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Ever since I have known the term academic integrity, I have known that it is bad to breach it––I have known that it is in my best interest to maintain academic integrity and in the best interest of all others. However, recently, I have been wondering why it is so detrimental to break academic integrity though only in the context of assessments. For example, consider the following hypothetical:

Background

Roger is a student in university in History class 1. Jacky is in history class 2. Both classes are of the same curriculum. Roger has a history exam on Monday. He studied hard and took the test. There was one question that he did not know the answer to.

Situation:

During lunch, Roger told Jacky about the test, that it was easy for him but that there was one question that he did not know the answer to. He tells Jacky the question. After lunch, Jacky found the answer to the question that Roger told her about in her notes. On the exam, she got the question right.

Roger's grade was not harmed by Jacky's success. Grades were not determined through a stanine, percentile, etc. In the end, Jacky knew the material needed for the test, even though she was told what to study.

Why is it extremely unethical and considered a breach of academic integrity in almost all cases to share test material with others? What detrimental effects does it have on the person receiving the information/hints?

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    This is a legitimate question, but it is a broader question of philosophy and is not about academica. If you substitute "cheating on taxes", "stealing from work" and various other topics, the answer would be the same. – user6726 Oct 1 '15 at 15:49
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    Even if the test itself is not graded on a curve, if Jacky would not have gotten an A in the course without cheating, then it affects her GPA, and that effects competition for all kinds of things, including everything based on class rank. So potentially every other student at the university is a victim. – Todd Wilcox Oct 1 '15 at 17:32
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    @user6726: How does this equate to stealing from work or from the government? Theft requires loss; what has been stolen from the school here? – Mason Wheeler Oct 1 '15 at 18:26
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    One thing that I have not seen mentioned is: why do these two different courses have the same question on their exams? I would normally expect examiners to produce new questions for each exam, so that students can learn from old questions. Expecting students not to talk to each other seems quite unrealistic and accusing students of being unethical after the lecturer was lazy does not seem like a good solution. Any system where people talking to each other confers an unfair advantage is a bad system IMHO. – Rob Hall Oct 1 '15 at 19:34
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    Unless I'm missing something, what the question describes is not a breach of academic integrity. Are we supposed to believe that Roger's professor requested students not to share information about the exam after taking it? Or that Roger knew that the same test would be used in Jacky's class? If so, I think that one of these assumptions should be added to the question explicitly; otherwise, I don't see what the "breach" is. – Trevor Wilson Oct 2 '15 at 20:18
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Why do you think that cheating, or more generally any breach of academic integrity, has to be of direct and immediate detriment to each involved person? The basic idea, to my understanding, of academic integrity is that by violating it, the system as a whole suffers, which is clearly not the same as there are direct negative consequences for each involved individual.

In your example, cheating on a test* can easily be very positive for the individual that is cheating (assuming (s)he is not caught, and also ignoring that (s)he probably did not learn what (s)he was supposed to learn, which may lead to trouble down the road). Of course, for the academic system in total, cheating students are pretty bad, as they severely undermine the value of examinations.

Similar arguments can also be made for other cases of academic honesty - as a young researcher, it may be quite positive for me to build a great career on manipulated data and forged experiments, but for science as a whole this would clearly be terrible.

This of course leads to the question what incentives rational individuals have to not act against academic honesty. Those fall into two basic categories: fear of repercussion and ethics. Both categories are easy to understand. Clearly, it may work out great for me to cheat on tests and forge my data, but it may also easily be discovered and backfire on me - and if it happens, the consequences are typically dire enough that overall it is not worth the risk for most. Further, as academics we are nurtured in the thought that academic honesty is the foundation of science. Hence, many (most?) academics would not want to violate academic honesty for personal advantage even if they knew for sure that they would not get caught. It is simply our understanding that the entire system is based on academic honesty.


*By the way, your scenario would not ubiquitously be considered cheating. For instance, in my old alma mater in central Europe, sharing test questions with the next year of students is completely normal and a widely accepted practice among faculty and students. Goes to show that what is considered ethical also differs among regions and institutions.

