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Verbal Warning

A former Williams professor (and Williams graduate) writes:

Doug in point (2) says that there is no strong trend about class year for students who are caught with honor code violations. I would like someone to run the same analysis for the length of time that the professor has been at Williams. I think that new professors are overburdened with these cases, and not because “senior faculty [are] less wise to the ways of the internet.”

In new faculty training, all new faculty learn about the honor code, and learn that if there is ANY suspicion whatsoever of an honor code violation, we are REQUIRED to report it. We are told that the chair of the honor committee will look into the case and if it has no merit will not pursue it, so there is no reason not to report something. So what do new faculty do? When we see anything that seems like cheating, we report it.

I went through this as a first-year Williams professor, because my students cheated. It was an extremely unpleasant experience that I would never desire to repeat. Everyone did their job well and was very professional, but it was time consuming and not fun: I had to carefully submit the evidence, explain my side of the story with the committee and the student in the room — oh, and teach the student during the week or two between the violation and the case. It was like a trial. It was stressful for me, even though I had done nothing wrong. I was shaking when I came out of there.

(Let me reiterate that I would not change anything about the process; I think it is done very well. It’s just stressful and unpleasant to take any part in a trial like that.)

What do older Williams professors do? They don’t put themselves through that, because they know that they don’t have to. They deal with the issue “in house.” They give the student a verbal warning. (Professors CANNOT impose any punishment, such as failure in the assignment or on the question, without going through the honor committee.)

I am huge fan, like Diana, of the current process and work of the Honor Committee. Kudos to all involved. I especially like that only students vote on the outcome and that only students/faculty are involved in the process. There is no (yet!) assistant dean for the honor code, no paid outside investigators.

We should do exactly the same thing for accusations of sexual assault as we do for accusations of academic dishonesty. Given the number of complaints, we need a new committee. It should be student-faculty, with only the students voting on the outcome. If such a process works well for academic violations of community standards, why wouldn’t it work well with for sexual violations of community standards? (Note that the Honor Committee is also involved in issues outside of academic disputes.)

The more that students and faculty run Williams, the better.

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How Much Cheating?

How much cheating is there at Williams? A student writes:

For those who have never read the honor code committee reports, especially current students, they’re a very worthwhile read. They alert you to the specific kinds of behaviors that actually get you the black-mark of academic dishonesty on your transcript. Some notes about them:

1.) Why are there so many typos in the honor committee reports? Even a cursory reading of these 4-6 page documents would correct for these rather glaring errors. If you’re publishing something that will have your committee’s name on it, and your committee is essential to the academic integrity of the college, you’d think the document would be a little more polished.

2.) There doesn’t seem to be a strong trend in what class years are accused/found guilty of plagiarism. If, as Shevchenko asserts above, academic dishonesty stems from different high school backgrounds, we’d expect for the influence of those differences in secondary education to diminish over the course of students’ time at Williams, leading to an overrepresentation of freshmen in honor committee hearings. There’s many other reasons we’d expect for freshmen to be overrepresented (e.g., students get better at cheating). I haven’t run the data, but there seems to be a pretty even mix of freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and seniors being tried for honor code violations.

3.) Professors have tremendous difficulties catching students who are cheating on take-home exams. During my time at Williams, take-home exams were incredibly common, especially in DIII courses, and it was common knowledge that students would cheat on these assignments. When you’re alone in your room taking these exams, there’s not a lot to stop you from opening your textbook or phone to look for answers on a surprisingly difficult question, and resisting this urge is difficult with up to 30% of your grade is on the line. I believe this is probably the most common source of cheating at Williams, and the most pernicious, since take-home exams are frequently major assignments and professors will be hard-pressed to catch students.
– Only 3 students in the 2016-2017 school year were accused of cheating on take-home exams (I would guess that over one-thousand take-home exams are administered each year and the incidence of cheating is much, much higher than 0.3%).
– These two students were caught due to incredibly flagrant violations of the honor code: one had verbatim copy/pasted material off of Wikipedia (laugh, then expel this student immediately for their sheer stupidity); the other two had identical portions of their assignments, obviously indicating collaboration. All failed the courses, no additional sanctions.
– The previous year also had two violations, one with obviously identical material between two students and the other with a student who turned herself in.
– Conclusion: Professors are not detecting/reporting who is using textbook or online sources during take-home exams. This should be a huge concern to professors and the college.

