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Monday, February 9, 2015

Dealing with Unfair Means

Recently, I wrote a blog about the rampant use of unfair means in our universities and how this is destroying the sanctity of our exams, grades, diplomas and degrees. Naturally, several suggestions came on how to deal with the situation. And frankly, I am shocked. Most of the suggestions are based on the logic that if someone steals 1000 rupees, and get caught, we should ask him/her to return 1000 rupees.

What should be the logic of penalty. To me, the logic is rather simple. On an average, cheating should not be a profitable business. It should be understood that some instances of using unfair means will be caught and others will not be caught. Amongst those that are caught, in some cases, the evidence would be considered weak, and so on. Only a few will be caught with hard evidence, and if a university were to give them no punishment at all, then cheating becomes a profitable business.

A pretty large number of faculty members would do nothing to check use of unfair means in the exams, and would never be able to tell whether someone has cheated. I am not bothered about them. If they want that no one should learn from their courses, that is their problem. (I can not be expected to raise all the problems of Indian academia in this blog.) My problem with such people starts when they sit in disciplinary committees, and want others too to ignore cheating. When a solid evidence of cheating is presented to them, they start pontificating on how everyone deserves a second, third, fourth chances in life. For God's sake, no one is talking about taking away their lives for cheating. And they will have second, third and fourth chances in life, even if some penalty is imposed on them now.

Some people say that they give a zero in the questions that they are sure have been copied. It is a shame that we have such people as faculty members, is all I would say. They do not even understand that they are strongly encouraging cheating by students. The first group was supporting cheating because they had a bleeding heart. This group is supporting cheating because they have no brains. I would any day prefer someone with a bleeding heart over a braindead person.

Then we had a faculty member tell me proudly that he gives not just a zero but a few negative marks as well. Now, just think about it. A student copies 3-4 questions. The instructor is able to confirm one or two questions, and the negative marks are less than the marks obtained in the other two questions. So even this student who has been caught benefits from cheating. And, of course, all those who are not caught, benefit hugely from cheating.

Another method employed was to give one grade less. So the faculty member would grade the whole paper as if nothing had happened. They will decide the grade in the normal way, and while submitting the grades to the academic section, reduce the grade by one. Now, think about it. If that student had not copied all those questions, and had not been able to obtain marks in those questions (and you don't know whether it was just one question or 10 questions), the chances are that s/he would have been given one grade less on the basis of performance anyway. So once again, you are talking about same status as without cheating, if s/he gets caught. And all those who do not get caught benefit. Overall, cheating wins.

The next method employed was to ask the student to drop the course. In IIT Kanpur, we allow students to drop courses till 3rd month of the semester, and hence if anyone is caught cheating in the first three months, the simple thing to do is to drop the course. Now, of course, students plan well. If someone is habitual cheater, s/he would register for one course extra in the semester. If s/he is unlucky and does get caught in one of those courses, just drop that course and move on in life. It is really no punishment at all, because in any case the student was planning to drop one course.

Then, we have the "harsh" kinds who would fail the student in the course. Whether this punishment is sufficient or not (from the point of view of ensuring that cheating does not pay on an average) will really depend on what do you believe is the extent of cheating and what fraction of students are getting caught. If we have a great system and a fairly large number of students who cheat tend to get caught, then giving them an "F" grade would at least making sure that cheating does not pay. However, ask any student and you will know that a very tiny fraction of students actually are caught. Also, when we say that cheating should not pay, we are really not looking at a system where the net return is zero, but we should be looking for a system where the net return is significantly negative. Considering these two, it is clear to me that just failing the student is not enough. (I fail such students in my course, because that is the maximum I can do as an instructor, and IIT Kanpur has an extremely poor track record of punishing unethical behavior.)

So the minimum punishment for an act of cheating should be removing the student from the rolls for a semester. (This effectively amounts to failing a full semester load of courses, though such a failure is not recorded in the transcript, and hence increases the cost of cheating.) And if someone has been a repeat offender, or someone who has done cheating through means which are more difficult to catch, the punishment has to be much stronger, perhaps leading to the termination of the program altogether and rusticating the student from the university.

