Two Duke Students Use E-Mail To Flush Out Cheaters

Would students dare cheat in a class about cheating, one taught by a professor with a special interest in dishonest behavior? A few enterprising pupils decided to test their peers on that very notion, coming upon some surprising results.

cheater

Uncovering the Dishonest

Duke Professor, professional speaker and blogger Dan Ariely's a renowned expert on what compels people to cheat - so much so, in fact, that he even gave a talk on the matter at a 2009 TED conference. His undergraduate behavioral economics course directly addresses the matter of academic dishonesty. It seems as though students would be afraid to try to pull one over on Professor Ariely. But a couple motivated undergraduates concocted an interesting experiment to test whether that was the case.

First, these two students invented a fake classmate, Richard Zhang, who might as well have been real - in a class of 500 undergraduates, it's hard to tell. Then they created a friend for Richard, Ira Onal, who also happened to be a former TA for Professor Ariely. In their scenario, Onal had forwarded last year's final exam questions to Zhang, who then passed them on to the class e-mail list in a link.

Of course, the link didn't send inquisitive students any actual test information - Ariely's undergrads weren't privy to that. The two schemers, though, were able to track the number of students who clicked on the link thanks to Google Analytics. That was especially helpful since the student masterminds sent out two slightly different e-mails. Half the class received one with an addendum at the bottom that read:

'P.S. I don't know if this is cheating or not, but here's a section of the University's Honor Code that might be pertinent. Use your own judgment: Obtaining documents that grant an unfair advantage to an individual is not allowed.'

That reminder, clearly meant to put students in the mindset that they were about to cheat, certainly had an effect. Ariely's own blog reports that 69% of the students who got the e-mail without the Honor Code mention went looking for an easy out, while only 41% of those with the Honor Code addendum did the same. It's not a huge difference, necessarily, but it's something.

The Professor's Concerns

Ariely himself contributes a lot of the difference to the fact that when people are forced to consciously consider the moral implications of their actions, they'll think harder about their decision. Perhaps many among the 69% just clicked on the e-mail's link almost automatically, hoping for something to give them a competitive edge in the classroom.

That perceived edge is something that worries Ariely. He conducted another cheating experiment himself come final exam time, after some students expressed concerns about others in the class having an unfair advantage (possibly that was caused by the e-mail experiment described above). Ariely asked students to anonymously answer two questions the day after they took their final - whether they cheated on the test, and how many other students they thought did.

In the end, few students admitted to Ariely that they had cheated, something the professor states he believes given the generally low grades on the exam. However, often students thought that many of their peers had acted dishonestly, usually between 30-45% of them. Ariely worries about this almost as much as actual cheating. In his eyes, that perception creates a culture in which cheating is expected, building an environment where academic dishonesty seems okay or even necessary.

Already Ariely writes that some students come to his office complaining that they've been punished because they didn't cheat; that others who take advantage of the academic system have victimized them, and the only way to level the playing field is to engage in dishonesty themselves. Ariely fears that culture will perpetuate itself and grow worse with the next few years of students. If there's any consolation, at least it's his job to think about such things.

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