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In online classes, I've seen academic integrity cases skyrocket, and I'm sure I'm not the only one. It got me wondering if it is possible to create a grading scheme based around reward instead of punishment.

I acknowledge that ending cheating is probably unlikely, but I am not interested in that. I'm interested in reducing the temptation to cheat, or at least providing an incentive to not cheat. My idea is:

If I fail to detect cheating on tests and assignments, then the assessment's denominator is reduced by 5% or so. For instance, if my exam is worth 50 marks, and no cheating is detected, then the exam is marked out of 47 or something but still has 50 marks possible. This would apply to the whole class, and one detection of cheating would nullify it.

I have one major question: Is it ethical to peg the entire class's bonus on the potential bad actions of one person? (a sub question might be: do you imagine this would work?)

Note, I am obligated by department policy to hold a midterm and a final.

Update: I think "back to the drawing board" is appropriate here :p Thanks everyone!

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion. Clarifications have been edited into the post, the rest of this conversation has been moved to chat. Please see this FAQ before posting another comment. – cag51 May 3 at 16:58

14 Answers 14

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The problem with your proposal is that, despite you framing it as a reward rather than a punishment, it is trivially easy to reframe it as a punishment instead of a reward:

"The exam is graded out of 47 points with three bonus points, unless someone tries to cheat."

is just as valid as:

"The exam is graded out of 50 points but will only be graded out of 47 with three bonus points if no one cheats."

And I am entirely certain that many disappointed students who aren't the ones involved in cheating will reframe it as negatively as possible. And no one likes collective punishment, because it isn't fair.

I've certainly noticed an uptick in cheating, as has my department. I've tried to be proactive, and it seems to have helped. Rather than just putting my academic integrity policy in the syllabus and talking about it on day 1, I involve it more directly. For example, my first homework always comes with a quiz on my classroom management portal, that they get full credit for just for completing. It asks questions in a way that I designed to make it more personal. Things like:

"One of my friends is struggling due to real-life reasons, and can't keep up with their work. Out of a desire to help, I share my work with them, and they copy it. What will happen?"

I've only completed one class with these sorts of warnings, and my sample size was small, but that class did better than my previous class.

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    They did better at the material, or cheated less? – Azor Ahai -him- Apr 30 at 15:12
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    One could count "direct control over evaluated actions" into the fairness definition, then it is also "unfair" from that perspective. – Frank Hopkins Apr 30 at 22:14
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    @FrankHopkins Except they're not a team. Everyone gets an individual grade. – Jeff Apr 30 at 23:49
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    @FrankHopkins Collective punishment is only ‘fair’ if it’s for a collective failure. Most of the cases where it might be invoked are not, in fact, collective failures, hence the commonality of stating that it’s not fair (and this case is only a collective failure if the goal of the class is to convince everyone not to cheat). In this case in particular though, it will probably be counterproductive for the reasons outlined in fredq’s answer. – Austin Hemmelgarn May 1 at 2:04
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    @AustinHemmelgarn my point is that what is a collective failure is pretty much a question of perspective. It's totally fair to make compliance with standards a goal of the collective. The right argument here is that students typically are not considered a collective in that sense with that expectation, but answer makes a general statement that collective punishment is universally disliked because it is universally unfair. My point was a more precise argument can improve the answer. There are settings and societies where collective punishment is normal,accepted and "effective". – Frank Hopkins May 1 at 4:23
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From a game theory standpoint, it makes little sense. If the cheater gets caught, they get 0 anyways. If they do not, they get a (presumably) better grade from cheating, plus potentially the "no cheater" bonus. The only incentive not to cheat is peer pressure, but it is not likely that other students will know who cheated, so this incentive is not very strong.

In addition, the incentive may be meaningless if the class is graded on a curve.

