Is this cheating or is it networking?

Mar 19 2018 Published by under academia, cheating, conflict, education

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.

4 responses so far

  • DrugMonkey says:

    And of course “networking” can align with many aspects of societal privilege. Further distorting impressions of who does and does not succeed in higher education.

  • becca says:

    It's definitely not cheating if the students aren't told it's out of bounds.
    It is definitely negligent pedagogy. At the same time, it is par for the course as far as professorial sins go- there are about 1000 reasons why grades are inaccurate for reporting learning, and systemically unfair testing is common.

    At this point, the best case scenario for fairness is probably to offer extra credit to those who probably did not have access to the old tests. If that's a non-starter with the prof, then at least let people know how the system worked. In grad school, it was very much *expected* students would use old exams (there was a bank of them in the library for that exact purpose) and *relearning* how to study to use that advantage took me some time. Better to let the students all know what happened (without judgement of the advantaged students as "cheater"- which really won't help anything at this point).

    • Megan says:

      Thanks for your response. Yes, 'systemically unfair testing is common'!!!!

      And it was also my inclination to let the students know what happened, but the professor asked/ordered us not to do so, because she feared it would undermine her credibility going forward in the course.

      I also agree with you about not labeling the students in this case 'cheaters'. My gut says that many of them were just being very diligent and studying everything they could find. Some who only studied from the past exam unfortunately had an outsize advantage. Thankfully the course/exam isn't curved-- if it were, I think I'd be obliged to speak up even if the professor objected.

      But it really does become such a slippery slope between cheating and networking, and I think it's something we need to address with both faculty and students. Just because systemically unfair testing is common doesn't mean it's OK.

  • elsie says:

    We've responded to situations like this by creating (as a faculty) a document of "Best Practices to Prevent Academic Dishonesty". It's simple and includes seemingly obvious points like: Create new exam questions each year! It isn't enforced but at least it has been discussed and there's some peer pressure to follow it.

    In our department, the undergraduate program coordinator (staff-person) initiated the discussion in a faculty meeting, in response to student concerns. Depending on how your department is structured, you might find that someone in that role could push for change in the future.

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