20 comments:

Taposh said...

Just out of curiosity, isn't is possible to have a CCTV in the exam hall, may be a bunch of them, and then we declare to the students that the cameras are there. The TA's and teachers can review the footage after the exam to make sure nothing funny happened. If any student's behavior looks suspicious, then you go to the answer sheet. This way you also know who was sitting next to whom, etc.

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

@Taposh, the discussion is not about how to detect copying, but what to do AFTER someone has been caught and there is sufficient evidence of copying, and the only issue it discusses is what is an appropriate penalty once it has been convincingly established who copied what, etc.

Taposh said...


Dear Prof. Sanghi,

The way you have written the blogs, I got the impression that perhaps you have ruled out almost all ways of punishing students. Also, it appears to me that, if deciding appropriate penalty is the real topic, then this discussion is a special case of the more general discussion of what type of punishment should be awarded for different types of crimes (murder, theft, fraud etc). This larger social problem, I think, is impossible to resolve. People still debate on what should be the right punishment.

That is why my first impression is that perhaps at an academic institute level, the real problem may be only of stopping the copying. So, automatically, any discussion I see of copying in exams, I automatically feel it is only about avoiding. Perhaps I think this way because unlike you, I have never been a professor, who is in charge of such things.

I appreciate what you are doing. Just my thoughts.

L said...

In my university as perhaps in most universities, if caught cheating and if there is hard evidence, the student is debarred from exams for three years.The exam paper along with the "chit" pinned to it, statements from invigilator and the exam coordinator are sent to the university. The chit should match the answer written by the student-proof that he has copied.
If such hard evidence is not there, but the student has been caught with a chit, his hall ticket must be confiscated, in which case he cannot write the remaining exams. However, usually, in such cases he is let off with a warning, but cannot continue writing that particular exam.
Many years ago, there was this lady who had written reams in her sari pleats. Her sari was cut out and pinned to her paper as evidence!

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

Three years!!! I hope people from IIT Kanpur are reading this blog and the comments.

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

@Taposh, In most crime like situations, it is, of course, important to detect crime. However, the reason I am focusing on penalty in this blog is that when it comes to use of unfair means in exams, detection is actually quite simple, and at least at IIT Kanpur, we are seeing that penalties are non-existent, and I would assume that if cheating in exams is such a big problem across the country, it cannot be simply an issue of detection. And my understanding is that not having any penalty strongly discourages anyone to do anything to improve detection. So we must at least sensitize the disciplinary committees that they need to be tougher than what they have been.

Taposh said...

Dear Prof. Sanghi,

I was really talking about prevention and not detection. I was curious if CCTV cameras can be used as a deterrent.

Of course there are other ways to prevent cheating. And I also understand that this is easier said than done.


Sarvesh Chakraborty said...

Dear Sir,
I am an Engineering student, in DTU, Delhi. I don't know the examination procedures in IIT-Kanpur, however, out here, the examinations are too theory based, and don't test our problem solving skills appropriately. I would like to know your views on conducting open book tests in colleges, wherein one can refer manuals, textbooks, research papers, etc. In my belief, such a test, if given the major importance in the marking scheme, would enhance our practical skills, not directly, but open us up to real lfe problem solving. In real engineering, I doubt that one remembers every equation/formula under pressure. Rather, it would be a better idea to know a general approach to a problem, which can be tweaked specifically. Split second solutions are rare in practical engineering.Please put forward your views on the same
Thank You

iitmsriram said...

Dheeraj, it is not just about cheating in exams; across IITs, I feel the penalties on students for most misconduct is rather minor. I caught one student cheating in the exam on two of my courses (in different semesters). The second time, I pointed out to the disciplinary committee that the student was failing anyway and giving him a failing grade would actually mean nothing. In fact, like you point out, it would actually encourage him to cheat - if he gets caught, he loses nothing, if he is not caught, he passes the course! What a deal!! The disciplinary committee threw this at the senate - where people were very uncomfortable at my presenting the case as above but did nothing anyway - give the poor boy a failing grade and give him another chance.

