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Suppose a person X asks person Y to explain some material from a course. Person X shows Y some homework that counts for a third of the grade and asks for help. They go through the homework, with Y first showing X how to solve each type of exercise, then they solve it together with X taking the lead (doing the calculations, with an occasional nudge or a piece of advice) and with Y checking that no mistakes are made.

Is this cheating? If so, is it a clear case of cheating, or would you say it is more of a gray area? On one hand, X did not do the homework on their own, but at the same time, X would not be able to do it on their own, and this way X learns how to do it (and homework is for learning, after all). The same material will appear on the final exam, counting for the rest of the grade so getting help with the homework will not make X pass the course on its own.

Is what Y is doing wrong?

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    This is not an issue of absolute ethics; rather, it is a question of what is permitted by a particular instructor of a particular course. Personally, as an instructor I not only accept but encourage exactly this kind of learning process from students. (Cue the shout-storm, if the current answers are any indication, but please shout about the specific process described by the OP and not about some variant of it.) Jan 26 at 17:00
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    This is still an unclear question. Is Y currently taking the class that X is taking? Some of the answers seem to assume that. In any case, why not ask the instructor? Jan 26 at 18:09
  • 1
    School is basically indentured labor. Unless you extort someone for their answers, you are ethically in the clear. If you somehow did something wrong, it would be a lapse by the school. Jan 27 at 7:44
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    If we assume you have no guidance from the instructor, and assume Y is not in your class (these are important!), I think the honest answer is that only you can genuinely know whether you're actually learning throughout this process, or just using this process as a crutch for your homework grade. As a litmus test, honestly ask yourself if your interaction with Y (the time you spend, the questions you ask, the amount of effort you put in, the nature of the help you get, etc.) would look the same even if the homework were ungraded. If so, you're probably fine; if not, probably not.
    – user541686
    Jan 27 at 11:55
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    Isn't this how we teach kids to do homework through grade school? If kids can't figure it out from the course material, they ask their parents who then guide them through the work. Jan 27 at 17:11

12 Answers 12

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X would not be able to do it on their own

This is precisely the rationalization that leads many students to seek an excessive amount of outside help with homework problems or look up answers online. These students rationalize this behavior by claiming that they are better off because in this way the work at least gets done (which presumably equates to “learning” taking place), whereas if they tried to do it all themselves some or all of the problems would remain unsolved. So this looks like a form of progress “on paper”.

What those students are failing to grasp is that by not doing the work themselves they are missing out on a major part of the educational benefit that doing homework is meant to provide in the first place. It is perhaps a counterintuitive fact, but actually it’s the case that trying and failing to solve a homework problem is still often a more instructive and more educational experience than getting the kind of help that “Y” is giving in your scenario. So this rationalization for why getting a lot of help makes sense is faulty. In fact, it’s doubly faulty, because I think even the original premise that “X” cannot do the work themselves is almost certainly usually incorrect. (Edit: yes, some lecturers assign homework that’s much too difficult, which would change the calculation and make what I wrote less valid.)

The upshot of this analysis is that professors will often prohibit the sort of behavior you are asking about, effectively defining it as cheating. And they do this precisely to protect students from their own self-defeating urges to take the easy way out and not follow the (more difficult) path that leads to true learning.

Of course, defining it as cheating involves a trade-off, and in some hypothetical scenarios might actually deprive a student from a genuine benefit they might gain by consulting with a friend, as well as making the learning environment appear a bit more adversarial and annoying to the student. It’s not an obvious choice if it should be considered as cheating or not. But considering it as cheating is certainly reasonable, and, needless to say, if your professor declares it to be cheating and you do it anyway, then what you are doing is a form of cheating.

Edit addressing the comments: in the comments people are raising several possible issues with what I wrote:

  1. There’s sometimes not enough time to do all the homework yourself, because students take several classes but each lecturer assigns homework has unrealistic expectations that students will focus on their class (as pointed out by @infinitezero): true, this is sometimes a real problem and it’s absolutely true lecturers sometimes have an unreasonable tendency to want to monopolize their students’ study time.