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    also a non-cheater is now affected too, If he doesn't cheat and no one gets detected, everything is fine; but if someone gets found out they have a harder time for a good grade without having the cheating benefit. So cheating can be incentivized to counter the expected punishment for a random person being found out cheating. Combine that with psychology that one "will only cheat a little" and "therefore will unlikely be the one found out compared to the regular heavy cheaters" and you increase the cheating numbers. – Frank Hopkins Apr 30 at 22:17
  • @FrankHopkins, Now non-cheaters will help cheaters get undetected? :D – akostadinov May 3 at 15:26
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    @akostadinov: Now non-cheaters have added motivation NOT to report cheaters. – Brian May 3 at 16:13
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I have one major question: Is it ethical to peg the entire class's bonus on the potential bad actions of one person? (a sub question might be: do you imagine this would work?)

It is exactly as ethical as allowing a student’s grade to be influenced by the price of tea in China.

Which is to say, obviously not.

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    +1: I would be furious if my mark would depend on what random people choose to do or not to do, and especially on their integrity. Maybe it works in military settings where a company is punished for the misdeeds of few whom everybody knows and therefore everybody is going to take to task for. It's not ethical or fair, but at least effective - still, modern military does not permit that anymore, for good reason. In the class it's neither fair, ethical and, since cheating is not necessarily public, not even effective. – Captain Emacs Apr 30 at 14:59
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    @FrankHopkins I do not think the comparison with the company makes any sense. Per definition, assessments are about individual achievements, not some woolly and possibly hard to track credit allocation mechanisms. If you want unfair - cough - workplace-realistic assessments, give group work, and you'll get all the niceties of imbalanced work, credit arrogation, etc. But one should not run an individual assessment and treat it like a group one, and based on honesty rather than achievement, to boot. There may be not a singly guilty party, but there are honest individuals. And... – Captain Emacs Apr 30 at 22:35
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    @FrankHopkins ...as an educator, I simply can not support inculcating the wrong set of values. Students' values will be messed up soon enough. At least they should have seen them in their proper form in the protected space that academia should be. – Captain Emacs Apr 30 at 22:37
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    @Frank, I agree with CaptainEmacs. A class of students is not a team in the sense of a workplace team, so any comparison of the situation in companies with an academic setting isn’t really relevant. Moreover, the goal of higher education isn’t to provide a realistic simulation of workplaces, so even when assigning group projects for a class, that project will be graded based on a very different set of considerations from what a workplace might use for the incentive structure they set up for their employees. – Dan Romik Apr 30 at 23:12
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    @DanRomik my point is not to argue for OP's approach in the given context, but your and Captain Emacs arguments would improve the answer as to explain why the approach in this setting has no benefits, even if one would attribute them in other settings. – Frank Hopkins May 1 at 0:12
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This is a form of collective punishment.

All forms of collective punishment are deeply unethical. In fact, they've made it into a class of behaviours so unethical that they are banned by international treaty, and while the Geneva Convention does not apply to your classroom it should surely be a guide to you that your idea is massively awful and you should not do it.

I realise that you are framing this is a collective reward, but that is mere sophistry: the fact is that students that did not cheat are getting a lower mark because other students did. That is collective punishment.

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    +1 This is a great, clarifying answer. Hope it gets more upvotes. – Daniel R. Collins May 1 at 19:39
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    I'm not gonna lie, having an idea that is so poorly received that it violates the Geneva Convention has to be a badge on stack exchange... – Michael Stachowsky May 2 at 0:17
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    All forms of collective punishment are deeply unethical. This fifth grader agrees with you. – Dan Romik May 2 at 4:41
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It got me wondering if it is possible to create a grading scheme based around reward instead of punishment.

Yes. The way to do that is to stop grades being seen as the goal of education, and teach that the purpose of education is to learn new skills, not to get good grades. Tests are diagnostic only - getting a low score on a test only indicates a learning problem that gets you more attention and tuition to correct it, not adverse consequences. Getting a high score only lets you pass on to new material faster, learning more. The reward for honesty is to receive a better education tailored to your individual learning needs. The punishment for dishonesty is to be left in ignorance.

