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2012 fall columnists Credit: Justin Cohen , Kurt Mitman

My first experience with cheating at Penn came when I was a teaching assistant. I regularly attended the lectures for the course and sat in the back of the classroom. One day when homework was due, I saw that one of the students sitting in front of me asked the student sitting next to her for his homework. She proceeded to copy his assignment during the class time. I was dumbfounded — the students knew I was sitting directly behind them!

At the end of the class, I asked the two students to stay after. I told them they were receiving zeros on the assignment because I saw that she had copied his assignment during class. What happened next was even more shocking. The students said they hadn’t cheated. They had worked together last night on the assignment (which was allowed) — she just hadn’t had the time to write it up. So it wasn’t cheating. My response? Not suitable to be published in print.

My anecdote aside, as a TA, I’ve seen many ways students cheat the system. Many get access to homework solutions or tests from previous years. Access to these materials is especially common in fraternities (several current members informed me that such digital repositories exist), but extends even to academic programs — dual-degree students admitted to sharing past homework and exams through institutionalized Dropboxes.

Of course, the faculty enables this type of cheating by not writing new homework or sufficiently different exams year to year. Part of the reason is that it’s hard to do so, especially if you have been teaching the course for many years.

Clearly, we need to address this problem, but in order to effectively do so, we really need to know how and why students cheat.

To start with, cheating seems to be common at Penn because students are pre-professional and want good grades to help them with their post-college plans. Anyone who’s ever taught a course designed for pre-meds can surely attest to their incessant grade grubbing.

The pre-professional thought process appears to be extenuated when students consider with whom they’re competing. One student intimated that because Penn was not on the level of Harvard or Yale, the way for a Penn student to be competitive was to have higher grades. The idea was that even if you got bad grades at Harvard, you still went to Harvard.

The incentive to cheat can be exacerbated by grading schemes which favor relative rather than absolute standards.

One pre-med student told me about a course in which it was announced that a fixed fraction of the class would receive A’s, B’s and so on. He said that because he was a good student, he had never considered cheating before, but for the first time he was worried because he knew that other students were cheating in the class. He feared that if he didn’t cheat, his relative position would earn him a lower grade.

In that sense, cheating turns into an arms race. If everyone cheats, they’re worse off than if nobody cheated. But if nobody cheats, then individuals have an incentive to do so.

One potential solution would be to essentially not trust students at all, and assume students will cheat given any opportunity and design the evaluation of the course with that in mind. This would involve giving well-proctored exams as the only form of evaluation or, for more subjective courses, running all essays and papers through software to detect plagiarism.

But surely we can do better than an environment of distrust.

It would be great if we could build a community of trust between students and faculty that wouldn’t require such vigilance against cheating. At my alma mater, the University of Virginia, with the nation’s oldest student-run honor system, we had a community of trust. It was common for me to take a timed, closed-book, take-home exam during my years there.

To build that type of community requires students to want to be trusted by the faculty, for them to make a concerted effort to win that trust and, ultimately, for their morals to outweigh their pre-professional concerns. Whether Penn students have the will or desire to do this is an open question, but they should.

Kurt Mitman is a Sixth-year doctoral student from McLean, Va. His email address is Follow him @SorryToBeKurt. “Sorry To Be Kurt” usually appears every Friday.

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