EPISODE 015

The Score

Released
September 8, 2023

In recent years, it seems that the radio dial on ethics is moving up and down the spectrum. Ethical behavior, intentional or not, is at the root of cheating. This episode of The Score explores how our guest, Garret Merriam (@SisyphusRedemed), an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Sacramento State University in California, responded to widespread cheating on a final exam in his Introduction to Ethics course.

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Show Notes

High points of the conversation follow. Note: Removal of filler words and minor edits have been made for clarity.

Kathryn Baron (01:33): Would you tell us what happened in your Intro to Ethics class?

Garret Merriam (01:42): I came to suspect that some students in my class might’ve been cheating on my final by Googling the answers on the final. I teach a course that’s fully online, has almost a hundred students, and with that much material, that many students going on, it simply isn’t possible for me to create novel finals every semester, as much as I would like to do that. I reuse large portions, though never the entire thing, of my final. And so, I found that by Googling the questions on my final, you could come up with a student who had uploaded a copy of the final with many of the correct answers to the questions.

I made the request of the website, called Quizlet, that they take it down, and I was very pleasantly surprised that they did so promptly and quickly. I was under the impression, I was assuming that they weren’t going to respond, but they did. I was very grateful for that, very professional of them on their side of things.

And then after that, a part of me, perhaps somewhat of a devious part, I suppose, decided to run a little experiment. Part of my research is in experimental philosophy, and I like running experiments, and so I decided to see what would happen if I uploaded a copy of my final with the right questions but the wrong answers.

Garret Merriam (03:01):…After the final was complete, I ran a statistical analysis and found out that approximately 40 of the 96 students cheated on the final.

Garret Merriam (3:35): And this understandably created a bit of havoc both for me, for my students, for my department, and a number of people who became a part of this conversation going forwards.

Kathryn Baron (03:47): When you learned that a student had put the test up on Quizlet, how did you know that the students in your current class had copied it?

Garret Merriam (03:54): What initially led me to be suspicious was a mistake that I had made earlier in the semester. Every week, I upload a reading and a reading quiz, and the idea is they do the reading, and they take the reading quiz just to make sure to put a little pressure on them to incentivize them to actually do the reading. And one week I neglected to upload the reading, but did upload the reading quiz, and then a few hours later I realized my mistake and I went, and I uploaded the reading. But when doing so, I noticed that some of the students had already taken the reading quiz and had gotten a perfect score on it.

Garret Merriam (04:37):….That was hardly proof of anything, but it was enough to make me suspicious. It was enough to make me concerned that something would’ve been going on. So, I Googled those quiz questions, and sure enough, I found the copy of them on Quizlet.

Kathryn Baron (05:49): I read that you contacted the students suspected of cheating. How did that go?

Garret Merriam (6:04):…I put together sort of a blank form letter in which I contacted them and said that I have reason to believe that they had cheated on the final and a few more details without tipping my hand completely. And I sent that out to all of the suspected students.

And somewhere in the ballpark of about two thirds of them got back to me right away and confessed and said that yes, they had cheated, they were apologetic, some of them made excuses, others just asked for understanding and forgiveness, and about one third of them denied it.

And then about half of that third then turned around within 24 hours and even before I got back to them and said, “Okay, you know what? I actually, no, I changed my mind. I’m going to confess.” So, all of this very much reassured my confidence that my method was working here. And of the remainders, some of them, as far as I know to this day, still insist on their innocence. I’d handed things over to the administration at my university.

Kathryn Baron (07:59): Do you have any input into what action the university takes?

Garret Merriam (08:03): I get to determine the penalty as far as my class is concerned. All of the students who did this at the very least got an F on the final.

Kathryn Baron (10:33): I have heard of instances where some professors think, “Well, that would never happen in my class,” and I’m wondering if you received any feedback like that, sort of implying that you must have done something not quite right as a teacher for students to cheat.

Garret Merriam (10:49): It’s certainly tempting to think, and obviously there is some truth to that. The room for this kind of thing is going to vary depending on a lot of details about a particular instructor’s class. To take the most obvious example, if you’re not reusing material like I was, then you’re not going to be encountering this particular problem.

While none of my colleagues gave that particular response, if there’s anyone out there listening, I can certainly imagine that that might be a justified response. However, at the same time, there can be a kind of certain amount of arrogance and maybe laziness that might come along with that too, to think that the problem is something specific about the individual instructor, in this case me, rather than something that is a little bit more systemic.

Again, I want to give credit to professors and other instructors who have found ways to effectively discourage cheating, but I would also say you shouldn’t rest on your laurels and recognize that it is, I think, a best practice to double-check your methods and your sources and to find out in any way you can, whether or not there actually is academic dishonesty going on. You should not simply assume that you are one of the fairly small percentage of instructors who has managed to stamp out academic dishonesty in their ranks completely.