If you want honesty and accuracy, then you must reward accurate scores, not high scores.

The general phenomenon of cheating in tests, thus degrading student educational outcomes by motivating them to hide their difficulties rather than seek help, is an easily predictable consequence of Strathern's generalisation of Goodhart's Law: 'When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure'. And also, similarly, Campbell's law: 'The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.' Or as Campbell put it in an educational context: 'Achievement tests may well be valuable indicators of general school achievement under conditions of normal teaching aimed at general competence. But when test scores become the goal of the teaching process, they both lose their value as indicators of educational status and distort the educational process in undesirable ways.'. It's wired in to the system. That setting targets on grades on learning assignments does this has thus been known since the 1970s, and today there ought to be no excuse for academics involved in pedagogy not to know it. As such, ethically the collective blame and punishment for the predictable consequences should rather fall on the people who designed the system rather than the students.

It never does though.

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    Interesting, but unrealistic. Students individually set their own goals. How would you systematically implement something like this? – Buffy May 1 at 0:20
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    If students really did set their own goals for test scores, there would be no motivation to cheat or need for punishment, and thus no problem. It's not unrealistic - just more difficult. Saying it's 'unrealistic' or 'too hard to implement' is just making excuses. At the very least, we can stop blaming the wrong people for it. – Areopagitica May 1 at 0:32
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    This might be good advice for a person thinking of starting their own university. It says nothing useful in connection with OP’s actual situation and question. – Dan Romik May 1 at 5:02
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    @Buffy, well isn't it basically a framing challenge? OP's assumptions of what they want to achieve might simply be wrong and this answer suggests a different point of view. So in that regard a helpful answer to reconsider one's goals. – Frank Hopkins May 1 at 5:37
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    @Areopagitica Saying something is "unrealisic" isn't (necessarily) an excuse, it can be a nice hint that there may be other requirements that you might have overlooked and that collide with your approach. Perhaps the perception that there are such requirements is wrong or the whole framing can be changed, but if they are there, they are important to address. Otherwise your new system will never get approval or will then surprise the people involved when it fails to satisfy those requirements. Example: it might be a requirement to certify a skill level with economic consequences for students. – Frank Hopkins May 1 at 5:42
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This is nice thinking, but you may be overlooking some aspects. I'd like to first address the 'will it work' bit more than the ethical consideration, because unfortunately, I think it won't.

A cheating student is an individual actor, and the incentive is for a group. The group cannot prevail upon the individual not to cheat any more than you can; they have the same constraints as you. That eliminates them from the picture. (If it's a percentile grading system, the incentive is even lesser for the group). Now consider the individual cheater. Faced between the possibility of getting more marks by cheating and by availing your incentive, which one are they likely to choose? The incentive will be chosen only if it is significantly larger than the additional marks got by cheating. It's unlikely that you can offer such a large bonus. So there's little incentive for the offender as well.

Finally, for the ethics, the Blackstone formulation (better let ten guilty escape than one innocent suffer) would suggest that it's not advisable.

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    As I understand it, "Better let ten guilty escape than one innocent suffer" is a gloss on the "beyond reasonable doubt" standard of proof as used in criminal trials; but these days, most universities use an "on balance of probabilities" standard of proof for accusations of assessment offences. – Daniel Hatton Apr 30 at 17:18
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    Thanks, that's good to know! I was using it more as an ethical consideration than a practical precedent, but the context is helpful. – AppliedAcademic Apr 30 at 17:43
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Your suggestion has a bit of merit, but not as is. It makes it less likely that cheating would be reported. It makes it more likely that cheaters will have an incentive to get more creative.

In general, rewarding students for their good work is a good idea, but make sure that you think about all of the ramifications of a policy change.

