Ben Orlin wrote a while back about the reasons students cheat–or, rather, the many reasons people offer for why students cheat. I’m mostly uninterested in that. What’s important, I think, is that they know you know.
Back in late March, I returned the first “Why is it Black Lives Matter?” history test back to the students and gave them this talk.
“So I was grading the papers, and pleased that people were doing well generally. Some kids saw tremendous improvement. But I was perplexed on one point. Several students were doing okay throughout the test, but getting slaughtered on the “identify key individuals” question, getting almost all of them wrong. I couldn’t figure that out. If you thought John Calhoun was an abolitionist who used to be a slave and Julia Ward Howe was at Harper’s Ferry, then I would figure the finer points of the 1856 election were well beyond your ken. But you all did well on the 1856 election question, while a decent chunk of the class was telling me that Calhoun escaped from his owner in Maryland. This was confusing.”
“Then I had a horrible thought. As you know, because I mentioned it several times during the test, I created two versions of the assessment. I swapped the order of questions, and I swapped the order of some answer choices throughout the test. That would cause occasional problems on the True/False questions, but would be catastrophic on the “identify the right people” question, since the answers were chosen from ten options.”
“So I pulled all the tests that had the identify bloodbath, and sure enough, all of their answers matched perfectly to the other test.”
(Here’s the two test versions, and one example of student work)
I could tell that many students were experience a klong, a massive rush of shit to the heart1, that feeling you get when you realize far too late that you’ve done something very embarrassing and there’s no way to undo the action. Like, say, cheating in such a way you’ve lost any hope of plausible deniability.
“Well. I’m somewhat new to teaching history. It’s pretty easy to spot cheating in math. You have a kid who screws around all the time, never doing any work, and suddenly he’s become so good at math he can do the work in his head. The test has a bunch of right answers and no work. The kid has a cousin who’s really good at math in the same class. I connect dots. Or you see two or three tests with the identical mistake on their tests, so the only challenge is to determine who originated the error so you can correct the misconception before you yell at her for giving others the answer.”
“History’s different, though, because there’s no work shown, and it’s not impossible that you could do really poorly on in-class activities yet be able to recall facts. A really quiet kid who has failed three tests and has taken utterly incomprehensible notes on several different activities could, theoretically, study really hard and how could I prove that she’d copied? That’s why I create two tests, with subtle differences in them that aren’t easy to spot.”
“I usually deal with cheating on an individual basis, but this is widespread. Out of the thirty-eight kids in this room, I have eight of you dead to rights–every single answer is from the other test. Another 6 cheated on at least a few of the answers–I can tell you knew most of them, then lifted the rest. That’s close to half the class caught–and I only caught them because you were unlucky enough to have the other test. How many cheated using the right test?”
“Then there’s the problem of who gave you the answers? I created the test yesterday. I only teach one section. The answers were very nearly all correct. The questions were ordered differently, numbered differently, on different pages on each test. This wasn’t opportunistic looking. This was collusion on a grand scale, probably involving cell phones.”
“I can’t figure out who provided the answers. But that person is in this class, listening to me now. So to that person, let me say three things. First, while I agree the Republicans of that era were nationalist, the party was formed in specific opposition to slavery, so I’d intended that answer to be “A”. It’s arguable, though. Second, you are very, very lucky that you aren’t the only top student who made that particular mistake, or we’d be having an extremely uncomfortable conversation. Third, you were cheating. You might think otherwise, since you were giving answers instead of receiving. But I call it cheating. The administrators would call it cheating. When you get to college, they’ll call it cheating, too. If I could turn you in so that administrators could check your phone and see who you sent answers to, I would.”
“But without that information, my knowledge is incomplete. Some of you cheated with the same test. There are three students in particular who suddenly did exceptionally well. I was pleased. Now I’m just suspicious.”
“There’s some bright spots to all this, though. For example, when I first started grading I was really annoyed at Eddie, because he left half the test blank. But now, I’m kind of happy because this means Eddie didn’t cheat!”
Big laugh. Eddie stands up, arms held up in victory.
“Yeah, Eddie, you moved off the bottom of my disapproval list! But if you turn in a half-empty test again, I’m going to make you eat it. Other bright spots: Maria, who did well, Kevin,who did less well than usual, and Nero, who is doing not great for reasons I can’t figure out, all had tests that bear no relation to the cheating. They made mistakes that no one else made, so I know they weren’t involved.”
“Most of the copied tests seemed to be restricted to that one question. Since that question was worth close to twenty percent of the test, I decided the bloodbath of wrongness would do sufficient damage to your grade. No one who copied got higher than a 65. I’ll also write ‘Copied’ on the top of the test, so you won’t have to wonder if I know.”
“But two of you clearly copied almost every answer on the test and got nearly all of it right save the bloodbath. I don’t know how. But you’re not getting a grade. Since you’re both already failing the class, I don’t have to think about the best way to penalize you.”
“Before I give these tests back, I want to make a couple things very clear. I realize many of you see this class as pointless, and that there’s no harm to cheating. But I don’t care in the slightest whether you value this class or not. It’s my job to assess your knowledge. Cheating stops me from doing that, so I have to stop you from cheating. I’ve got a few security measures in mind. I don’t want any arguing about it, either.”
“Those of you who have me for math know that I’m pretty matter-of-fact about cheating. Just last week, I had exactly the case I described above: a near perfect test from a kid who can rarely focus on work in class, with no work shown and nothing but right answers. I called him outside, told him I was absolutely certain he’d copied the answers from someone, and that I was giving him a D because I figured that was where his knowledge was at. If he wanted to argue, he could do two or three of the problems in front of me. He didn’t want to argue. He took the D.”
“I won’t say I never hesitate about calling out cheating. For example, I’m pretty sure the three people who normally get Cs and Ds but did well on this test cheated and just got lucky having the right test. But I’m going to hold back this close to the semester. I’ll be watching you closely.”
“If I’m wrong, I’m wrong. No one is happier than I am when that happens. Over the years, I’ve had a couple students get really pissed off at the accusation, show me their work and what they know, and I’ve always been relieved. We go right on. No harm, no foul. Other students haven’t protested at all, just look chagrined. Same response either way.”
“It’s not personal. I might have my own moral judgments about cheating, but I’m not going to demand my students live by my morals. So if you get a test back that says “Copied”, don’t think I’ve put a black mark by your name, assume you may as well give up, and quit trying. Do exactly the opposite.”
“At the same time, I’m used to charging cheating with no evidence at all. Here I’ve got a rock solid case. I’m certain that some people cheated. So don’t fake outrage. If you want to talk to me, fine. Just don’t pretend and don’t waste my time.”
“But remember how I reassured you all when the class began that I wouldn’t fail anyone? Show up, do your best, and you’ll pass? Yeah. That’s off. This is your only warning. Cheat in my class again and you will sit on your butt in summer school. I’ll make sure of it.”
There were none.
140 years ago, long before I had any interest in politics, I first learned the word “klong” from Full Disclosure, a William Safire novel about a president, blinded during an assassination attempt, fighting off a 25th Amendment attempt to remove him from office. Props to Noah Millman for being the only person other than me to remember the book whilst all around are calling for it, although his thoughts on Douthat’s madness were annoying. Safire properly credits Ben and Josh’s dad Frank Mankiewicz for the invention. Safire’s example of klong is enjoying a play then suddenly remembering you’d made dinner plans for the same evening on the other side of town, but that’s a tad civilized. A similar feeling is often experienced by murderers in Christie novels.