    Well, my verdict that it’s reasonable to forbid students from getting outside help on homework assumes a lecturer who assigns a reasonable amount of homework, in line with their university’s guidelines for the number of hours a student should be studying outside of class time given the course’s number of credit hours. If this assumption is not satisfied, then it’s certainly possible that no matter what rules the lecturer makes, the students would find themselves in a position where they may be required to “cheat” just to survive the course. In that case, from an ethical point of view the students cannot be considered as cheating for using such a survival strategy.

  2. The adversarial environment is a serious issue (comment by @PasserBy): I agree. Making many rules about various things being forbidden or considered cheating can make students feel like they are walking on eggshells and in my opinion can really spoil the fun of learning. I believe in treating my students with respect and not making them feel like I am constantly suspecting them of bad intentions. Most of them truly want to learn. So yeah, definitely the anti-homework-help approach, while motivated by good intentions, and justified at some level, also has a cost that should be factored into the calculation of whether the approach makes sense.

  3. If we take the answer’s logic that doing things on your own is good to an extreme, why do students need to go to the course in the first place? (comment of @ilkkachu): true; my logic only holds up to a point, which is why I was referring only to students getting an excessive amount of help as a problem (see also: this answer). Lecturers generally understand that a little bit of help to resolve confusion and mental obstacles can be a good thing, and will usually not make a fuss about such things.

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    Well, comparng this to my undergraduate years, I was somehow expected to do 4 demanding exercise sheets / week, and I needed 50% in each of them to qualify for the final exam. There's simply not enough time to do it. Partly, because lecturers like to believe I'm only taking their class and devote 100% of my time to them. Jan 26 at 9:44
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    I think the adversarial environment part is quite serious. It will in effect change the mindset of the student from personal advancement to defeat the obstacle that is the lecture, which ironically justifies the very behaviour you want to stop.
    – Passer By
    Jan 26 at 9:50
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    though (perhaps depending on the details), isn't all education just about showing how things should be done correctly, then nudging the student forward if they get stuck, then checking the work they did on their own, and then finally letting them go to work independently? We could basically say that you could try and fail more on your own, and thus supposedly learn more, if you didn't go to the course in the first place!
    – ilkkachu
    Jan 26 at 12:42
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    @Kimball Ah, an agreeable position - “…TEACHING them how to understand and think”. The part where it gets tricky is when there is no support or teaching. Failure is an important part of learning, but it does not entail learning. If the teacher is choosing developmentally inappropriate content or content that students lack prior knowledge to solve, then the failure is not productive. IMO this answer undersells the role of the more knowledgeable other (teacher or student Y) and would be better just jumping into the final two paragraphs.
    – Cardinal
    Jan 26 at 13:41
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    @Alexei I guess we have different philosophies. I'm now a TA and the lecturer I work with strives to make the exercises 100% completable in a reasonable amount of time. This gives student the ability to practice relevant material but does not make them believe they are stupid. Jan 26 at 21:11
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If this is done without guidance and permission of the instructor, then most places would consider it to be cheating. General help is fine in most cases, but specific help on graded material needs a prior OK. In my personal view it is not a gray area at all.

The reason for this is that such homework is intended to bring skill and insight to the student. Reading answers is a very different thing than creating them. Watching someone else and following their insights is much less likely to result in the insight in the student given the task.

The purpose of homework is not to get answers, but to elicit a mental change in the student. Student Y isn't helping X learn, in fact, just helping them get answers. Not deep learning, anyway.

In your scenario the problem is that X is pretty much denied the opportunity to get insights from wrong turns and mistakes. If you are "nudged" to the correct path you won't learn "why" some things don't work. I'll note that some tutors do this sort of thing, but it should be with the knowledge of the professor. And doing it on graded assignments is especially problematic.

If you ask a professor for help, rather than another student, you are likely to get a very different response. They may give a (minimal) hint, they may try to clear up a misconception that is blocking you. But they won't just lead you through the solution.

I'm a big believer in working in pairs, actually, but that only works for certain kinds of things. If it blocks insight development in either partner then it is counterproductive.

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It's a grey area, because it depends heavily on the specifics of what Y's doing.