Garret Merriam (12:13): The irony of cheating on an ethics final is something that was not lost on me, and I tried to impose that recognition on all the students who I communicated with as well.

Kathryn Baron (12:21): You did reach out to other colleagues and peers around the country on the online philosophy journal called the Daily Nous, that’s spelled N-O-U-S, which I read is ancient Greek for intellect or understanding. What feedback were you looking for and did you get it?

Garret Merriam (12:38): It actually started on Twitter. I have a fairly modest Twitter presence, but a lot of fellow philosophers follow me, and I follow them. And so I post about the experience and Twitter being Twitter, everything was condensed and a lot of detail was washed out, so I think a lot of people didn’t possibly fully understand exactly what I did and what my reaction to it was. So, someone with a larger following retweeted it with criticism and a lot of people started to jump on and accused me of engaging in dishonesty myself. The most common criticism is a kind of entrapment, that I encouraged or enabled students to cheat and then punished them for doing so.

Garret Merriam (14:07): I wanted to try to filter the audience down to people who at least had some experience with the kind of thing I was talking about.

…It became a very, very populous discussion, which I was fascinated to participate in, and the results were somewhat mixed. I think a lot of the people, once they got the full picture, recognized that I hadn’t engaged in anything majorly morally problematic, and in particular the charge of entrapment was ill-placed. At the same time, several people did criticize, and I think quite fairly, some of the particular ways I went about it, acknowledging that there was things that I could have done better. And I took a lot of that to heart and plan on trying to incorporate some of those criticisms and some of those pieces of advice going forward…

Kathryn Baron (15:06): I’m curious about what parts of the plan do you think were flawed and what did you decide to do differently going forward? And I guess this could be a time to bring in that you actually did try this again with a summer school class. What was different?

Garret Merriam (15:41): For starters, one thing which I did not realize when I reached out to these students and accused them of cheating was that for many of these students, websites like Quizlet are not thought of as forms of academic dishonesty, but just tools that students can use on the internet to study. Several of my students’ claims, and I have no reason not to believe them, that they were just looking for study guides.

Garret Merriam (16:48): To preempt that, I made a change to the syllabus, the academic dishonesty section of the syllabus, and I had a small, recorded lecture on academic honesty, and I made it explicit that the use of websites like Quizlet were not acceptable for the purposes of this class. There may be, and I think there probably are, legitimate uses for websites like that, but I told my students that especially when it comes to the final, all that they need is the material that I hand them and any notes that they have taken over the course of the semester. And that if they start looking online, they risk the possibility of coming across material which qualifies as academically dishonest.

I also, in addition to that, put two new questions at the start of the final. The very first one was whether or not using websites like Quizlet qualified as academic dishonesty and what should happen to students who cheat on their ethics final.

Garret Merriam (18:00):  I deployed this new material for my summer session, which had a total of 29 students. Every single student got those first two questions on the final right, so they were paying enough attention to follow through on that. But in spite of this, I still had three students who cheated, three students who looked up the Quizlet and found it. So that’s an improvement on some metrics. I fell from about 40% down to about 10%, so that’s encouraging. At the same time, again, I reached out to these three students, and I genuinely tried to understand, I did everything I could to impress upon them that using these resources qualified as academic dishonesty. I tried to get their buy-in to say they wouldn’t do this. And in spite of that, three students still did.

Kathryn Baron (23:30): Do you feel that cheating is getting the attention of the wider higher ed community that it deserves? Are there discussions underway in universities, professional associations, and accrediting agencies to identify steps that colleges and universities can take?

Garret Merriam (23:47): Obviously, the 900-pound elephant in the room for academic honesty is large language models like ChatGPT. That has been getting a tremendous amount of attention, and I think rightfully so. I have my students write essays, and I’ve been concerned about that. There are tools and countermeasures to try to check for that, but they’re far from perfectly reliable. It just so happened that this particular instance is not one that had anything to do with artificial intelligence. This was just standard Google and academic websites like Quizlet. I do think that there should be more discussion about websites like that, in no small part just so professors could be more informed about it. Again, I had the assumption, which is no doubt true for some of these websites, that like you said, that it’s a purely for-profit, that they will pay students with credits or something like that for turning in and sharing information.

Garret Merriam (25:27 )…Students are very, very internet savvy. And while I consider myself reasonably internet savvy myself, I know a lot of my colleagues are a little bit older than I am, and even the younger ones aren’t always as online and as plugged in, and even those who are, aren’t always aware of all the possible resources out there that students can use to cheat. So, a broader conversation amongst academia and amongst professional teachers, again, if for no other reason than to draw awareness to these resources, I think is something that is important.