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My AP Computer Science teacher has somewhat of a creative way to deal with students submitting apparently identical code. Instead of handing out lots of zeros, he divides the points by the number of cheaters, phrasing his system as "if you have the same answer, you deserve to split the credit." For example, a 5-person cheating ring on a 10-point project would yield 2 points per person (it rounds down to the best precision on odd splits).

Do you think this is ethical? Is this a wise way to deal with cheating?

On one hand, it is a lot softer than most policies. On the other, it is somewhat logical, and seems maybe fairer than the standard penalty system.

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It's a creative idea, but if you know you can't do the homework and you also know that there are no disciplinary consequences for cheating, this actually encourages cheating, as you end up with a better mark than if you didn't cheat. –  starsplusplus May 18 '14 at 13:49
However, it may discourage original authors from sharing their code! Because with traditional methods, they might assume (rightly or wrongly) that if discovered they could say they were the original author - but with this method they know that their grade will be divided regardless of who copied whom. –  starsplusplus May 18 '14 at 13:52
@starsplusplus: if you know you can't do the homework and you also know that there are no disciplinary consequences for cheating, this actually encourages cheating, as you end up with a better mark than if you didn't cheat. Yes. For this reason it makes more sense to give 0 in this situation. That's what I do with lab reports that contain identical work. –  Ben Crowell May 18 '14 at 15:46
The funny part about this system is that there could actually be a positive gain. Two very smart students can work on a paper together, divvy up the points, and still coming ahead. –  Penguin_Knight May 19 '14 at 12:37

6 Answers 6

To add to the existing arguments:

The punishment for cheating should always be higher than the direct advantage gained from it. For example, if somebody cheats at one task in an exam, the penalty should not only be failing that task but at least the whole exam, if not much higher. The reason for this is simply that you cannot possibly detect all attempts at cheating and thus the punishment should aim at being sufficciently high to make the average outcome of cheating negative if the detection rate is taken into account.

Of course, it is quite difficult to even estimate the detection rates for cheating and thus to adjust the punishment accordingly, but the punishment you are describing is certainly too low.

This aspect is not only important for discouraging cheating, but also from an ethical point of view, as cheating should not yield an advantage over the honest student.

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Not all universities impose such heavy penalties on academic misconduct when looked at from a single item. In a lot of academic settings there is only a single piece of course work and a zero in a class can essentially prevent you from graduating. Even a poor attempt at an assignment will often generate a substantial mark. –  StrongBad May 18 '14 at 13:02
@StrongBad may, could... are not enough, IMHO. Cheating is an act of will, it is not just that someone didn't study enough. –  Davidmh May 18 '14 at 21:26
Unum castigabis, centum emendabis –  lesto May 19 '14 at 9:52
-1 for "the punishment should aim at being sufficciently high to make the average outcome of cheating negative if the detection rate is taken into account." It does not seem very fair to me. A punishment should be adapted only to the crime and not to the fact that you are a bad cop. One should never pay for the others. If you cannot caught a student cheated, it is like it never happened. –  Taladris Jul 31 '14 at 1:02
The difficulty is what counts as "cheating". People working together on homework, by itself, isn't cheating unless strictly disallowed for some reason beforehand, otherwise it's just called collaborating. Tests, I'd argue, are what should be graded on an individual basis. –  Mark J Jul 31 '14 at 1:03

I'll only give a legal point of view on this issue for French higher education.

In French universities, even if the kind of rule you describe is enforced by some teachers, it is in theory forbidden to alter notation for cheating: one should only grade according to content, without any penalty. If cheating is suspected by the teacher, she should fill a procès-verbal form describing what she suspects happened, and giving all relevant info. This is then passed to a commission that will interview her and the suspected students, and will decide what happens next. This commission has a scale of possible action, going from nothing to five years' suspension from all French higher education institutions.

This process is seldom used for projects and evaluations among small groups (contrôle continu). However it should be strictly enforced for terminal exams, as otherwise student can easily go to court.