I was a tutor in the computer science section at my university's tutoring center (so, mostly helping first- and second-semester programmers come to grips with C/C++). The center was provided by the university; presumably, all faculty knew about it, and I don't know of any who discouraged its use.

This is more-or-less how we were trained to help fellow students who came in for help, with two important caveats.

First: in step 1 ("showing X how to solve each type of exercise"), we tried hard to not use any of the actual questions from the homework (not least because there was often just the one exercise: "finish the program"). So, we'd talk about what the missing code needed to do or about the concepts that it involved. At this point, we would mostly work on a whiteboard to illustrate the concept rather than actually writing code in an editor - the person coming in for tutoring typically didn't understand some important concept, and neither the lecture nor textbook explained it in a way that made sense to them, so they "just" needed help understanding the core concept.

Second: in the last step ("Y checking that no mistakes are made"), we did not point out the specific problem, but may have called out that the final answer was wrong, possibly with a leading question. At this point, the student typically came in with code that didn't work and little idea why it didn't; we had the great advantage of being able to be their rubber duck (often, explaining what the code is supposed to be doing helps the programmer see where that differs from what it's actually doing; explaining to something with a face can be psychosocially easier than explaining to a brick wall, and rubber ducks are cheap). When rubber-ducking was insufficient, a leading question or two often got the person onto the right track.

That said, there's definitely a slippery slope here. It's really easy for Y to fall into just doing X's work for them. We were specifically trained to not do that, and warned of the slipperiness of the slope.

tl;dr: it's fine if X is actually learning the concepts and Y really is just helping X understand and pointing out that (but not where!) errors have been made. It's a problem if Y is functionally doing the work and X is just punching numbers into a calculator or something.

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    +1 but... It's a grey area, because it depends heavily on the specifics of what Y's doing. - It also depends on course policies
    – Kimball
    Jan 27 at 0:28
  • @Kimball: true enough, but I think that's got to be assumed in any "can I do <thing> in <class>" question.
    – minnmass
    Jan 27 at 21:30
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Graded assignments come with expectations of how the work is to be done. If the assignment doesn't state exceptions, e.g., that students may have partners, you should always assume the work must be done individually, with no help from another student. Violating that expectation would be cheating, an academic violation. If you help someone cheat, that also is an academic violation at most schools.

It's fair game to help them understand the material, e.g., going over lecture slides together, but the moment you start helping them on a graded assignment they should do on their own, you've both crossed the line. You should decline to look at or discuss the assignment. Instead, send them to the instructor or the course staff during office hours. If they give away the answer, that's on them.

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    So wouldn't you agree that answering homework questions on SE is also academic violation? Yet many users (even claimed professors) do it and insist that they are here just to teach!
    – user21820
    Jan 26 at 6:51
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    I think the word "graded" is important here. I think if a person posts graded homework online then that is wrong. If there is a question, it is then reasonable to answer it with the assumption that the OP is not breaking academic rules. Jan 26 at 7:49
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    @user21820 Well, many SE members are not members of any academic community at all. They cannot really do any academic violations because they are not bound by any academic rules (and their oaths from the times of their uni immatriculation ceremony when they studied a long time ago are no longer binding). Explaining how to solve a mathematics or physics problem is a normal thing to do. The asker knows whether it is a homework or not and what kind of help they are allowed to seek. Jan 26 at 10:24
  • @user21820 When obvious homework problems are posted to any of the SE communities, they are usually closed. Jan 26 at 14:24
  • @user2316602: Your reasoning is contrary to Nicole's: Questions on SE come with expectations of its context. If a question looks like a homework question but does not state its context (e.g. that it is not graded), you should always assume that it is graded homework that must be done individually, with no help from others. If you help someone with what is expected to be graded homework, that is an academic violation. In short, why should we assume that SE question askers are not breaking academic rules when there is so much solid evidence against that?
    – user21820
    Jan 26 at 15:22
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There's always a limit. Surrounding that limit is a grey area.

If I do 99% of the homework for you, and let you fill in the three obvious blanks, it's cheating.

If I explain the concepts and you apply them, it's not cheating.