4.) Similar to #3, only one student in the past two years has been found guilty for cheating with the use of a smartphone in general. Once again, among students, it’s common knowledge that you can have your phone in your pocket and then go to the bathroom to use your phone to look up answers during a self-scheduled or even an in-class exam. One student being found guilty of this behavior is surely the result of a very low detection rate rather than a low prevalence rate among students. As with cheating on take-home exams, this should be a huge concern of the college.

5.) Only incredibly sloppy and obvious instances of cheating are being detected. Take a scan of any of these documents; a large majority of cases involve verbatim similarities between two students’ work or between a students’ work and the internet. Virtually none of the students who are cheating in more careful ways are being caught; it’s all the low-hanging fruit of lazy or stupid students who make the egregious error of copying text verbatim.

So, if you’re planning to cheat at Williams, don’t verbatim copy text from an internet source or a friend. This is essentially the only reliable way you will be put in front of the honor committee; such violations constitute a large majority of honor committee hearings. With a little bit of cunning, you can *easily* use technology to get away with cheating. Until the college finds a better way to catch students who are cheating, possibly by banning take-home exams, it’s almost guaranteed some of your peers will be engaging in this behavior and will get away with it.

How much cheating is there on take-home exams?

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Pseudo-Judicial Process

An anonymous Williams professor writes:

1) My impression, informed by years of experience (and not just at Williams), is that more senior faculty, less wise to the ways of the internet, are far less likely to catch out cheating on term papers than their younger colleagues. So as Div I and Div II profs get younger in the years to come there will be more complaints of cheating in general.

2) Despite Honor Code histrionics, penalties for cheating at Williams are lenient compared to other institutions I’ve taught at. Even clearly guilty students are regularly acquitted by the committee, or treated with incredible indulgence. And the goals of the committee are often unclear. Frequently professors with incidents before the honor committee feel that they themselves have been subjected to trial and scrutiny. This is true even though professors are told over and over that they have no discretion in reporting suspicious incidents.

3) More on that lack of professorial discretion: Because profs are required to report all suspicious incidents, it is the committee chairs who decide whether to go forward in any given case. Incidents will fluctuate from year to year based upon the sensitivity and concerns of the committee chairs. Any increase in honors cases is just as likely to reflect the differing sentiments of the people running this show.

4) “Cheating is on the rise!” has been a refrain of the honor code crowd since I arrived at Williams and it has grown tiresome, particularly to the degree that it provides occasion for people like Shevchenko to pontificate about what I ought to be telling my students.

5) The pseudo-judicial process conducted by the Honor Committee is largely hidden, with all parties sworn to silence. The honor code hyperventilators thus participate in a system of sanctions that is for the most part out of view, and yet they wish their toy trials to have deterrent effects nevertheless. Thus faculty are enjoined to bang the plagiarism drum in their seminars so that the Honor Code people can have their cake and eat it too.

Would other Williams professors like to comment?

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Report of the Honor Committee 2016 — 2017

Reports from the Honor Committee are always worth reading. Let’s save permanent copies for the last three years: 2014-2015, 2015-2016 and 2016-2017. Below the break, I have saved permanent copies going back 15 years. Comments:

1) The last three years have featured 19, 18 and 23 cases, similar to the 10 year average. Recall our discussion about the 34 cases in 2017-2018, for which we do not yet have a report. Are Williams students cheating more or is the College more diligent in catching them?

2) The Committee deserves praise for being so transparent in telling us what happened and why. Example from 2016-2017:

Transparency is wonderful, because it both discourages future cheating and helps build community consensus about unacceptable behavior and the appropriate punishments thereto.

3) But even more transparency would be better. In some reports (as above) they make clear the gender of the student. That is good! If cheating is more male than female (or vice versa) then we have a better idea about where to devote our educational efforts. Another location for increased transparency is reports like this one:

Besides gender and class year, it would be good to know the specific course, or at least the department. If cheating is more common in Chemistry or in Division III, then that is where we should focus our efforts.

What is your favorite case from 2016 — 2017?

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34 Honor Code Violations

A letter to the faculty:

Dear Colleagues,

Most of you heard Nick Goldrosen, the student chair of the honor committee at yesterday’s faculty meeting.

More transparency, please. Were there slides? A printed report? Share it with the community. Faculty Meetings are, essentially, public events, with Record reporters generally (still?) in attendance.

