Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Caltech honor code and cheating

I hope this isn't true! From Seth Roberts' blog:
Cheating at Caltech

Caltech has a serious problem with undergraduates cheating on academic work, which Caltech administrators appear to be ignoring. A few years ago, one alumnus considered the problem so bad that he urged other alumni to stop donating. I attended Tech (that’s what we called it) for a year and a half in the 1970s. I didn’t think cheating was a problem then. Now it is.

A recent article in the Times Higher Education Supplement by Phil Baty praised Caltech’s “honor system”, which includes trusting students not to cheat on exams. A Caltech professor of biology named Markus Meister told Baty that “cheats simply cannot prosper in an environment that includes such small-group teaching and close collaboration with colleagues because they would rapidly be exposed.” That strikes me as naive. How convenient for Meister that there is no need to test his theory — it must be true (“cheats simply cannot prosper”).
... There is a small and growing population of students at Caltech [who] are systematically cheating, and the Caltech administration is aware of it but refuses to do anything about it. I suspect the problem began when Caltech started advertising its ‘Honor Code’ to prospective high school students in the 90′s, which lead to self-selection of students who were willing to bend the rules. ...

The comment below is consistent with my experiences at Caltech in the 80s. We took the honor code very seriously ...
Bill Mitchell Says:
February 19th, 2014 at 3:29 pm
The honor system appeared to work when I was there. Decades later, Caltech remains one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. As the school’s president put it to incoming students at our orientation, “we will challenge not just your mental limits, but your physical limits,” meaning sleep deprivation. The intensity was incredible. Exhausting, but rewired me to think better.

But it does depend upon the student culture. If cheating takes root, an honor system can’t work. I would hate to see them lose a well-earned reputation by not putting a lid on cheating, if it is a growing problem.

Bill Mitchell Says:
February 19th, 2014 at 3:53 pm
Actually I just realized the honor system was likely working in the 1980s, deducible from two facts: most courses there were still being graded on a C curve, and individual student scores in applied math and electrical engineering tests often averaged below 70%, with wide variance.

If cheating were rampant at that time, this seemingly could not have occurred. The bell-curve grading would have driven competition among cheaters, which would either have driven scores up, or driven variance down, or both. That doesn’t seem to have happened.

I have no idea if any of that is still true today.
See also Vernon Smith at Caltech.


Hao Ye said...

I graduated in 2006, and my perception was that cheating was pretty rare. Recent data from core class profs seems to indicate that's there's been a sizable shift in the culture:

Al_Li said...

From the comments of the said blog

gs said...

By design or not, a winner-take-all society incentivizes cheating. That may be especially true in times like these, when the economy is stagnant and the number of growth pathways is restricted.

heretoi said...

cheating and getting away with it is far superior to not cheating. I studied at an elite institution, and the vast majority of students did not cheat. There were a few however who worked hard and also cheated. They always came out on top. That is simply the best combination. A hardworking dunce who plays by the rules deserves to get eaten alive by a more cunning and ambitious student who knows to allocate his resources wisely. It should be the university's responsibility to make it difficult for students to cheat. A student should be encouraged to cheat as much as possible without getting caught. Life is not about playing nice and sticking to the rules. PS I say this as a straight arrow who has never cheated in anything, while watching savvy and manipulative people get ahead of me repeatedly.

bg2b said...

I'd also like to think it's not true. I graduated in 1987 and my impression was that people took the honor code very seriously. If the culture has changed, that's a terrible loss.

LondonYoung said...

Seems to me that cheating is best done to get *into* college rather than while there - who cares about college GPA's?
However, I do think it behooves honor system type schools to avoid admitting undergraduates from cultures that are systemically corrupt - like those scoring less than 50 at Transparency International - simply because the kids will have been trained to cheat when they can without really needing a motivation.

Iamexpert said...

You care about GPA if you want to go to a good grad school. If you don't plan to go to grad school, what's the point of attending (a good) college at all. Outside of academia and a few select fields, elite college attendance has no independent effect on one's career success for most people

Hacienda said...

Is this the blog of after-school teacher that teaches test prep to Asians and then
turns around calls Asians cheaters for prepping for standardized tests?

steveman518 said...

I graduated this past spring and unfortunately this (both the cheating and the grade inflation) was an increasing problem over my four years at tech. This has been noticeable in the last couple of classes, where it has been more common for a student to complain to the ARC because they deserved a higher grade than they received, and for the BoC to take little action beyond removing points from work where cheating was verified. This has absolutely infuriated a good handful of individuals, especially Niles Pierce, who felt (rightfully so) that the punishments should be stronger to send a clear message (and whose decision to hold his ACM 95/100a exams in class infuriated a lot of students). I sadly find it more commonplace that more and more students are not willing to put in the effort to learn (otherwise what's the point of attending Caltech?). While these students (the cheaters, the entitled, etc) are in the minority, this minority is growing and becoming more vocal.

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