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    +1 For the last paragraph. I'm constantly baffled by the "tests are secret" mentality here. – Mangara Oct 2 '15 at 13:06
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    I wonder if test-secrecy is correlated with use of multiple-choice exams? The latter is both relatively harder to create, and more likely to be used as a standardized instrument for many people, classes, and possibly institutions. The effort in constructing it only pays off if it can be reused across time, and that requires secrecy. To my understanding this is more common in the U.S. (with standardized testing, larger class sizes, and somewhat less professionalized/empowered teaching staff). – Daniel R. Collins Dec 24 '15 at 8:54
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    Indeed, there is a difference between sharing a test with someone who will take a different test on the same material vs. the exact same test. – fkraiem Dec 25 '15 at 16:53
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    @DanielR.Collins: not sure - but I'm from central Europe as well, and I had a series of exams (9 during 1 semester IIRC) where we were positively encouraged to use the old exam questions (no multiple-choice, though) that were collected for about 30 years. The teacher even used the very same questions, but doing 9 exams over the semester he asked so many questions that there was basically no possibility for luck in which topic was asked: they were all asked, and we knew that. And working through the exams of the last 10 years or so, you cannot help actually learning the stuff. – cbeleites Dec 25 '15 at 17:25
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Assessments are only meaningful if their results correlate with the underlying quantity they seek to probe. In the case of graded coursework, the intent is to educate; to leave the students with more knowledge and ability in the course's subject than before. If someone cheats on a test, then the test is not measuring what it is supposed to measure. In the extreme case, someone could learn the answers to a short test by memorization, and have no ability in the course's subject.

The problem with the way you have posed your question is the assumption that the students are simply supposed to know what is on the test, which is false. They are supposed to learn much more than that, and the test is supposed to be a fair way of measuring progress (and encouraging review of all the course material). Cheating on tests destroys their usefulness. They are no longer measuring and encouraging the learning that they are intended to.

This is a deep problem, related to Goodhart's Law in economics (when a metric becomes an objective, it ceases to be a good metric).

In your example, Jacky suffers because she has not been motivated correctly to learn. The other students, who didn't cheat, suffer because their grades are now less representative of having learned well in the course.

  • See my comment on xLeitix answer, there are also teachers who assume that they should test pretty much all the students are supposed to learn. The conflict arises if the exam tests only a small fraction of what the students are supposed to learn. From a statistics point of view, that means too small a sample of the students abilities is taken, and then the problem that the the mark may not be representative for the student's abilities (here: too good) is more general: not only is there a risk that one student is lucky, other students may be unlucky. – cbeleites Dec 25 '15 at 17:32
  • This answer reads to me as more an indictment of the same test being offered in two classes than of the students’ behavior. – JeffE Sep 4 at 12:11
  • The answer isn't intended as an indictment of anything, just an explanation as to why cheating, as described in the question, is considered unethical. The general question of how to preserve the effectiveness of tests is interesting as well, of course. – Patrick Sanan Sep 6 at 8:24
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Consider an oversimplified situation where the course covers 10 simple facts. Time only permits the instructor to ask 6 questions on the test. We can hope that, on average, a student who knows only 5 of the 10 facts will get 3 of the 6 questions right, and earn a score of 50%, which accurately reflects that student's knowledge.

But if someone tells the student what the 6 questions are, they can focus their remaining study time on memorizing just what they know they will be asked, ignoring the other material. They can now get 5 out of 6, or 83%, on the test, which does not reflect their true knowledge of the material.

Ask yourself this: If Jacky in your story was capable of learning the way to answer question 4 between the lunch and the test, why wouldn't she just do that anyway? Because knowing what the questions will be allows you to focus limited learning time on just what will be asked. The assumption that your mark on the test matches your overall abilities is broken.

If asked to predict which group is larger:

  • people who know more after the exam than they otherwise would have, because they were motivated to study part of the course material (your description of Jacky)
  • people whose mark on the exam is higher than their mastery of the material overall, because they could focus their studying on what would be asked

I would say the second group is far larger, and the existence of the first group does not make it ok to create even a single instance of the second group.

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Why is it extremely unethical and considered a breach of academic integrity in almost all cases to share test material with others?

It's not a a breach of academic integrity when the students share test material. It's their job to gather knowledge. Questions do not have a label on them if they were ever asked in some test or exam. So what if Jacky read about the question in a book while preparing for the test? Or she was clever/distracted enough to flick through a related history magazine and saw the question there, which is the same source the creator of the test got the idea for the question from?