As faculty chair, I’d like to add a few words as well. After all, the committee heard 34 cases in 2017-18 (!!! for comparison, ten years ago the number was 15), many of them resulting in sanctions of failure in the assignment or failure in the course.

There were also 34 incidents in 2012-2013. Shevchenko is being sloppy (misleading?) to pretend that there has been a steady increase over the last decade. If the latest number is exactly the same as the number 5 years ago, there probably isn’t a crisis . . .

We would love to do all we can to bring the number of violations (and thus, affected students) down this year.

Would we? (And I am not just referring to the poor writing suggested by the desire to bring down affected students.)

The easiest way to bring the number down is to stop enforcing/investigating incidents. See no evil! Of course, I am against this, but how do we know the increase this year is because the underlying rate of cheating has gone up as opposed to an increase in enforcement efficacy. Maybe cheating at Williams has been constant for 10 (or 100 years) but its detection has varied over time.

As you know, all Williams students sign the honor code before they can register for classes. They also likely read a statement about the honor code on your class syllabi. However, it appears that this is far from sufficient as a deterrent from honor code violations.

D’oh! Who ever thought it was? The fear of punishment is the deterrent that will work best on Williams students. Read excerpts from past Honor Committee Reports to your class. That will lower cheating.

If left at that, the honor code may inadvertently come across as a mere formality, which does an enormous injustice to the values it is designed to uphold, and to the students themselves.

Exactly. And this is the faculty’s fault! Contemporary syllabi are so jammed full of required junk that, almost by definition, the importance of any one bit has to decrease. If you spend more time on pronouns and diversity, then you have to spend less time on the honor code. There is no free lunch.

In order to make sure the honor code does what it is supposed to do, i.e. ensures academic integrity of the work done at the college, all of us need to take time in our classes to convey to students (a) how the specific parameters of our assignments relate to the honor code (that is, the details of our expectations regarding the use of outside sources, group work and citation format for each individual assignment), and (b) just how much is at stake, for them individually and for Williams as a community, in upholding these.

Blah, blah, blah. If you want to reach college students where they live, if you actually want to change their behavior, then you need to avoid soporific tripe like this and focus on the concrete. Read them this:

A junior was brought to the Honor Committee due to concerns about plagiarism. The professor noted that sections of several papers appeared to come directly
from online sources. Following the Honor Committee’s hearing and deliberations, they determined that the student violated the honor code on multiple occasions by using ideas and direct quotations from other sources without citation. The committee recommended a sanction of failure in the course.

Read a couple of these and . . . pause . . . and say, “If you cheat in my class, I will catch you and you will fail the course.

Faculty who do this (certainly?) face less cheating than faculty who prattle on about “how much is at stake.” Most Williams faculty, sadly, are unwilling to confront students so directly.

Back to the letter.

Our students come from a range of academic backgrounds, and many are working on a steep learning curve as they develop the command of academic language and conventions.

This is strange. Does Shevchenko mean to suggest that many/most cheating cases result from different “backgrounds?” This is not implausible. Andover teaches you not to cheat because its faculty teach thoroughly. Perhaps, at a lousy high school, students don’t really learn how to use information from the internet correctly/honestly?

But Shevchenko never says this directly and, reading between the lines of the annual reports, it looks like the vast majority of cases are not caused by differing “academic backgrounds.” The cheaters know that they are cheating.

The attention you give to the code of academic integrity in your class helps them all to arrive at a shared understanding of the honor code’s purpose and of their role in upholding it.

This is a testable hypothesis! Randomly assign some professors to make a big deal about cheating and some to do whatever they normally do. Does giving the honor code more “attention” cause a decrease in cheating?

If Williams were an actual “leader” in undergraduate education, these are the sorts of questions that we would be exploring — carefully and rigorously — each semester.

Oftentimes, honor code violations occur because the students are caught in the trees so much that they fail to see the forest: they are freaking out about a grade, running out of time, or dealing with external stress.

Does this metaphor work? “Caught in the trees?” Anyway, this suggests that the problem is not differing backgrounds. The cheaters know. They just feel compelled to cheat because of these pressures. (By the way, it would be good to collect and distribute anonymous interviews with punished students.) Again, the best way to deter such “calculated” cheating is by demonstrating that it will fail.

To prevent these scenarios, it is our role as faculty to remind them of the larger purpose of the honor system. It’s also helpful to make sure the students know that consequences of cheating far outweigh the elusive gains they may be hoping to achieve by cutting corners. Speaking about academic integrity in class proactively and specifically, and giving them the tools to do the right thing early on sends the students a signal that you take academic honesty seriously, and ensures that they do too.