A few years ago, when I was HoD, I caught a student who stole a PC from the department and was using it in his hostel room. He had completed his B.Tech. and was looking forward to joining our MS program - we would have loaned him the PC to use in his hostel room if he had just asked (as his PC had crashed). The disciplinary committee felt that they could do nothing at this stage. As HoD, I told him that I would not admit a thief to the MS program and cancelled his admission. I also told him that as HoD, I would not read his name at the convocation and he should take his degree in absentia. He brought an uncle to plead his case for softening the punishment. It turned out that this uncle was working as an administrator for a local private university. I asked the uncle what the punishment would be at his university for this same misconduct. The uncle just got up, and thanked me for being lenient; on his way out, he told me that the punishment at his private university would be immediate expulsion.

Last year, at the IITM cultural festival, there was some organised cheating involving printing counterfeit tickets. What was the punishment? The "entire swindled amount was recovered as fine"!! (https://t5e.iitm.ac.in/2014/06/out-in-the-open-the-saarang-misappropriation-scandal/). Well, the certificates recognising organisational efforts would not be issued etc, but not enough, I think.

Saurabh Joshi said...

Dear Sir,
I partially agree with your views. I agree that to make things fair, there has to be some kind of penalty so as not to discourage honest students. But the amount of penalty is debatable. I don't think suspending a student for one whole semester or kicking out a student from the institute fits in the overall goal of educating students. Failing a student should also be exercised only for repeat offenders with caution.

I think the purpose of educational institute is just to educate and believe that the true purpose of examination is to let the students themselves know how good/bad they are and where to divert/concentrate their efforts. Unfortunately, the society has made exams/grade success/brightness indicators which provide gateway to good career opportunities. Ideally, I would like the exams to be just a mean for a student to self reflect and introspect. I don't have any solutions, but I really wish this madness and obsession of exams/grades stop.

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

@Saurabh Joshi, it is easy to talk philosophy, and I hope you and us will find an alternate education system one day. But as long as exams are part of the university system, educating students include telling them that they should be honest. And any system which gives student a benefit when they cheat is not educating them to be honest.

Saurabh Joshi said...

Dear Sir,
I agree that exams are necessary. Giving harsh penalty to repeat offender is certainly justified but I believe leniency should be shown towards first timers. The reason is that input to IIT comes from a society which believes in attaining the desired result no matter what.

I know a person who had admitted his children in a remote/rural area just for 10th standard as the exam centers there would allow rampant cheating/copying. It turns out that one of the kids got a false sense of confidence and opted for disciplines in which he was not good at. The frustration of not succeeding further finally resulted in his tragic suicide. I am sure the father would have repented his decision had he foreseen the future.

But the point is that cheating/copying is so pervasive in parts of our society that many people think that it is the right thing to do. That's why I believe in second chances. Also, apart from corrective measures, I am not aware if there are preventive measures in place in IITK. For examples, some universities have a compulsory course on ethics. A few universities in India also have started doing so. If not a full length course, can't there be a compulsory mini-course to teach ethics in IITK? Needless to say, having exams in such a course and grading students would defeat the purpose :D. May be students should be evaluated based on attendance, in-class interactions and case-studies.


Dheeraj Sanghi said...

@Saurabh Joshi, a couple of months ago, we had a lecture by a distinguished academic administrator. He told us about policy on discipline in his institute. He said that things about which there can be doubt in someone's mind whether it is right or wrong, he will be lenient. But things about which there is unanimity that they are wrong, there is no leniency. And he said he could perhaps consider a lenient view on someone drinking hard liquor (which by the way is illegal), but he can not take a lenient view of copying, since there is no student or teacher he has met who will say that copying is alright.