If I help you through the first couple problems, then let you do the next five problems with minimal help, then by the end of the twenty-problem set you're doing them by yourself, it's "cheating", but not really.

Why? Because the point of homework is to learn.

If my helping you prevents you from learning, then it's not helpful, and I'm depriving you of the knowledge you're supposed to be gaining. If making you do it completely on your own prevents you from learning because you just stare at a blank page for an hour and give up, that's not helpful either.

Ideally, teachers would teach and that would be enough. But sometimes, students aren't quite there yet, or teachers have the wrong teaching style for that student, or teachers rush a bit too much, or some outside problem distracts from the teaching. At that point, outside help can be needed.

Now, I could take the time to create a lesson plan, invent my own homework problems, etc. That would be better, and is what I tend to do with my nephews. But they're in grade school and junior high, and I can do most of their homework in my sleep. And the homework tends to only have one or two problems of a given type.

When it comes to higher-level stuff, I'm not going to always know it as well, or have the time to invent new problems out of the blue. At that point, the goal is to get you to understand enough to get through the problem yourself, with the understanding that you'll probably get tested on this later. If you're struggling with the homework, there's a good chance you're going to struggle with the test, so you should probably get more help between now and then.

Note though, that there's a huge difference between "do these 20 nearly-identical math problems before doing 20 more tomorrow" and "conduct a semester-long, scientific study of bugs that takes dozens of hours for one report". Me doing three of your problems for you on the former is of little consequence if it helps you learn, while doing the only problem for you is half your grade on the latter.

There's also a big difference between the student who hasn't even bothered reading the text, and the student who's spent 20 hours on the first problem and gotten nowhere. Clearly, the first student needs to put reasonable effort in, while the second student either needs to go back and do the prerequisites, or get a teacher who does better with homework assignments (and that isn't hypothetical: I've had homework not even the teacher knew how to accomplish, and homework that had nothing to do with either the lecture or the book lesson).

A typical scenario falls somewhere in the middle of those extremes where reasonable help is reasonable. And in general, everyone gets help with graded homework in subjects they're less familiar with (and most homework is graded). I don't think I've ever seen a course where anyone would even blink at getting help as long as the student did most of the work themselves. Especially when there's a test that counts for far more points where the student doesn't get any help at all.

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    If the point of the homework is only to learn, then it should not be graded for correctness, but only a token few points for effort. This is what some teachers do, making it clear to students that the grade is for submitting reasonably complete attempts. Then there won't be cheating (by definition), and nobody has to figure out how much help to give to avoid cheating...
    – user21820
    Jan 26 at 16:05
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    @user21820 true, and that’s a great point. It’s a real problem that lecturers use homework simultaneously as a formative assessment and a summative assessment. There are some good reasons why they do it and it’s not always possible to attain the ideal of “homework is only for learning” that you described, but it is definitely true that this results in perverse incentives for students to pursue a good grade in a way that doesn’t necessarily align with what’s best for them educationally.
    – Dan Romik
    Jan 26 at 20:49
  • Strongly seconding @DanRomik's comment... conflicting goals... Jan 26 at 23:06
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    @user21820: Homework isn't only to learn, but that's almost always its primary purpose. If homework was all performed in class, it would cost a lot more to get an education. Grading that homework gives the student more of an incentive to actually do it, hopefully increasing their likelihood of success. In contrast, I did bring up the concept of things like semester-long dissertations, where students most certainly still get help, but the work more closely resembles an open-book exam in its expectations.
    – MichaelS
    Jan 27 at 1:29
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    @user3067860: Ah of course, I think we're in agreement then. My first comment's focus was merely on the issue of homework being graded that is in conflict with learning. You're of course right that learning includes much more than just the right incentive for doing homework.
    – user21820
    Jan 28 at 17:35
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I'm going to differ from the other answers thus far and say this is not cheating. The reason is because when students ask for help from TAs and lecturers, the kind of help they get is very similar to the one described.

Take, for example, this (artificially simple) problem:

Compute 5^5.

It's a very simple problem - just write out 5^5 as 5 x 5 x 5 x 5 x 5, put it into a calculator (or pen and paper), and you're there.

