The Tech - Online EditionMIT's oldest and largest
newspaper & the first
newspaper published
on the web
Boston Weather: 27.0°F | Mostly Cloudy and Windy

Discipline Committee Targets Cheating, Dishonest

By Karen Kaplan
Executive editor
____Last year's resolution of the largest case of student cheating in MIT history prompted the Committee on Discipline to directly address the problem of academic dishonesty on campus.

The COD completed six months of hearings on 78 cases of cheating in the Computers and Engineering Problem Solving (1.00) class given during the spring term of 1990. The cases involved students accused of turning in problem sets containing identical code.

Most of the 78 students received one of a variety of punishments, including informal probation, internal probation with a letter to the student's faculty advisor and formal probation with a notation on the student's transcript. Though a few students were suspended from MIT, none were expelled, according to Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics Sheila E. Widnall '60, former COD chair.

Though students were permitted to collaborate on problem sets, Professor of Civil Engineering Nigel H. M. Wilson SM '70, who taught the class, specified that all programs must be written individually.

In order to prevent a similar problem from arising in the future, "the rules on what is considered cheating, which I spelled out verbally, are now made explicit in writing," Wilson said. He also said that problem sets were now routinely monitored by a program that checks for duplicate code in students' problem sets. No other cases of cheating in 1.00 have been reported since.

`Culture encourages cheating'

Members of the COD were surprised to hear students' attitudes toward cheating. The COD found that the prevailing student culture was to work together on all types of assignments, including coding. Even though students knew of the prohibition against joint coding, "this awareness did not deter their behavior because many regarded the policy as being counter to the dominant student culture," Widnall wrote in the COD's report on the case.

The committee also found that students thought professors expected them to cheat on assignments, ignored the possibility that misconduct could affect their professional lives, and thought the only problem with cheating was getting caught.

After concluding their hearings, the COD sent a letter to students expressing concern over the possibility that "cheating and plagiarism have become rampant on campus." The letter was meant to promote student discussion on the subject.

"We decided it was time to reemphasize" academic dishonesty, said current COD Chair Nelson Y.-S. Kiang.

COD supports honor code

In an informal poll last fall, the COD unanimously supported the adoption of an honor code at MIT. Although the COD is not a policy-making body, Kiang said, "We're going to try to find out more about schools that have such a system," such as Wellesley College and the California Institute of Technology.

Student reaction to the idea of an honor code was mixed. Many felt that such a code could not be successfully implemented at MIT. "It is very difficult to agree in principle and to think it will work here," said Undergraduate Association Vice President J. Paul Kirby '92.

Other students felt that an honor code at MIT was unnecessary because cheating affected them little, if at all. Some said that as long as students learn the material, cheating on an occasional problem set or quiz has no long-term harmful effects.

A series of discussion groups this spring will focus the community's views on cheating in preparation for an Institute Colloquium which will likely be held this fall, said Hans C. Godfrey '93, chair of the UA Governance Committee.

CEG may survey cheating

In response to discussion of academic dishonesty, the UA considered a proposal last fall to include questions about cheating on the Course Evaluation Guide questionnaires which are distributed at the end of each term. A proposed series of questions would ask if students cheated and whether this cheating was caused by the pressure or difficulty of the course.

Godfrey said this week that the UA had tabled the proposal until more information is available.

Kiang said a question like "Do you know of someone who definitely cheated in this class?" would be better than one like "Did you cheat in this class?" "If you did something in a class, there is a tendency to not call it cheating [because of] rationalization," he said. "I think the results of such a survey could change based on how you asked the question."

UA President Stacy E. McGeever '93 said the UA hopes such questions would provide relevant data about individual classes. "If the surveys show that a lot of people were copying but were doing well on the tests, this information would be indicative of something in the course," she said.

McGeever also said professors would find the information useful if it showed that students "aren't being forced to learn much outside of class." The results could also deter students from cheating if they indicated that cheating did not help students perform better in a class.