It's a breach of academic integrity when lecturers/professors/... are asking the same question in two different tests in a row, because of the possibility that it could be shared. It doesn't matter what the reasons for this behaviour are, if it's difficult to come up with new questions/laziness/whatever. One shouldn't actively hide information related to the subject from the students. It's the exact opposite of the job: to teach. I recommend the exact opposite: make previous tests available to all students. This way students know what kind of questions to expect, have more material for preparation and it guarantees that there are always new questions in tests.

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    I agree that it's better for tests to be different when they are administered at different times. At the same time, I disagree that the situation described is not a breach of integrity. To me it's like saying that if a homeowner leaves their door unlocked, then it's ok to take their posessions from their home. – Todd Wilcox Oct 1 '15 at 17:40
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    @ToddWilcox That analogy is a common one used in ethics questions and it is apples to oranges. – CGCampbell Oct 1 '15 at 17:46
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    @ToddWilcox in the situation mentioned above, we taught everybody to look for open doors, trained them on how find the most valuable possessions, showed them how to take those possessions in the quickest way (etc.) and we made it clear that this set of abilities is extremely important and now we should be surprised to find that our own possessions were stolen from our home which door we left open? You starved a pack of wolves almost to death for the only purpose of making them hungry and you are now surprised that they attack and eat you? Seriously? – clueless Oct 1 '15 at 17:58
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    Your examples of innocently running across the question in another source are misleading, since the entire point of a test is that the study material already contains all that's needed. Therefore, the only advantage to be gained is knowing precisely which questions are actually on the test, which is not knowledge available by any such means as reading a magazine or book. This unfair narrowing of attention from "subject of the course" to "exactly what's on the test" is precisely the ethical issue. – Nathan Tuggy Oct 1 '15 at 18:05
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    the entire point of a test is that the study material already contains all that's needed — [citation needed] – JeffE Oct 1 '15 at 23:13
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Any grading system that relies in tens to hundreds of students keeping a common secret is a failure and pretending it will work is somewhere between wishful thinking and unethical. In fact, business models based on hundreds of customers keeping a secret don't even work in fiction.

In other words, if you communicate the content of a test to whole classes, you are not sharing a secret with them: you are publishing it, and talking about it is not lack of integrity, it's just talking about public domain facts.

Reusing tests is possible, and it may have some (debatable) advantages, but it's up to faculty organizing the test to prevent flow of information to harm fairness for some students. For example, an institution I worked at prevented students to take away statements or any paper while ensuring that remembered and spoken information was not enough to noticeably affect grades.

Please remember that the way we evaluate students leads the way they learn. If we grade them with a test where the only thing preventing them to cheat is a completely unrealistic integrity goal, we just teach them to break our rules. In fact, they will be thinking that we are just pretending to hide our incompetence or laziness behind an integrity curtain.

And just a final example: Would you tell your students "please answer the test without looking at the formulas in the blackboard" or would you clean the blackboard before handing the statements? And if you leaved the formulas in the blackboard, whose fault of integrity would be that?

Please accept my excuses if I'm offending somebody for being too direct. My English vocabulary falls too short to express those ideas with nice words.

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It was unethical of Roger to tell Jacky about the question. If she answers it right in the test, there will be suspicion that she only knew the answer because Roger told her about the question. Which may be true, or may be false, but the suspicion is there.

Imagine Jacky had made a list of items to study each day, and this question was on her list for the last afternoon before the exam. She didn't know the answer when Roger asked. She would have learned the answer in that afternoon. So now she has the dilemma that if she follows her list and learns the item Roger told her about, and answers the test correctly, there will be suspicion of cheating. So what is she going to do? Putting Jacky into that situation is unethical.

In reality, I would be surprised if the exact same exam questions would be used on two tests at different dates at the same university.

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The breach is obvious -- there's an unfair advantage. Even if the Bell curve isn't used, it harms the reputation of the Institution or the pedagogy of your professor.

It's as simple as that. Now if you didn't want to live up to the rules given by your Institution, then you shouldn't have enrolled.

There are nearly zero exceptions.

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