If a student working on this problem were to approach a TA or lecturer for help, what would the TA or lecturer say? Presumably they would say what I wrote above ("just write out 5^5 ..."). They therefore show X how to solve the exercise. They are then likely to suggest X attempt actually solving the exercise, and if X makes a mistake, they will probably point it out. Therefore they solve it together with X taking the lead (doing the calculations, with an occasional nudge or a piece of advice) and with Y checking that no mistakes are made.

So no, this is not cheating, and Y is not doing anything wrong. But I would hope X actually learns to solve similar problems without Y's help, or X is going to flunk the final exam.

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    The instructor and staff are free to decide on the assignments, the rules for completing them and how they're graded. If they choose to give away the answers, that's their prerogative. If you are not the instructor or staff, this is not your choice to make. Jan 26 at 14:20
  • Discussion on pedagogy moved to chat. Please use the comments only for criticising the answer (with respect to the question, which is about ethics, not pedagogy) or suggesting improvements. Also see this FAQ.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Jan 28 at 6:51
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Is it cheating to get help with graded homework?

Your whole premise is wrong here. Homework should be considered as a service to the student, allowing them to practice what they've learned and perhaps cover additional material / aspects of the same material. If you don't do your own homework, you're mostly cheating yourself out of the benefit of the homework.

(I could write a long tirade about who actually benefits from numerical grading and aggregation-of-grades for students but this is not the right place for that.)

Suppose a person X ... etc. etc. ... and with Y checking that no mistakes are made.

Is this cheating?

Huh? Of course not.

Is what Y is doing wrong?

Generally no, but possibly in preventing X from developing their sense of self-reliance. Which is not teaching, but is often not the right thing to do pedagogically. Although often it is the right thing to do, if the alternative is X just giving up.

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This is complicated, as all the responses have been showing. Claiming credit for work that isn't your own is plagiarism -- period. However, we all certainly want students to learn from other students.

Here's my approach. First, I don't like using homework as an assessment. I have other assessments. I assign homework because I want my students to go home, think about material, and experience applications that are illustrative and promote understanding of the material. Homeworks are thus part of the education, not the assessment.

Here comes the first problem with this: if homeworks are not part of the grade, some students (often the students who need it the most) won't do them! Thus, I need to make homeworks a small part of the overall grade. Usually, a chunk just big enough to take an A down to an A- is good enough.

Now, for the copying part. In my syllabus, I say copying will not be tolerated, but I encourage the students to work in groups, suggesting that they go have their discussions about the approach of the problem, WITHOUT WRITING IT DOWN, then at a later solo period, they should write up their homeworks. I think this is an approach where students can learn from each other, and actually do enough work on their own homeworks that they can claim ownership of what they turn it.

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  • Why should homework contribute a part of the grade for students who can get everything on the tests/exams correct? You're right, students who need it need motivation, but your approach doesn't actually do that well, but rather penalizes the good students who don't really like sitting through your tons of tiny exercises just to not be unceremoniously bumped down a half-grade. Instead, consider having something like homework = 10% and tests = 40% and exam = 70%, and anything above 100% truncated to 100%, so that poor students still want to do homework, but it won't help cheaters at all.
    – user21820
    Jan 27 at 17:53
  • @user -- 10% is the number I use for HW, and I give out plenty of A's. Jan 27 at 20:03
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I'm only a layman, so consider this a layman's assessment.

The purpose of homework is to familiarize the student with the material; to increase understanding. If the help given furthers that, then it's serving the purpose; if the help given hinders that, then it's subverting the purpose. So to a large degree, it depends on just how "hand-holdy" the help is vs. how much the student struggles.

Having said that, this is why homework should not be a massive portion of the grade as in your example scenario, because that encourages point-gathering by any means necessary, and actual understanding can start to look like as a secondary consideration.