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Just out of curiosity: What process is then used for dealing with cheating in, say, weekly worksheet questions? –  O. R. Mapper May 18 '14 at 13:19
Making weekly worksheets part of the final grade of course has a huge effect on cheating. I went to Oxford. There was absolutely no point cheating on weekly worksheets since they didn't count for anything. This also meant there was no problem with students helping each other out with questions: if someone says to you "use integration by parts for question 3" then they've made it easier for you but nobody has to worry whether or not it's ethical. As a consequence I see loads of questions on this site about cheating that could not have arisen in my own studies. The same may apply in France... –  Steve Jessop May 18 '14 at 18:49

I don't think it is fair. Say you work very hard on your program, to get a 9. While you go to the toilet, I steal your code and submit it. I get a 4 for doing nothing, you get a 4 after a lot of successful work. If this happens the day before the deadline and I had nothing, I would have handed in nothing, and thus get a 0. So there is a clear benefit in cheating: I get more marks than even if I pull an all nighter and put together a crappy code that barely holds together.

I guess the reason to punish everybody equally is multiple:

  • Discourage from people lending code to classmates.
  • It is much easier than to try to figure out what happened and who is the original author.

But, the way I see it, there are a few objections

  • There are still situations where a cheater may benefit from this scheme (half good is better than nothing); a cheater is being awarded points for doing exactly nothing.
  • The original author may be innocent. The code could have been stolen. It is unfair to blindly punish without, at least, inquiring in the matter.
  • Serial cheaters may get away with it and still get enough points to pass.


What if the homework is given voluntarely? Consider the case where there are weekly assignments, with a high work load. Part of the point is for students to work and get efficient in problem solving. But, if instead of solving all of them, we share the work, change it here and there, perhaps they will not notice, I still work half of it, and maybe I get full recognition; maybe only half.

Now, say a given week you only had time to do half of them. Gambling is beneficial: if you go the ethical way, you get half the marks. If you cheat, you can either get half the marks, or get away with it if you are skilled or the grader is low on coffee.

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A lot of discussion seems to focus on the case when student A steals an assignment from student B without B's knowledge. I have in the past handled dozens of cases of identical assignments, and I would wager that in every single case B gave A the solution to copy voluntarily. Not sure if that is just a specific of the sample I see. –  xLeitix May 18 '14 at 17:10
@xLeitix true, and stealing is probably a small percentage of the total, but still it is wrong to not look into what happened. But even if the assignment is given voluntarely, I don't think both cheaters deserve the same punishment. –  Davidmh May 18 '14 at 18:50
@xLeitix I have added a paragraph on a case where the homework is given. –  Davidmh May 18 '14 at 18:57
@xLeitix And frankly, if you changed something as simple as loop order, you would not lose the credit. We're talking about equivalence in all but whitespace (which is generally extremely rare). –  Simon Kuang May 18 '14 at 21:00
in every single case B gave A the solution to copy voluntarily — I have handled cases where one student copied another's homework solutions without their knowledge/consent. It's rare, but it does happen. –  JeffE May 18 '14 at 22:05

It's actually a fairly nice solution to a more relevant problem: the right pedagogy for different kinds of students.

The formula is a good, but should be stated thusly: "Students are allowed to collaborate on homework, but your scores will be divided by the number of collaborators, so pick your team well." This is in tune with the environment that students will likely encounter after their degree, but neither enforces any policy nor penalizes any others.

Then the teacher should grade on the bell curve. This gives a passing score to those who worked together, and a great score for those who were truly above average. In some way this is superior to students who try to get an A by a hyper-competitive attitude towards the rest of the class.

During the test, they will still have to show that their personal level of mastery, without the help of their peers.

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This seems like a bad policy. With this type of policy it leaves the teacher having to figure out who copied from whom and how many people were in each "group". Usually if Alice's work is copied by Bob, and Bob's "work" is copied by Carol, then Bob and Carol are penalised the same. In your policy, you would have to figure out how much to penalise Bob and Carol. It seems like it would be better to allow group work with the stipulation that the points get divided in a manner either specified by the students or the teacher.

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The way I understood the OP, the system they describe is exactly what you seem to be suggesting as an alternative: if Alice, Bob and Carol all turn in the same work, they'll all receive 1/3 of the points that work would've normally earned. –  Ilmari Karonen May 18 '14 at 17:55
@IlmariKaronen which tacitly suggests that group work is allowed, albeit at a fixed penalty and with a lot of extra work on the assessor. –  StrongBad May 18 '14 at 18:14

The goal of a policy on cheating isn't being "fair", it's to discourage cheating.

In academia we don't want to have academic papers who bend the truth a little bit, but we want to have academics who tell the whole truth and for whom cheating is not an option. As a result you don't want to do anything that encourages cheating.

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