31

One of my classes had a midterm scheduled right after we were all sent home due to Covid-19. The professor said that for this midterm, we were allowed to use notes, both his and our own, browse the internet, and talk with peers during the exam. While this seems abnormal, we, as a class, checked multiple times and he confirmed this policy every time. Thus, during the exam, about 2/3 of the class (~10 people) got in one video call and were talking during the exam.

For the final, the professor simply said that the rules would be the same as the midterm listed above. To our discredit, no one double checked what the professor meant and simply went with it. Of course, the same ~10 people got on the video call again and did the final. It was not an easy final, despite us collaborating and looking at notes, leading me to suspect nothing wrong. The professor also had not posted a note saying collaboration was allowed on the exam, although this was the same as the previous midterm, so I thought he had just overlooked this. Looking back, I see the fallacy in this, but it did not seem important at the time.

However, recently I was talking to an acquaintance from the class, one of the 10 in the video call, and I found out that he had indeed checked with the professor about peer collaboration on the final, which the professor explicitly disallowed (this was during office hours). This acquaintance said he did not tell this to us as he needed us helping him on the final to pass the class.

I'm conflicted on what to do now, as it has been over 3 weeks since the end of semester (4 weeks since the final in question) and most of the class was in on the video call. If anything, all our answers were EXTREMELY similar (most were exact copies) to the point that it would be obvious we were collaborating. On one hand given the above, it seems unnecessary to dig this up. On the other hand, I'm not sure that I'm not reasoning my way through having cheated. Please advise.

  • 13
    What exactly is your goal? – user111388 May 26 '20 at 16:04
  • 51
    Was the no-collaboration rule communicated to you in any way (e.g. on written exam rules that you didn't read), or did the professor really only inform those students who attended the office hours? If you hadn't been informed of the rule, you didn't cheat - but there is still the risk that the professor might mistakenly think he did inform you. – Nate Eldredge May 26 '20 at 16:10
  • 2
    @NateEldredge Nope, I checked with a bunch of other students and no one knew of this. Office hours, given Covid-19, were appointment based; it was a one-on-one and the student in question decided not to inform the rest of us. It was not listed either way on exam rules on either exam, although I did check with the professor during the midterm and he did reconfirm collaboration on the midterm is allowed. – user760900 May 26 '20 at 16:16
  • 3
    The fact that the majority of students believed this to be acceptable would lead most reasonable people to assume that there was an error in communication. I would expect that failing/imposing academic sanctions an entire class is not a thing most institutions would take lightly under those circumstances. The most likely outcome would be asking the class re-take the exam under proper conditions (with different questions). You're next actions (raising/ignoring) will probably have little bearing on what will happen. – David258 May 27 '20 at 16:31
  • 6
    @FedericoPoloni: Of course, "no collaboration" is the default. In this case, the professor implicitly told the students "collaboration OK" (by announcing the rules for the final were the same as the midterm), but this may not have been his intention, given that he told OP's acquaintance "no collaboration" during office hours. So if he really did intend for the rule to be "no collaboration", I was wondering if he might have communicated that in some way that would clearly supersede his announcement, e.g. in written rules issued later. But it appears he did not. – Nate Eldredge May 27 '20 at 18:35
40

This is an uncomfortable situation.

Document your knowledge of the rules as you understood at the time of the final, and also the midterm (the rules to which were included by reference on the final). Save any emails or written explanations you received about the rules.

I would (somewhat painfully) recommend that you not bring this up with your instructor at this time. If they are as disorganized and reckless as this situation suggests, then I would not trust their capacity to process or deal with the mess in a reasonable way. By analogy: There are cases of people reporting software/system bugs in good faith who are then brought up on charges by confused authority figures looking for someone to punish.

Note also that you only have a report of this issue second-hand from a single student who is self-admittedly an unreliable source. There have been many times in my experience when a student says,"Professor X said [crazy thing]", and on tracking it down, turns out to be a misunderstanding or misrecollection on the student's part. Alternatively, people who tend to be fraudsters also tend to lie and cause anxiety for personal amusement. So you may be liable to bother or confuse your professor about nothing, and be embarrassed by that.

If the issue does come up in the future, then present your documented evidence honestly.

Don't poke the bear.

