  Perhaps 24 hours.  This is less time for little Johnny to call Dad to consult the attorney.  Less time to conspire with buddies on how to beat the system and scam their way out of it with a great story.  Less time to think about it.
  • There is NO WAY any student that fessed up (or didn’t, but got caught) should be able to get a full A in the class.  While I would allow the leniency of not failing or being expelled once they fessed up, they shouldn’t be able to proceed as if it never happened.  So what if it blows their perfect 4.0?  Should the valedictorian be a cheater?  This would be an outrage.  By ensuring no cheater can get an A in the class, that would ensure that the valedictorian was NOT a cheater (or at least unable to be proven).
  • My deal would be more like – fess up now and I will allow you to get up to a C+ in the class.  If you ace everything else, you may get a B here.  But no A.  The only people that will get an A will be the ones who clearly were not involved in this.
  • If you are proven to have been involved in this, not only will you fail, but you will be expelled.  You will be pursued legally to the fullest extent of the law (since this information was stolen data from the scholastic company), your name will be published as part of this incident (if that were legally allowed upon consulting with school attorneys) and a few other harsh deterrents.

I believe my deal would offer roughly the same rate of admission as the professor’s, yet have more bite to it.  I get that kids make mistakes.  But this was a big one.  And in being given a sweetheart deal, I’d feel no remorse whatsoever about these kids “just getting Bs”.  And the ones that wouldn’t fess up?  To hell with them, throw the book at them (if you could actually prove it and the university lawyers would let you…).

A Few Minor Details

In reading the comments on the YouTube video, there seems to be some debate as to whether the “test bank” was actually a study guide or in fact, proprietary information that no student should have been able to get their hands on.  I can only presume the professor wouldn’t have handled it this way if this was a simple misunderstanding by kids accessing something readily available to students from the publisher.  I assume this is something that had to be purchased by an administrator only and somehow a student got their hands on it.  Next though, I don’t understand why an exam is being issued a generic test bank provided instead of him making up the questions himself.  That does seem like laziness to me.  I used to be annoyed in college when I heard of other kids with prior year exams cheating – I’d question how lazy the professors were for not making up new test questions each year and also, how unfair it was to people like me who actually had to learn the material and study.  Without being intimately familiar with the exam, the professor, the class and the details, we’re all armchair quarterbacks to some degree, but on the face of it, I think I would have sought to punish these kids a bit more – just to make sure they know that if they breach an ethical boundary this significant, perhaps they’ll find redemption, but they can’t get off scot free.

What Deal Would You Offer?

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

ParatrooperJJ November 22, 2010 at 11:44 am

This case doesn’t sound like cheating to me. It sounds more like and issue between the school and their textbook publisher. It also shows that the professor is lazy. I don’t know of any good professors who use test bank questions.


Darwin November 22, 2010 at 11:20 pm

I’m not sure which comments to believe out there on the web. Some (likely students) are posting stuff saying the key was readily available as a study aid. Others are saying this is proprietary info only for administrators that had to be obtained on a restricted basis from the company. The truth may be somewhere in between.


retirebyforty November 22, 2010 at 4:56 pm

Just give them the new test right away and compare the difference. The cheaters should be pretty obvious.


Darwin November 22, 2010 at 11:18 pm

It’s tough though, if you’re going to accuse them and subject the university to legal action, you’ve gotta be sure. And you can’t be. What if a legit kid had a bad test? The tests were different after all. How much of a spread constitutes a cheater? What if the cheaters just studied in between exams. It’s quite complex. And everyone’s afraid of a lawsuit.


Everyday Tips November 28, 2010 at 3:38 pm

Something like this happened in a college computer programming class I had, but it was a program and not a test. Apparently someone got a hold of the solution and distributed it. Some people must have not changed the variable names or something because a whole group of kids got in huge trouble. They weren’t expelled or anything, but I think they had to go with no credit in the class or something like that. I was in the class, but I was not one of the cheaters.

It is hard to say if the punishment fits the crime when all the details are not known. If someone stole an answer key from the professor and everyone used it, then that is way worse than using some publicly available information.

I had a finance class in college where the professor never changed his tests semester-over-semester. Therefore, it was well known that all you had to do is get some notes from someone who had the class before and you were all set. Cheating? I don’t know. The kids were just using info that was available and it was not illegally received. Unethical? Possibly. I don’t know.


milton December 30, 2010 at 6:09 pm

If you had done poorly on the test could you admit to cheating to get another shot at a better score, or was that not allowed? Only caught .the article did not see the video. A intresting opportunity for the rest of the class, confess to neing acheater but have another run at it.


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