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    That answers a different question though. Grading it can either be a stick or a carrot to get them to actually do it.
    – Buffy
    Jan 26 at 22:29
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    I have taken math courses where the grade was 100% based on the homework, albeit at the graduate level. I think you might want to narrow your assertion. In any case, this does not answer the question. Jan 26 at 22:30
  • @TerryLoring I'm not familiar with how graduate work is conducted, but I had kind of assumed by that stage one is beyond the point of grades being a consideration. Guess not. Today I learned. However, that last paragraph is more of a side-note editorial on my part, not the actual answer, which I consider to be the sentence starting with "So to a large degree…". Granted, it's a squishy answer, but then again it's a squishy question.
    – Atario
    Jan 27 at 4:43
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This is homework, not a test. Tests have to be taken strictly alone, and there are typically safeguards enforcing that — even in Covid times, when they are taken remotely.

Homework, by contrast, is not as strictly regulated, which is reflected by the missing enforcement. If a student does not know how to solve a task they can look at their notes, read the textbook, watch a YouTube video or ask a tutor, like in your example. All of those are legit and even encouraged because, as you say, the homework is an opportunity to learn. In the end nobody knows what happens at home. Of course the idea is that the student is the actual homework author, but the exact conversation happening between the student and tutor cannot be controlled and regulated.

Plagiarism or outright copying from a fellow student is forbidden though. That rule is enforceable and will typically be enforced, after the fact.

What you describe is prototypical tutoring which is encouraged, common and helpful.

0

This is an interesting and complex issue, and not one answered by "Yes" or "No". It's also a very common one - what you describe above happens to some degree with nearly every class in every school.

The point of homework is to show that the student learned the material, and to reinforce the concepts. The former is more true at the university level, while the latter is more true at the high school or earlier levels, but both are true to some degree at both. Grading is intended to show how well the student understood the material.

Anything you do to help someone learn the material, without affecting the actual result of grading, then, should be acceptable. That means, if a student asks for help understanding a homework question, there's no issue with showing them the concept - so long as you work a substantially different example. In grammar school, if homework is solving 6x3, showing the student how to skip-count in 4s to solve 8x4 would be totally fine, for example.

Where it gets complicated, though, is when you're in university, and the concept is more of a way of thinking, or problem solving, rather than just a direct method of solving problems. If you're doing a proof, it's pretty likely that any example you show will give away something - the point of the proof is to figure out what tool from your toolkit to use, and to identify what elements are in the proof. Both of those are critical thinking, and require having those tools - but telling the student what tools are relevant is probably going over the line.

Ultimately, I always found this a very hard line to tend. When I was in high school, in a college level chemistry class, I would do homework with my then-girlfriend, who was not as strong of a chemistry student. I wouldn't give her answers, but would point out ways to solve things when she'd get stuck. This led eventually to being told we had to stop, because it appeared like cheating - we'd always have the same answers, or at least close, and it was obvious from the tests that there was a difference between test and homework performance. As a high school student, this felt unfair, but as an adult it makes sense; I wasn't a trained educator, and she was losing out on some of the self-learning that is normal for homework - and the teacher wasn't finding out accurately what her true level of understanding was, since she was missing some of the critical thinking steps.

What I'd do, if I were you, is instead of helping with homework, study independently of the homework, before doing the homework. Go over the concepts together from class, make sure you understand all of the instructor's examples. Then, do the homework separately. That lets you get the most important part of the value of the homework: finding out how much you understand, before you have exams, and also learning through having to find the answers independently.

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  • You seem to be assuming that Y is taking the class as well as X. That is not state in the original posting. Jan 26 at 22:48
  • For the most part, it doesn't really matter. It's where my personal experience comes from, hence the wording, but whether the Y is in the class or not doesn't matter much.
    – Joe
    Jan 26 at 22:50
0

There are two separate issues here:

  • Has the student completed the assignment?
  • Has the student behaved unethically?

The first question is, as others have pointed out, instructor-dependent. If the instructor permits the students to work together, it's fine. Otherwise, it isn't. So you should ask for clarification in advance.

The second is much easier: the only potential ethical problem that could happen here is academic dishonesty, and it's trivial to guard against that: Acknowledge any help you received. The instructor may still not give credit for the assignment if they wanted you to work on it alone, but there's no potential for misconduct if you fully disclose all help you received.

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