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A professor at a top USA university recently assigned a take-home exam for a masters-level computer science course. One of the questions was extremely difficult, but the answer was available online. However, the exam clearly stated, "Do not look online".

Most of the students know enough to discern whether the online answer is correct. It will be practically impossible for the professor to detect any cheating, assuming there is basically only one way to answer the question.

While writing the exam, most students will assume that the answer is available online, as many answers are, and that some students will inevitably cheat. They will know that the cheaters will have an unfair advantage, and thus may obtain the highest grades. So there is pressure on all of the students to cheat, to eliminate the unfair advantage.

However, there is an extremely remote chance of getting caught, and being penalized for academic misconduct. Moreover, the honest students naturally want to be honest, because they have integrity.

I have four questions:

  1. Is it ethical for a professor to give such a take-home exam, which tends to reward and encourage cheating?

  2. If the professor becomes aware that one answer was available online, should he discard all answers to the extremely difficult question?

  3. Should the Dean intervene to ensure fairness and to stop such take-home exams?

  4. How can an honest student report that the answer was available online, without risking retaliation? (The student has no evidence that the professor or Dean care.)

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    The professor clearly does not care that the solution is available online: the direction to not look online means they are aware that the solution may be found there. Your assertion that there is only one way to answer the question is very wrong. If the question is so difficult, the professor is not looking for you to solve the question, but to see what you do to try to solve the question. Should you provide the online answer, I expect you will get zero marks. – Peter K. Oct 31 '16 at 0:17
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    By looking at the online answer, the student can learn how to approach the question. It's like reverse-engineering any existing technology. It's much easier to "re-invent" something when the solution is right before your eyes. – Photon Oct 31 '16 at 0:34
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    You're right, the prof could plant some wrong solutions. But in reality, most profs don't care enough to bother with that. Due to professors' and university administrators' general lack of vigilance, cheating is common, in my experience, and the cheaters rarely get caught. This degrades the value of the degree for everyone. – Photon Oct 31 '16 at 2:06
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    "Most profs" is not a concrete person. You never know whether the concrete prof is or is not going to check. Most people I know personally, try honestly to check. With various elaborate ways to cheat nowadays, it is not serious to expect academics to spend significant time to investigate potential cheaters rather than prepare good material for those who are interested to learn... – Captain Emacs Oct 31 '16 at 8:55
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    What you need to do is find a assignment where the first hit Google gives doesn't work. Then assign that. I did this once by accident, and got a significant fraction of wrong answers. – Peter Shor Nov 22 '17 at 12:59
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To answer in order:

  1. I don't see why it's unethical for the professor to give a take-home exam. I don't dispute your (implied) assertion that this may benefit those who are willing to ignore the professor's explicit directions -- but that's unethical of them, not the professor, in my opinion.

  2. This is entirely up to the professor. It would likely be within their right to do so, but my guess is that most professors would shrug their shoulders and make a note to themselves not to ask that question on a take-home exam again. You'll argue that this is unfair to students who follow the professor's instructions -- and you're right. Unfortunately, however, the world is not fair. That doesn't mean I -- or the professor -- condone cheating, but the professor likely knows that this risk exists with a take-home exam, and has judged it an acceptable risk.

  3. What is the dean going to do in this situation? Force everyone to retake the exam? This may not be feasible -- for example, at my university, some classes have online sections off students who aren't physically present on the main campus. This precludes in-person exams oftentimes.

  4. My advice would be to use a throw-away email account if you're so inclined. Keep it anonymous, but alert the professor. Understand though that they may choose not to act on the information -- and there likely isn't much you can do.

I don't mean to this be harsh -- just realistic. A better solution for the professor might be to explicitly allow online resources, but then structure the exam such that those resources don't help students any more than memorizing the material would. The easiest ways I can think of doing this are (1) opinion-based questions and (2) time limits that make accessing such resources a costly waste of the available time.