Shevchenko needs an editor. How is this any different than what she wrote above?

We wish you all a great semester of teaching and learning, and thank you for taking action to help your students uphold the values of academic integrity in your classes. Don’t hesitate to contact me if you come across something that looks like an honor case, or simply if you have any thoughts or concerns pertaining to the honor system.

Olga Shevchenko, on behalf of the Honor Committee.

More transparency, please.

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Report of the Honor Committee 2013 — 2014

Reports from the Honor Committee are always worth reading. Here (pdf) is the latest, from 2013 — 2014 academic year. Comments:

1) The last two years have featured 34 and 30 cases. That is about double the average of the proceeding decade. Are Williams students cheating more or is the College more diligent in catching them?

2) The Committee deserves praise for being so transparent in telling us what happened and why. Example report:

A sophomore was found to have violated the Honor Code by using the answers of another student to complete her work on a take-home exam in Chemistry, and also by submitting an incorrect time log on the exam. The sanction was failure in the course with disciplinary probation until graduation.

Transparency is wonderful, because it both discourages future cheating and helps build community consensus about unacceptable behavior and the appropriate punishments therefrom.

3) But even more transparency would be better. In some reports (as above) they make clear the gender of the student. That is good! If cheating is more male than female (or vice versa) then we have a better idea about where to devote our educational efforts. Another location for increased transparency is reports like this one:

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Seems obvious to me that these students had more in common than this class. Isn’t it highly likely that they were on the same sports team? As always, we don’t need to know the names of the students and we don’t want so much information that they are identifiable. But we need more data if we are to reducing cheating. If lots of cheating seems connected to team membership, then we ought to know that fact. Similarly, if international students are more likely to be charged — perhaps because foreign high schools have different standards — we need to know that as well.

What is your favorite case from 2013 — 2014?

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Report of the Honor Committee 2007 — 2008

Lest it disappear forever, here is a copy of the Report of the Honor Committee, 2007 — 2008. I recommend that students read these cases and learn from them. Example:

A junior was accused of not attributing ideas and writing from a family member who helped the student write his/her paper for an English class. The student noted that he/she was very challenged by the demands of the course and that he/she sought the family member’s help in the assignment. He/She nonetheless maintained that the work in the paper was his/her own. However, the student’s professor had access to a draft of the paper in which the “track changes” function in Word was still activated and thus showed
precisely where the family member had contributed text. The Committee imposed failure in the course and disciplinary probation until the end of the fall 2008 semester.

Either don’t cheat or, if you are going to cheat, try to not be stupid about it!

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Honor 2012 — 2013

The Honor and Discipline Committee is a wonderful institution at Williams. Here (pdf) is a copy of its latest report, from the academic year 2012 — 2013.

The Honor and Discipline Committee is made up of eight students, eight faculty, and the Dean of the College. The secretary to the Dean of the College assists committee members with their work, helping to schedule hearings, find rooms and equipment, collate evidence, and maintain records.

Student members are elected by their peers in September. There are two seats per class year. The Dean designates one student as chair. The Faculty Steering Committee appoints eight faculty members, striving for a balance among divisions and a mix of experience levels with the committee. The FSC designates a FacultyChair.

Honor hearings include eight student members, four faculty members (including the faculty chair and the Dean), who act as questioners, advisors, and the recording secretary. Only the students may vote. The faculty members rotate.

Discipline appeal hearings include four students and four faculty, including the two chairs. All members vote. Who is selected depends on scheduling and rotation, not on any other characteristics. As a party to any appeal, the Dean does not sit on the committee.

Comments:

1) I love that only students vote on honor violations. Is this true at other schools? The more responsibility that Williams places on its students, the better their education will be. And don’t think that this means that the Committee is easy on other students. If anything the reverse is true. By all accounts, students are much harsher judges of their peers than faculty would ever dare to be.

2) Is there a reason that faculty get to vote on discipline appeals? Has that always been true? The cynic in me thinks that it is a way for the Administration to minimize the chance that the students will, in a fit of jury nullification, overrule a decision made by the Dean of the College.

3) Note the amazing increase in the number of honor violations in the last few years. There were 31 cases! In 2005 — 2006 (pdf) there were 8. What explains the increase?

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