That has been my experience too. In more than two decades of my academic career, you are the first person who is claiming that some people believe that copying is the right thing to do. Many people believe that it is profitable thing to do, yes. Many people believe that everyone does it, and hence harsh punishment on few is not justified, ok. But I have not come across even one person who would justify copying in an exam.

Sorry, I disagree.

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

@Sriram, you are right that our punishments for pretty much everything is very minor, particularly when it comes to those who have come to IIT through JEE. In the last 10 years at IITK, for most complaints, the punishment has been a warning. In few cases when the student received a semester drop, they appealed and in many cases, the punishment was reduced. Even after someone is caught more than once for cheating in exams, we have examples of them getting just a warning. I remember one really unlucky student who was caught 6 times copying in exams over three semesters, and finally the sixth time, he was given a semester drop.

I have also come across that the much maligned private universities typically maintain better value system than top of the line CFTIs.

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

@Sarvesh, the exams at IITK is up to the instructor, and some instructors do give an open book exam. However, you shouldn't be asking for it. The open book exams are typically more difficult than closed book exams, since there are no "simple" recall type of questions.

Saurabh Joshi said...

Dear sir,

I think there is a misunderstanding here. I personally think copying/cheating is wrong. I was just pointing out that I have seen many instances where some people think these activities are right. So all I was suggesting is that if there is a course/mini-course on ethics to educate students (as a preventive measure) it would help.

Let me re-iterate that I am not at all in support of copying and have never done so in my life. I still believe that first time copying should be dealt with a bit of leniency. Of course this does not apply to stealing a lab PC as someone pointed out earlier. In that case, student should have been expelled/reported to the police.

May be my stand for leniency towards first time offenders are not aligned with your views. I guess we just have to agree to disagree here :-).

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

@Saurabh Joshi, I am agreeable to progressively harsher punishment for repeat offenders. I am only saying that the punishment should be such that on an average it should not result in gains for cheating. As I have argued in the blog, punishment less than an "F" grade actually incentivise cheating to such an extent that it is not a loss to even the student who is caught. Any suggestion that gives incentives to cheat can not be acceptable to me. So, yes, let us agree to disagree.

Prashant Saxena said...

I completely agree with both Prof. Sanghi and Prof. Sriram here. Nearly all the students in IITs are above 18 years of age and must be treated as adults. It is for their own benefit as they should learn to take responsibility for their own actions - something that is to be expected of them once they move into the real world.

While I was a student at IITK, it seemed that mid-sem and end-sem exams were the only times when a professor would be concerned with the issue of copying. A huge amount of plagiarism also happens during submission of assignments and lab reports. Since they also contribute to the overall grade, one should also be penalised in this case as well.

P.S: I would ideally like to talk about how to instill ethics and how to avoid cheating altogether, but since Prof. Sanghi wants to discuss about "what to do AFTER someone has been caught", let's stick to this topic.

Aryan Garg said...

1. The students who cheat in the exam and pass will fail at a later time in life.

2.There are cheaters who are guilty conscious of their act and have cheated because of some bad circumstance. If you punish these guys harshly it can lead to serious psychological damage to them.

3. Cheating at IIT Kanpur can be prevented by adopting an open book, open notes exam style. As a senior faculty member you must be knowing that whenever the instructor asks the opinion of the students on whether to go for open book exam, all students vote against open book exam.
open book exam is the real challenge that students face in industry. in industry there is no restriction on using books or seeking help from colleagues.

4. cheating by a student also brings forth the shortcomings on the part of the instructor in delivering the course material especially in an institution like iit kanpur which has the best students.

d s said...

Two thoughts-
It is surprising how much we Indians seem to be comfortable with the idea of cheating, assuming it's part of the system, and all the while crying about how the system is messing with us.
It's this thought process that should change. I think I've succeeded in changing atleast one person's outlook in this respect.

Two, in German universities (most of them), the punishment for using any unfair means is straight rustication. In most cases, it is a direct decision,meaning no discussions are even entertained once the student has been caught. Harsh, one would say, but I think that's one way of hardwiring the system.