As I said in a comment here, the problem is really that the world has changed rather dramatically and small changes at the margins are unlikely to provide proper adaptations. Rather the entire concept of evaluation and assessment should be reconsidered by the entire academic community. Assessment that either provides direct observation or doesn't depend on it at all is what is needed. We are on the cusp. Think deeper.


I worry that any scheme that makes the grade of one person dependent on the actions of another will have issues that need to be considered. Some would be unethical, others not. But some of the issues are subtle. Many of us use paired and group work to assess students. We realize that problems can then occur and need to be addressed in the overall policy.

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No.

Grades are about the extent to which individual students have demonstrated attainment of the learning outcomes.

If student X's grade is dependent on whether students Y and Z colluded or cheated on their work, then you are not following that principle.

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I am astonished that you would think this might be a good idea. But I am totally gobsmacked by the failure of the commenters (except one, so far) to condemn this in unequivocal terms. You can't punish me for what my classmate might have done! It doesn't matter whether your stupid idea is effective or not, what matters is that it is completely unfair.

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    I think that you do not know what the word "unfair" means. "Unfair" means a classroom policy is applied to some students, but not to others. Sally is required to do her homework, but William is not required to do his homework. If I were to randomly behead half of the students in a class, that would be perfectly fair as long as I draw lots randomly, and do not exhibit any kind of favoritism. – Samuel Muldoon May 1 at 12:49
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    @SamuelMuldoon: I can't believe you're serious. "Unfair" can mean "unfair relative to all the students at the university", or even "unfair relative to all students everywhere". (But perhaps you would be happier with "unjust".) – TonyK May 1 at 13:11
  • You do realize that once one answer condemns this, other readers are likely to simply upvote it or ignore it even though they feel the same... – einpoklum May 1 at 21:15
  • @einpoklum: I think I understand your point. But my point is that so many responders treat it as a reasonable suggestion. – TonyK May 2 at 0:29
  • @TonyK Some children try to avoid using the phrase "I don't like [X]." Instead of saying, "I don't want to take a bath" they say that "it's unfair that I have to take a bath." Likewise, instead of saying, "I don't want to go to bed" some children claim that going to bed is "unfair." Many human children continue this behavior into adulthood. The former child says things like, "[X] is socialism" instead of "I don't like the idea of [X]." Everything is now racist, sexist, or [insert the pejorative of your choice]. "X is unfair" = "I personally don't like X." Adults don't say "unfair" – Samuel Muldoon May 3 at 1:45
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Please do not do that.

When I was in school, I had several instructors devise schemes where students were incentivized to keep each-other in line.

The general idea was that if at least one student stole from a cookie jar, then all students in the class would be punished. Thus, the students would pressure each-other to not steal cookies.

The reality is that a student does not recognize the authority of another student.

Also, students have no incentive to allow other students to push them around.

Suppose that someone named Sarah and I are both students.

The teacher has decided that if Sarah does not do her homework, then I will receive a failing grade too!

Problem, there is nothing I can do to incentivize Sarah to work.

Sarah has decided she is not going to do the homework.

Sarah does not care about her grade.

If Sarah does not care about her own grade, then she really does not care about my grade.

Students who cheat on exams and/or don't do their share of the work on a group project tend to be selfish. That is, they care about their own grade, more than other people's grades (relatively speaking).

If Sarah is willing to get an F as her own grade, then she really does not care if I get an F on the assignment.

What on earth could I do to persuade Sarah to do her homework? The teacher has decided that I will get an F if Sarah does not turn in her homework?

About the worst I could do is yell at her; in which case, she would simply yell back.

Most students are not made of money. They cannot pay the other student $100 to do their homework.

Schemes in which teachers reward/punish student A based on student B's behavior always result in the same thing: students lie about their peers performance in order to save their own a$$.