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    Re: (1) Opinion-based answers, this is not applicable to quantitative and technical subjects such as computer science, which focus on computations, procedures, and obtaining the correct answer. Re: (2) If short time limits are desirable, why bother with a take-home exam, and its inevitable opportunities for cheating? A traditional classroom or exam-hall setting would avoid those problems. – Photon Oct 31 '16 at 1:04
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    @Photon: As for the dean's responsibility: yes, they could stipulate that. But my guess is that politically, most deans wouldn't see it as a worthwhile pursuit. Here's why: faculty will see that at best as a (perhaps well-intentioned) imposition on their teaching; at worst, they will see that as an undermining of their authority in the classroom (with the potential for further restrictions down the road). – tonysdg Oct 31 '16 at 1:58
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    @Photon: As for the opinion-based questions, I disagree that they are not applicable to subjects such as computer science. Perhaps for your course they are not, but I can easily construe a question such as "How should I design this software component? Explain what data structures and algorithms you would use, and why." If a student could reasonably defend their design, it could lead to multiple acceptable answers. – tonysdg Oct 31 '16 at 2:01
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    Your suggestion that "A better solution for the professor might be to explicitly allow online resources" makes sense. We know cheating will occur, and it will typically not be caught. Pretending otherwise just hurts the honest students. However, re: in-class exams: Cell phones can be prohibited, which prevents internet research. Also, covert team effort is much more difficult in an exam hall. Therefore, exams with restrictions should be held in exam halls. In contrast, take-home exams should not be subject to restrictions, as they are unlikely to be enforced, and only hurt the honest students. – Photon Oct 31 '16 at 2:23
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    @Photon: You seem to feel fairly strongly about this, and I've made my case about as best as I feel I can. Fundamentally, I agree with you that this restriction isn't a great one -- but I disagree strongly with your assertion that it represents unethical behavior on the part of your instructor. I hope you find an answer to your liking. – tonysdg Oct 31 '16 at 2:29
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It isn't good practice to set an assessment (of which a take-home exam is simply a time limited assessment) where the answer is easily available online.

This goes against one of the first principles of educational integrity, which is set to assessments which aren't easy to cheat on. Setting an assessment where the answer is easily available could even be said to be encouraging cheating.

For a programming assessment at this level, I'd expect students to look at example code fragments, to research algorithms that could be used etc. That's just normal practice. In this day and age, all that information is on the Internet by default. Many programming environments don't even have offline help documentation.

I would note that take home examinations are particularly susceptible to contract cheating (see, for instance, my recent paper on exam cheating here). They are unsupervised and third parties love to complete these for students as they can charge a premium due to the short deadlines. It's often difficult to see what a take home exam is designed to accomplish over a standard piece of coursework (or an invigilated exam).

I did note people advocating for professors to deliberately put wrong answers online to see if students use them. To me, that's a severe breach of principles of academic integrity. It might even encourage a student to cheat who would not have considered doing so otherwise. In the UK, I'd expect that to be treated as a staff disciplinary issue. With the number of law firms now who widely advertise on the Internet and represent students in such cases, the university (or professor) may also find themselves at financial risk if this breaches documented university processes, policies and regulations.

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    Setting an assessment where the answer is easily available could even be said to be encouraging cheating. — Similar argument suggest that driving an expensive car encourages theft, selling matches encourages arson, and walking alone at night encourages sexual assault. No. Assuming honesty may be naive, but people who violate that trust are not victims. – JeffE Oct 23 '17 at 0:50
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    I agree totally @JeffE that students should know when they are acting dishonestly (and usually do). But current recommendations on best practice are all about removing temptations. Most academic processes are designed to protect students - generally a good thing. The same holds for academic misconduct processes. There is an alternative analogy to consider when the owner of an expensive car leaves it unattended, with the windows open and the keys in the ignition. Stealing the car is still equally wrong, but it would be less of a surprise if it ended up being stolen. – Thomas Lancaster Oct 23 '17 at 15:05
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    Pretty much for everything that is reasonable to ask in lower-level college math courses, materials that help can be found online. So if I follow your advice "it isn't good practice to set an assessment where the answer is easily available online" this would in practice mean only in-class assessments. – Peter Shor Oct 23 '17 at 17:52
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    @PeterShor, I would say that it is approximately true that assessments (as opposed to drafts for critique-ing, for example) nowadays, of lower-level material, cannot easily be done outside a classroom. – paul garrett Oct 24 '17 at 0:27
  • @PeterShor, for formative assessment, I think it's fine if solutions are available online. For summative assessment in the maths case you mentioned, then yes, I believe that at least part of the assessment needs to be supervised. They may be exceptions where there is an original component (e.g. a statistical analysis of fresh data, or an accompanying written reflective exercise). – Thomas Lancaster Oct 24 '17 at 12:58

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