Do 10 percent of university students cheat on their exams?

We develop a simple algorithm for detecting exam cheating between students who copy off one another’s exam. When this algorithm is applied to exams in a general science course at a top university, we find strong evidence of cheating by at least 10 percent of the students. Students studying together cannot explain our findings. Matching incorrect answers prove to be a stronger indicator of cheating than matching correct answers. When seating locations are randomly assigned, and monitoring is increased, cheating virtually disappears.

That is Steve Levitt and Ming-Jen Lin in an NBER working paper. Unfortunately it is gated and I do not see an ungated one online (pointers welcome).

I once caught my students doing this, and the university fumbled the investigation and disciplinary situation so badly (eventually taking no action) I can only assume the administration botched it intentionally. (I will not name universities but it can only be one of four.) In any case, the constraint on reducing cheating may not be detection technology.

22 thoughts on “Do 10 percent of university students cheat on their exams?

  1. I randomly assign seating. The students know seating will be randomly assigned, but only learn their pre-assigned seat once they have entered the room. Students are able to find their assigned seat easily, even in large classes.

  2. I had an economics professor who I TA’d for tell me to stop trying to catch cheaters. He figured that international students were a funding source that should not be kicked out. When I found domestic students cheating, he said that the type of student to cheat likely isn’t going to pass anyway. He also said that many of the students were aspiring business school students (students needed a good enough GPA to get in), and giving them bad grades might keep them in the Econ department instead.

    It was extremely frustrating to TA students who were working hard and having the curve messed up by cheaters while being told to do nothing about it.

  3. Strange position for economists. A very protestant absolutist approach. Unlike some economic practices are that are accepted easily. Is cheating moral or legal or both? Does cheating help? Like with audits for corruption, policing does not catch the good cheaters, only limits frequency.

    Probably an economical approach to the issue (cheating by copying? come on, you lose only time trying this when the exam itself is halfway intelligent).

  4. From my background in math, I can say that the *only* reliable way to catch cheating is to spot identical *wrong* answers. It’s super-reliable in math — right answers are always the same, but most wrong answers are scattered all over the map, so if they’re identical, you have a cheater.

    Most of the profs I know couldn’t stand the academic discipline system, since it was weak on cheaters.

    One prof’s procedure was this: s/he called the students in and said “One of you cheated. You can either retake the test, individually proctored by yourself, with a new set of questions, right now, or you can accpet an F for the course and walk out.” The cheaters *always* accept the F. The person who was copied off of always agrees to retake the test. Of course, in math it’s easy to create a new set of questions which are testing the same material (you can do it in minutes).

    In science the primary form of cheating is faked lab results. Unfortunately every professor I’ve taken a class from — except one — was overly tolerant of this type of faking, and one fraudster professor openly encouraged it. Gave me major disrespect for them. It’s harder to detect faked lab results after the fact, but it’s usually bloody obvious if you’re actually watching the students DO the lab work.