For example, when I was in college, I took a course in software engineering. There was a group project. Our group was supposed to pretend that we were government contractors. For example, maybe the government wanted us to design and build a new cafeteria for soldiers, the project management plan states all kinds of things, like:

  • how much money building the new cafeteria will require
  • how much time building the new cafeteria will require
  • how many soldiers can sit in the cafeteria simultaneously (maybe their is seating for 200 soldiers)
  • a requirement that vegan options must be available
  • expected throughput (soldiers served per minute)
  • amount of refrigerator space required
  • number of kitchen knives required. Initial number + number of new knives per year.
  • amount of concrete required, amount of lumber required, etc...
  • estimated air-conditioning bill for the cafeteria in the summertime.
  • estimated heating costs for the cafeteria in the wintertime.
  • etc....

Okay... so the project management plan was long document we had to turn in. One Chinese girl did nothing until less than 3 days before the due date. Our group had months, almost the entire semester, to work on the project.

I gave her a list of industry vocabulary words and asked if she could google each industry term and add a dictionary of terms to the project management plan. She did make one (sort of). I included definitions of the first 2 or 3 industry terms I sent to her. I did this to make it easy (reminiscent of seeing something like "the first row of the table is done for you. Please complete the rest of the table"). Her dictionary of specialized terms was less than 2 pages long when complete. She failed to conceive of any vocabulary words beyond those I had thought of off the top of my head and sent to her.

My college professor told us that each group in the class would be failed for this project if there was someone who did not do their fair share of the work. As such, we all decided Ms. do-nothing "was a very helpful person, and we were glad to have her on our team."

When you punish student A* for student B's negligence, then student A suddenly has an incentive to "carry" student B.

As such, the amount cheating done by students goes up.

Normally, I have no incentive to do Sarah's homework for her. However, if my teacher tells me that I will receive an F if Sarah does badly on the homework, then I end up doing Sarah's homework. It's not difficult for me to solve the same problem many different ways. I can easily make "her" work look radically different than mine. My forgeries are undetectable.

Suppose I take the high road and refuse to do Sarah's work for her.
If Sarah is not inclined to do anything, then how would I persuade her work?

There is nothing I am allowed to do. I am given no leverage.

  • I can't tweak her grades.
  • I can't pay her money.
  • I am not going to creepily follow her home at night while carrying in a baseball bat in a menacing way.

Students have no power over other students. I have no capacity to reward or punish her.

Suppose the government told me that I would go to prison if my neighbor cheated on their income taxes. Well... What authority do I have over my neighbor? Does the government let me impose fines? No. Does the government let me create tax incentives? No.
Am I allowed to arrest a person, like a police officer? No.

The only thing I really could do is do my neighbor's taxes for them.

Student A has nothing they can use to reward or punish student B if student B does not want to do their homework.

If student A's grades are based on student B's performance, then student B will usually fudge the results rather than go down with the sinking ship.

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Beware unintended consequences.

For simplicity, let us start out assuming a class size N = 100, with an even grade distribution from 1% to 100%, so each student gets a different likely test score. An unusual class, but we'll cover a more normal distribution later.

Let's also assume a passing grade G = 50%, and a penalty P of 10% for the whole class if anyone is caught cheating.

In our N students, M will cheat, and of those, C will be caught, so we can say:

100 = N >= M >= C >= 0

The M "dishonest" students are those who feel that their grade is likely to be below 50% unless they cheat. There is no loss to them if they cheat: they will fail either if they don't cheat, or if they are caught cheating. They will pass only if they cheat successfully.

So, around M = 50 students in a no-penalty setup will cheat. The chances of M = 0 are small enough that everyone must assume there is cheating going on.

Nobody who cheats believes they will be caught, so no M expects to be in C, even though, false-positives aside, all C are members of M. However, they all believe other cheaters are dumb enough to get caught, so none will have faith in C = 0. So students will have to plan assuming that the P = 10% penalty is applied.