  • 14
    You make the good point that the only evidence that a no-collaboration rule actually was in place for the final is the report of a single student. – Greg Martin May 27 '20 at 1:00
  • 4
    You make a very good point which is rarely seen on this site, so +1: Not all profs are capable to deal with things in reasonable ways. What I don't agree with is the statement about the cheating student: I don't think they would "almost surely" do this for personal amusement. It is more likely that they just wanted/needed to cheat to get a passing/good grade (which is of course bad) and viewed themselves more important than their collegues' safety. This does not mean, however, that they are a bad person in all respects and lie for personal amusement. – user111388 May 27 '20 at 6:31
  • 2
    I didn't consider that the other student may be lying. While that somewhat relieves the pressure of the situation, I'm confused, looking back, as to why the professor did not write this policy directly onto either test, given that he wrote that the test was open note at the top. – user760900 May 27 '20 at 19:20
53

Assuming that the no-collaboration rule was really not communicated to you, then you didn't cheat. You followed the rules as you reasonably understood them based on the information you were given. There's no such thing as "unknowingly cheating"; it requires intent.

However, there is a substantial risk that the professor may think you have cheated, if he mistakenly thinks he made it clear to the entire class that collaboration was not allowed. So it is in your best interest to clear it up before any formal charges are considered. Just explain what you've said here: you were told that the rules would be "the same" as the midterm (if you have this in writing, better yet), and you later found out that other students were told something different.

The fact that the term has ended means nothing. It is entirely possible, in all academic systems I know of, to impose a punishment for cheating even after the term is over, perhaps months or years later. And it is not too unusual that investigations can't be completed before grades are due, in which case the professor may assign the grade based on an assumption of no cheating, but it can be changed retroactively if his investigation confirms wrongdoing.

So even if you don't want to "dig it up", the professor still can, and you will convey more honesty if you get out ahead of it. You have a good defense, but it won't look as good if you have to say "well, I found out afterwards there might be a problem, but I didn't say anything because I hoped you wouldn't notice".

Note that your acquaintance definitely did cheat, if he's telling the truth about what the professor told him: he'd been clearly informed that collaboration was not allowed and he did it anyway. Moreover, he did it in a way that placed innocent students at risk of being suspected and prosecuted for cheating. Many people would feel that you also have an obligation to report this to the professor.

  • 11
    What would I say? "I was just informed that you did not intend for us to collaborate on the final. I, along with may of my peers, thought you intended for this given that you said the rules would be the same as the midterm, on which you had allowed collaboration" The problem with this is he never wrote down that collaboration was allowed. Looking back, I see why this may be a problem, but I had no reason to be suspicious at the time; I just thought he forgot to write it on the midterm. – user760900 May 26 '20 at 16:24
  • 10
    @user760900: Yes, that wording sounds good to me. If you like you can include more specifics: "...on which you had allowed collaboration, as you informed us during class on date XXX and confirmed to me directly when we spoke during the exam". – Nate Eldredge May 26 '20 at 16:28
  • 15
    While there might be no cheating in this case, I'd argue cheating can happen without intent. I encountered a sad case of this years ago, when a student honestly confused the rules for different exams and had a sheet of notes in an exam where none were allowed. The student wasn't hiding those, so there was no deception, but there was no way of letting them pass after having had this advantage for about 30 minutes until we noticed. But in that case the rules were communicated properly, they were even read out loudly before the start, the student just somehow failed to listen properly. – mlk May 27 '20 at 9:44
  • 7
    I can't help but thinking if you do decide to bring this up proactively, that you first consult with someone who can represent you if you are subsequently accused of cheating. Not sure who that might be, but it sounds like you have very little leverage in this situation or protection from the professor's whims. – bob May 27 '20 at 14:32
  • 8
    @user760900 I would avoid phrases like, "I thought" which imply that you know understand that you were in the wrong. I would go with something like, "I was acting on the directions posted on . . . that said . . ." and I would also do everything I could do document those directions, e.g. taking screen shots of the relevant online pages, saving copies of emails, etc. Document everything is a good habit for the student to get into going into their professional career. – G. Allen May 28 '20 at 0:45
13

I agree with the answer by Daniel Collins, which quotes the famous saying "Don't poke the bear". Your description of the situation makes it very clear that you did not intend to cheat, and that you are proactively coming here to ask advice on how to handle the situation, which many would say is quite responsible of you to do, so there is only two reasons why you would want to poke the bear:

  • If you want to experience what it is like to be involved in a university-level academic integrity investigation (trust me, you do not).
  • The bear is more likely than not, to come after you anyway, so you wish to proactively "turn yourself in", which would improve your chances of having a happy ending to the situation.

Let's asses the second point in more detail:

For the final, the professor simply said that the rules would be the same as the midterm listed above. To our discredit, no one double checked what the professor meant and simply went with it.

