What Happens When 75% of Your Class is Caught Cheating

Dr. Matt Crump is a psychology professor at Brooklyn College of CUNY. Like many professors during the pandemic, he was forced to take his class fully virtual and faced challenges of enforcing academic integrity when doing so.

However, his story took a slightly different turn.

In a lengthy, nine-part piece on his blog, Crump tells the story of his “semester from hell”. It began when he was granted access to a WhatsApp chat for the course. While such chats can be a good thing for a course, providing legitimate assistance and social networking during virtual learning, this chat took a darker turn. 

In this chat, which had approximately 70 students in a class of over 100, there was widespread cheating on quizzes, assignments and even one of the midterms. 

At first, Crump tried to pivot the course. He moved to giving writing assignments instead of multiple choice quizzes and changed the second midterm so that it would be more difficult to cheat on. The latter worked well as students struggled to share answers and those that did cheat on the second midterm “failed miserably”. 

It was at this point that Crump tried something different. Though he made sure to file all required reports with the school, he opted to use the 4-5 weeks remaining in the semester to hit the reset button. He confronted his class about the cheating and created an “alternative syllabus” as a means to allow those in danger of failing to engage with the material and turn their semester around. 

For the most part, it worked. According to Crump, the majority of students completed the new assignments and went on to receive a passing grade. Some still failed and some committed plagiarism in the new assignments and failed, including one student who plagiarized a required 150-word assignment on academic integrity.

The move also had a knock on effect the next semester. Though a similar group chat was established for that class, a chat Crump once again accessed, cheating was not endemic in that chat with many students warning about what happened the previous semester.

It’s a great story and one well worth reading in its entirety (if nothing else than for the funny GIFs). However, there are several key takeaways that I definitely think are worth focusing on.

Key Takeaways

The story is long and winding, but there are definitely a few points worth focusing on.

First is the gradient of the cheating that took place. When you look at the 70ish students in that group chat, there’s a variety of individual stories. Some were resolutely against cheating and would intentionally sign out of the chat during exam periods, others were so committed to cheating they plagiarized their second chance papers.

Everyone sat somewhere on that gradient. Many students participated in the cheating even though they didn’t need any help. Some could have easily aced the tests without any unfair advantage, and many others actively sabotaged themselves by cheating.

What this means is that we can’t put all cheating or plagiarizing students in the same box. Though there will always be hardcore cheaters that can’t avoid taking shortcuts when they are gifted a (largely undeserved) second chance, most aren’t so committed. 

This can have a big impact on not only how instructors respond to academic integrity violations, but also how they teach these issues and discourage students from cheating.

In a similar vein, it’s also worth highlighting that, despite 70 students being involved in the chat and several refusing to participate in the actual cheating, no one told Crump about the cheating. He learned about it on his own. 

When students were pressed, they said they feared reprisal. That fear was apparently warranted, as a “snitch hunt” began after the cheating was exposed. That hunt included more than a few veiled threats of violence.

Finally, it’s interesting to note Crump’s response. Rather than trying to lock down and secure the course, he moved it to a full asynchronous course. Many would respond to this as an arms race, finding better tools for catching cheaters and placing greater burdens on the students all the while. 

Crump, on the other hand, opened it up more, making it his goal to get students to engage with the material rather than necessarily catch every cheater. It seems to have worked well for Crump, and it may be an approach for other educators to take.

Bottom Line

Cheating and plagiarism are never as straightforward as we would like them to be. It’s easy to create a narrative that frames cheaters are purely bad people who lack the ethical fortitude to do their own work. 

However, cases like this one and the Harvard cheating scandal of 2012 puts that narrative in a new light. Are all 70 of these students in that chat bad students? It seems unlikely that nearly three quarters of such a large class would be beyond redemption.

Crump is no different from other educators an in trying to find a way to balance being tough on cheating while also recognizing the humanity of the students involved. There is no easy answer here but, as Crump’s story shows, there’s no singular path to success.

Enforcing academic integrity will require better tools and techniques for spotting cheating, but it will also require a reimagining of education and student assessment. Continuing as we have and simply hoping for bigger, badder and better technology isn’t enough.

When a simple group chat can get 70 students in the trouble for cheating, it’s pretty clear that change is going to have to come at a more fundamental level.