But if you add in the P = 10% penalty, students now need to score G+P = 50+10 = 60%, which means M = 60 students will cheat.

A class-wide cheating penalty means more students must cheat.

This doesn't apply only to those close to the passing grade: it applies to anyone who feels there is a specific "boundary grade" they need to hit, but do not feel confident they can hit without cheating. So those at the top of the class, used to getting A- at worst, may fear getting a B+ with the penalty, and might find that unacceptable, and will cheat to avoid it.

It also applies to anyone who has a friend near a such boundary-grade, that they are willing to help out: helpers are considered cheaters just as copiers are.


There are less game-theory reasons this is likely to be true, too.

  1. By punishing them for something they didn't do, you'll make them ask "if I'm being punished for the crime, why don't I do the crime?"

  2. By drawing attention to it, and the fact that people in their class are doing it, you normalize it, making it seem "socially okay" and accepted, even expected.

  3. You're giving students power over the well-being of other students. But if 2020 taught us anything, it's that some people just want to see the world burn. They want to screw other people over. It only takes one student to deliberately be caught cheating, to screw the whole class over. Why would you give the class troll that much power? Or that jilted ex who knows how much their ex really needed this grade to keep their scholarship. Or the kid who extorts money or favors from other students to not obviously cheat.

  4. For the worst student, 1%-10% is still 0%, but the top score just dropped from 100% to 90%. Mr "bottom 1% of the class" just moved up to "bottom 10% of the class", and from 99% away from the best grade, to 90% away. His percentage may have got worse, but the position of his grade on the curve has improved.

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    I like this answer the best, so here's where I want to throw my 2 cents: At best, the effect of this policy is that more students will get even better at cheating. That's learning, but I have to assume it's not among the learning objectives of the course. – Andrei May 2 at 19:47
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I think nobody has said this so far, so here it is:

I find it astonishing that you find it necessary to reward the minima moralia.4

Before anything can be learned by the students, any assessment can be made, any grades handed out, this is the minimal, first and indispensable requirement: That the students, honestly, perform the work themselves that will determine pass or failure.1

Everything else comes after that.

This cannot be discussed, it is not open to debate and negotiation.2 It is the rock on which we stand.3


1 Of course, this work can take on arbitrary shapes including group work, internet research, street art or impromptu performances.

2 This does not imply that cheating students should in every case be harshly punished or expelled etc. Being caught cheating is another opportunity to learn in an educational setting. But it cannot be tolerated.

3 Part of the scientific trouble we find ourselves in seems caused by an erosion of this foundation.

4 It actually gives me the creeps.

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The concept doesn't work because it's not enough to build the peer pressure you want. If you failed everyone, it could work, but that's obviously not ok.

The theory is that everyone will accept the syllabus as a given frame and act influence their peers to provide benefits for themselves. However, cheating is a bigger and easier benefit using the same incentive. This creates a feeling of unfairness that can turn against you.

You are trying to create an everyone vs the cheaters mentality, but risking an everyone vs the instructor result. Gaming social dynamics isn't easy and prone to fail.

Consider alternatively something like removing the final exam out of 3 exams if no cheater has been caught in the first two exams. This hurts more while at the same time not creating unfair grading. You would need to have three exams in the past of course so that it doesn't sound like a punishment-exam. That's subject to the above problems, but still feels better somehow.

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got me wondering if it is possible to create a grading scheme based around reward instead of punishment.

IMNSHO, grades are overrated. Why not just consider a Pass/Fail scheme, or a Pass/Fail/Excellent scheme?

Also, this behavioristic approach is unbecoming; and as a former student I'd tell you it's kind of demeaning, even ignoring the morally problematic collective-punishment aspect of your specific scheme.

I doubt that, with the attitude you're describing - again, even without your collective punishment scheme - you are fostering an atmosphere conducive to learning for its own sake (or for the sake of utilizing the acquired knowledge and skills), as oppose to grade-chasing.

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