In my opinion, with only the information you have provided here, you were under no obligation to "double check". If the professor said the rules would be the same as for the midterm, leave it at that.

If anything, all our answers were extremely similar (most were exact copies) to the point that it would be obvious we were collaborating.

This part would be seen as cheating in my opinion. Even if the professor said that "you can collaborate", it is common sense that, on a take-home exam, "being allowed to collaborate" still means you have to write your own separate answers.

If you did submit extremely similar answers to anyone else, then I personally would call it cheating, and you might consider telling your professor in advance, to mitigate any consequences you might have coming at you for it, except:

  • You said it has been 4 weeks since it happened and nothing has been said of the situation, so I would guess that nothing will happen.
  • You said that the class thought the rules were the same as the midterm: Do you know if your group submitted almost identical answers during the midterm too? If you did and there was no consequences, it's unlikely (though not impossible) to be brought up now.

If you did not submit extremely similar answers to anyone else, then my personal advice to you is to relax and start to focus on more important things, such as your career goals or next set of academic courses.

In the future: please do not submit what you described as "extremely similar answers" for anything, even if it is a take-home exam. There is no excuse not to spend a bit of extra energy to make each answer your own, and if you cannot do this then you do not understand your answer, and should not be trying to give the examiner the false impression that you do. This will keep you from having to deal with the stress of your current dilemma, ever again.

  • 6
    "Extremely similar answers" is pretty vague, personally. It depends on the field, which the question author didn't supply. If it's an area of math, it can be difficult to answer differently. There's only so many ways to describe an answer to a combinatorics questions or maybe only three ways to solve a linear systems equation. – reeeky2001 May 27 '20 at 15:12
  • 3
    @reeeky2001 It's a math class, although there are multiple ways to reach the same conclusion. What I meant by similar answers is that the method used was the exact same by everyone in the group. Some of the methods were a little more complex but we collectively decided that method would be better. I don't see how I would rewrite it beyond putting my own explanation, which I did. We did the same for the midterm, to no penalty. – user760900 May 27 '20 at 18:54
  • 3
    @user760900 Okay, I think you have nothing to worry about. If you get in trouble, tell me and I'll help you sort it out. I encourage you to move on to working on your career goals and planning for your next set of courses. Having a nice life involves a lot of work, and while this question was a good one, thinking too much more about it is just an un-necessary distraction. – user1271772 May 27 '20 at 18:57
  • 1
    @user760900 I figured this could be the case. There isn't always a "best" method, like using a Taylor series, Newton's method, or Adomian decomposition method, but there are preferred methods WRT accuracy or speed. I wouldn't worry about it currently, especially if you can do the work yourself. I also wouldn't worry about an inquiry or poking the bear. If everyone heard the prof say "same terms as the mids" and everyone heard that collaboration on the mids was permissible, then it should be good. Only the one student should have anything to worry about. Depends on which school though. – reeeky2001 May 27 '20 at 19:08
  • 2
    -1 from me because of the implication that in future OP should try to hide this. Either collaboration is ok or it isn't, making effort to change your answers to hide similarities between answers moves from lack of clarity about rules to intentional deception. – David258 May 28 '20 at 15:55
9

Focusing solely on the practicality rather than the morality; the die has already been cast and it will almost certainly make no difference to the outcome whether you speak up or not.

  • The marker of the test knows that you have collaborated
  • They will decide whether or not to accept this or report it
  • If it is reported any sanctions will apply to the whole group

The marker knows - even if you're answers are not exact copies, but somewhat similar then it will be pretty obvious to whoever marks the papers that you collaborated, especially given none of you were trying to hide it. This person may or may not be your professor; depending on the exam/institution it may also be cross-checked by someone else potentially even from a different institution. You 'flagging-up' the collaboration won't make it any more obvious.

They will choose to flag it or not. This will depend on who has marked the paper, their integrity, and whether they accept that collaboration was allowed. If it is raised as an issue then this process could take several weeks and already be underway. Once again your involvement will not alter any ongoing process (although you may be given more information about the current status), but there is a very slim chance you could cause further investigation to be made.

Consequences. Any action taken by your university will almost certainly be applied to all students involved. It's hard to envisage an outcome where 9/15 students resit/retake/are expelled but one is given a pass because they spoke up several weeks after the incident happened.

In summary, you have nothing practically to gain by speaking up, but if you choose to you probably run a slim-risk of creating a worse situation.

  • 2
    They know it, you know it, they probably don't know what to do about it nor want you to do anything about it, nor do I think anything should be done about it, by either of you. – Mazura May 28 '20 at 2:36

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.