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Once in a while, I will hear stories (usually of the "friend of a friend" type) about some bold instructor who took some specific action in order to entrap or trick their students into poor academic (not behavioral/conduct) performance. Typically, this involves the instructor breaking traditional implied rules of trust in the classroom (i.e. that the instructor will guide the students in good faith, rather than try to trick and "catch" them). This may be analogous to Sting Operations in law enforcement.

Examples may include:

  • Planting fake resources in the library as a critical thinking exercise. Students found to be citing said materials would receive a lowered grade for not inquiring into their provenance ("Ha! There is no Advanced Journal of Trans-Neptunian Objects! The measurements you cited were made up by my 5 year old. You lose 20 points for basing your paper on unreliable findings.").
  • Assigning material known to have flaws to students as course reading material. Students simply accepting the truth of the "knowledge" provided in these readings and regurgitating these on exams without confirming their correctness would be penalized (e.g. "Yes, the assigned textbook said that Woofer's Theorem proved that x < 5 when y > 3, but if you actually read a sampling of textbooks used by other instructors or had bothered to read Woofer's original paper, you would have known that it only proved that x < 5 when y is between 3 and 6. You lose 10 points for incorrect answers.").
  • Sabotaging laboratory chemicals or equipment (on the theory that the students should always test everything they get). Students using these materials "off-the-shelf" would receive lowered grades on the theory that in the real world, you can't just trust what you see printed on the label (e.g. "Yes, that bottle was labeled One Molar Hydrochloric Acid, but how could you just trust that that was true? You are a grad student! Do you believe everything you see posted on the Internet?").
  • Pretending that they have more authority than they have. For example, an instructor may falsely claim to a student that they can exempt them from or alter certain requirements that are actually set at the department level or higher ("Ha! Why did you trust me when I told you I was giving you permission to be late to the final exam? Chapter 4, Paragraph 6, Subparagraph R, Clause E of the Standardized Universal Academic Policies states clearly 'Students arriving late for a final exam will receive an automatic failing grade. Only the dean has authority to dispense a student from this regulation.'. I'm not the dean. Here's your failing grade, see you next semester. Try to wisen up! Ha ha ha!")

To what extent is this kind of underhanded behavior ethical? On the one hand, I can see the pedagogical wisdom behind some of these ideas - to make the university more like the "real world" and to instill some (healthy?) mistrust and skepticism of authority, but on the other hand, undergraduate and lower-level graduate courses have as one of their purposes to guide and educate someone who is still immature academically and not yet ready to do real academic research on their own.

closed as unclear what you're asking by Bryan Krause, scaaahu, user3209815, Wrzlprmft Jun 18 at 12:08

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    These example seem a bit far-fetched to be believable... I can't imagine anyone actually doing any of them except some version to catch cheating (something like leaving an incorrect document labeled "ANSWER KEY" someplace...). Your friends might need some more reliable friends. I don't think a question based on these sorts of hypothetical examples is all that great for Academia.SE answers. – Bryan Krause Jun 17 at 22:49
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    @BryanKrause I agree strongly and hope you (and others) will close this question. – StrongBad Jun 17 at 23:30
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    @StrongBad If you don't like the question you can use the downvote button. Please do not vote for "unclear what you are asking" when it's not unclear. – Anonymous Physicist Jun 18 at 2:22
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    " educate someone who is still immature" typically students, even undergraduates, are adults and should be treated as such. Treating them as if they are immature would be unethical. The examples you give would probably be unethical regardless of the level of maturity of the students, but I agree with Bryan: your friends need some more reliable friends. – Maarten Buis Jun 18 at 7:14
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    @AnonymousPhysicist I did down vote. As a mod, my close vote automatically closes questions. While I do not think this question is a good fit, I didn't want to unilaterally decide. – StrongBad Jun 18 at 11:54
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I can find no circumstance in which any of it is ethical. Not even putting out fake "answer keys". Your job is to teach. Those examples have nothing to do with teaching. Sadly, some "teachers" think their main task is to "sort" people into grade classes, rather than to actually educate them. This basically assumes the students don't need to be taught, just graded, and they will learn on their own or with minimal effort on the instructor's part. Such people worry more about catching "cheaters" than they do about actual education.

