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05 December 2013

Zen: Don't make academic integrity about academic integrity.

One of last year's summer institute participants is having trouble with students copying homework solutions verbatim off of internet sources.  I have a sneaky feeling he's not the only reader with this problem, especially because I'm asked this sort of question frequently.  Here's the representative letter:

Dear Greg, 

I've been struggling with academic integrity the past few weeks, and I was wondering if I could get your perspective on it. I've noticed that many of my students (who are encouraged to collaborate and use outside resources) realized that there are complete solutions to really almost every single AP Physics problem out there. I've been using a combination of your problem sets and problems from my textbook (Cutnell 8th edition), and when I noticed that some students (especially sly but under-achieving students) have been providing solutions using formulas and approaches that we never talked about in class, I did a google search and discovered that these solutions are out there. Is this an issue that you've faced before? If so, how do you deal with it? If not, how have you avoided it?

I'm thinking of two solutions for how to deal with it; either 

1. I let them use these solutions and when they bomb their tests and quizzes, we can have a conversation like "But you've doing so great on your homeworks; why are you doing so bad on your quizzes?! Let's look at your homeworks and maybe find why there's a disconnect; oh you don't actually understand a lick about what you wrote, so where did you get these solutions from? etc"


2. Deduct massive points when students use a solution different from class. Obviously, the problem with that is Physics is all about having multiple solutions to solve the problem.

Beyond a shadow of a doubt, my students are using these online resources, but again, I'm not sure how best to deal with it. Any advice?

I guess I'd personally lean toward #2, but with a huge twist.

The important part is that you're not seen as playing "gotcha" with academic integrity.  Students sometimes think of integrity as a game of cops and robbers.  If you engage as cop, they play the role of robber and defense attourney.  Your role is more like that of coach... a player who cheats so as not to have to do all of the required sprints or pushups, or who is a dirty player, is letting himself and the team down.  It's less a matter of right and wrong, crime and punishment, as of respect for the game.

And there's why I'm not into approach #1.  Consider a football coach who let his players skimp on conditioning and weightlifting and then get crushed in the first game when they become winded after 10 minutes.  Is it legit for him to yell at the team, "See, you wimps didn't do the workouts, no wonder you lost."?  No, a good coach finds a way to make the team -- or at least the majority of the team -- take conditioning seriously so that they have the prerequisite physical stamina to perform in the game.  

You're positive the students are using online resources in a non-productive way.  So, start by giving parts of a problem as a quiz the next day:  "Explain what value you chose for the normal force on the cart, and why you chose it."  "Consider the problem from last night's homework, but with negative instead of positive charges."  Or even "Here's part (c) of last night's problem.  Do it, explaining each step."  The fact that they have to explain their solution means that they'd better understand what they did on the homework.  If they used an online solution reasonably, then awesome -- they can explain what they did and why, so who cares that they looked up the answer to start with.  More likely, they crash and burn, and they realize that their method was useless.

And there's the most important point, I think:  By giving this kind of quiz, you're not phrasing anything as an issue of academic integrity.  You're making the completely valid demand that students be able to explain homework, not just write answers by rote.  That's good physics teaching, and outside the realm of "cheating."  

So still grade the problems, but make the quizzes the bulk of the homework grade.  And you're right to give poor scores for students who use non-standard methods that you're pretty sure they made up.  If they complain -- which they probably won't, given their quiz performance -- then you simply ask them to use the methods you taught.  If they're smart enough to understand a new nonstandard method, then they're good enough to do it the easy way.  If someone tries to be a lawyer, point to the quiz, and say sorry, you don't understand this, you aren't getting credit for it -- period.  The evidence that you don't understand is in the quiz response.  

Remember, homework is about figuring out how to do the problems, not about how to get the right answer.  In English class, you might be given an essay prompt saying "Describe with textual evidence the meaning of Hamlet's 'to be or not to be' soliloquy."  If your answer is simply, "He's contemplating suicide," you earn an F-.... EVEN THOUGH YOUR ANSWER IS RIGHT.  If you "write" a treatise with big words that you obviously copied from the internet, but your in-class paragraph response shows that you think Hamlet lived happily ever after in the nunnery with Ophelia, then, well... you're probably not getting any credit for your homework essay.

Treat physics homework like English essays, where the presentation and communication matters; and follow up with pointed quizzes; and you'll likely find the integrity issues disappearing.  NOT because your students have come to any epiphany about being good little boys and girls, but because they'll see that cheating simply doesn't do any good.

These are my thoughts... not The One True Answer, but the way I'd approach things.  I'd love to hear other ideas in the comments.

Good luck!



  1. I do not have a one true answer either, but two things have helped. For answers to 'Question' type assignments, that require explanations instead of numeric solutions, I use an online assignment submission and plagiarism-checking service. My school pays for the service, and I also use it for lab reports. It certainly does not eliminate cheating. Sometimes I'll come across work that has been through an obvious treatment of copy-but-put-it-through-the-thesaurus. It does seem to encourage original work, however.
    For numeric problems, I assign 'Birthday Homework'. The entire class gets the same problem set, but the given quantities are based on student birthdays. For example, mass=dd (kg) distance=mm(m); a student born on Dec 11 would use 11kg for the mass and 12m for the distance in the problem. If I don't feel like calculating each solution I set up a spreadsheet with all possible dates. This really has reduced plagiarism (although again not eliminated it). As an aside, I teach 3 of a set of quadruplets(!) this year, so if they had an affinity for cheating this would not work. Fortunately each has a great work ethic.

  2. My simple solution to this has been to reword the questions and type them up myself before assigning them, so that students can't look up the solutions anywhere. For example, consider the following randomly chosen kinematics problem from the Giancoli text, which our school uses:

    A stone is thrown vertically upward with a speed of 12.0 m/s from the edge of a cliff 70.0 m high. (a) How much later does it reach the bottom of the cliff? (b) What is its speed just before hitting? (c) What total distance did it travel?

    If you Google the first sentence of this problem, you'll find the solution instantly. But when reworded, with or without the numbers changed, it cannot be found anywhere:

    A woman standing at the edge of a 60.0 m high cliff launches a rock straight upward at 15.0 m/s. The rock lands at the bottom of the cliff. (a) For how long is the rock in the air altogether? (b) With what speed did the rock hit the ground? (c) What is the total distance traveled by the rock?