Imagine instead, that your job is to teach every student, even if you have to spend more effort with some students than with others.

If you tried to present any of those to an IRB as a part of research they would shame you out of the room. If a tenured professor tried some of them and a student brought it to the attention of the university authorities, the prof might be in danger of losing tenure for moral transgression. Some faculty would certainly vote that way. The chemical case in particular.

There are ethical ways to teach critical thinking and resource evaluation. Use those.

The only variation I can envision in which any of it is valid is if the professor specifically points to a set of resources and advertises that some of them are "broken" and the task is to sort them into the ones with value and those without. But here there is no deception at all. Another variation is a "find the error here" sort of exercise. Again, no deception.

Note that there is a vaguely related question at CSEducators for which I also provide an answer. It is about lying to novices as part of teaching.

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The "sabotaging" and "false authority" examples you have given are highly questionable and probably unethical from the viewpoints of most academics (to the extent I can guess their opinion). They certainly are from mine. Ultimately, they boil down to lying. The justification you provide:

to make the university more like the "real world" and to instill some (healthy?) mistrust and skepticism of authority

(arguably not your opinion but a best guess of how these behaviors would be justified) is too weak: There are less damaging ways to get the same results. Skepticism of authority can be taught by confronting students with existing failures and misbehaviors, which are so easily found if one knows where to look that it is almost ridiculous to create one's own lab-grown ones. Finding fatal statistical errors in published medicine papers, for example, has become so commonplace it could be assigned to students as homework. There is your skepticism and mistrust! After all, you don't randomly kill people just so that medicine students have fresh bones to dissect.

The "fake resources in the library" example is more in the grey zone: Here, at least, no "implicit rules of trust in the classroom" are being broken, since the library is not the classroom and any graphomaniac can leave whatever stuff they want there (that is, until some librarian finds it). You are no longer claiming something in your name, but merely claiming that someone else claimed something. To me, the freedom to do such hoaxes is part of academic freedom. Still, from a teaching perspective, the damage probably outweighs the use -- what exactly are you achieving? Fake journals aren't exactly rare; why concoct an artificial one when there are real ones all over the internet? (That said, the idea of leaving easter eggs for your students to find in the library is seriously worth it. Just don't make them so subtle that they will be taken at face value.)

  • For the library one, I do recognize there are limited opportunities to do this. My thoughts were in cases where students have been assigned to write on a topic that is very new or that has very little written on it, or where a classroom or department sponsors its own library. – Robert Columbia Jun 17 at 23:15
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In my view, the ethical line is crossed when you impose irreversible grade penalties on students who fall for these tricks.

I think you could ethically use most of these tricks if when a student falls for one, you explain the issue and allow them to correct their work without penalty or excessive additional labor. I also think it will be more effective at helping students actually learn about the issue - their takeaway message will be more along the lines of "this is an important issue to watch for" instead of "the instructor is a jerk".

Even with such a modification, I'm still not sure it's actually a good idea - it may very well tend to annoy students more than to teach them.

These tricks might also be nearly as effective in a "full disclosure" version. "Your assignment is to synthesize this compound. However, some of the reagents have been replaced with inert substances, to simulate the possibility of mislabeling."

Obviously, the laboratory chemical version should certainly not be done if there is any possibility of a risk to health or safety from using the wrong substance.

And your #4 (pretend to have more authority) is completely unacceptable. Temporarily misleading someone regarding academic content, as a way to help them learn it, is one thing; misleading them as to the administrative regulations of the university is entirely different, and is educationally unjustifiable.

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To consider any of these would be a waste of time. They seem closer to the urban myth category and rarely have a basis in fact. They are all unethical if they did indeed occur at all.

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If one is teaching undercover scientific misconduct investigation, this may be the right strategy.

Generally, however, research is a cooperative endeavour, and one assumes a priori that there is no intention to mislead, misdirect, confuse or fool fellow scientists.

As an occasional exercise, with some advance hints, such entrapment may be a useful addition to the standard educational repertoire - however as a standard strategy of education, all one will get will be students that will be paranoid, suspicious, prone to conspiracy theories and, at best, will have acquired skills in hunting down academic offenders; effective scientists, however, they are not likely to become.

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