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September 26, 1978: Death of Karl Siegbahn more: Today in Physics  





Worst Cheaters Ever

For the story that my teacher told me:

The day of the test she passed it out and students got to work. She noticed a student with his hand curled up near his shoulder and ignored it. Every now and then he would glance at it. She walked over and saw that he had a small mirror and was using it to look at the test behind him. She also noticed that he didn't switch the multiple choice answers. (he put D as A)

Somehow i got to your website, and as an instructor myself, thought you might like to hear a couple of interesting cheating incidents I have experienced in only 3 years of teaching!

  • Two sisters handed in the same assignment, exactly, with only the names changed at the top. I asked them how that happened. They responded, "but, we're twins!" I wanted to ask them if they were Siamese twins, sharing the same brain!

  • The students were required to write a simple java applet that displays three colored bars in a bar graph. They were required to display them as vertical bars from the top of the graph. When we displayed Ben's graph, his bars were horizontal from the left, which was LAST semester's assignment! What's worse, on inspection of his code, he had his name neatly typed in the comment block at the top. But he apparently forgot to look through the rest of the code, because when you run it, it displays in bold letters at the top: "Stacey's Bar Graph"

When I was a graduate student I spent a year marking weekly first year quizzes. To minimize the chance of copying off a neighbour, two different quizzes were made up each week, put on different colored paper, and distributed in a checker board pattern. So all the immediate neighbors of any given student would be writing a different quiz. One week I was puzzled that a student had crossed off a perfectly correct solution to his quiz. On closer inspection, he had replaced it with another perfect solution - to the other quiz!

For 10 years I had thought this was the worst ever attempt at cheating, until a friend recently shared a recent experience from his own class. After giving a final exam he received three different anonymous phone calls accusing the same students of copying (snitching in itself is extremely rare). His procedure had been the same as for the quizzes I marked earlier - two different color exams etc. In this case it was a machine marked multiple choice exam. He compared exam results and sure enough the three students had identical answers, but they had different color papers. So the two 'copiers' had failed the exam, and now that they were caught they were facing expulsion. It turns out however that these two were much stupider than the one I had caught 10 years earlier. On a hunch, my friend went back and compared the Christmas exams for the same three students - same result. These students had obviously not clued in that there was a problem with their system when it caused them to miserably fail an earlier exam.

Of course there are many silly tales of students doing themselves in when attempting to cheat. Another friend of mine told how he as he was entering the examination room he noticed one of his students near the door inside an adjacent room. The fellow was furiously scribbling away onto his hand. I guess that you could say that once the exam started he was caught blue handed.

From Gerry McGreevy gmc7@berkshire.net:

I was teaching HS AP physics, and had a planned absence for personal business. Wanting to be as efficient with class time as I could, and knowing that a finding a knowledgeable substitute was as likely as finding a decayed photon, I decided to give a period long test (my thinking being that surely a sub could administer a test and keep the kids from cheating).

The following day I returned to school, picked up the tests, and took them home to grade. The class was small, only four students. My general method of grading is to just check final answers for correctness, and if they check out okay, just keep moving along. Grading each test one after the other, I was feeling pretty proud of myself for they all were doing reasonably well. On the fourth test, the student missed this one question, nothing in particular about it, he just missed it as all students are prone to do. In an effort to find some partial credit, and to discern where his mistake was, I looked more closely at his response.

Glancing over his formulas, they all checked out alright. Hhhhmmmph. Must be an arithmetic mistake I thought. I started going thru his calculations, but they checked out alright, but he still had an answer different than what I had on my answer key, that I had solved and worked out myself. "Perhaps I made a mistake" I thought. Yes, if a beer bottle can go thru a wall, however unlikely, I too could have made a mistake. I went over my work, which checked out alright, and I was further comforted with the fact that the first three students had also gotten an answer that I did. I was starting to get really puzzled, panicky even as to what / where the discrepancy in our answers could have come from.

I next took all the tests, and compared them side by side. Doing this I realized that the fourth student with the incorrect answers was using a given initial value different the other three. I was puzzled why he would use a number different than the other three, and checked it with the printed question on the exam, and sure enough, there was a typo on the test. Two digits had been transposed. I thought it funny that the other three were able to successfully navigate around a typo and still come up with the correct answer. This was the first time I was using this particular test, and I felt confident the answer key was secure from the students (I kept it at home). Knowing that some sort of shenanigans had gone on, but not really knowing what, I put on my best poker face, and confronted my students the next day.

After a brief description of "the cheating" incident as I had labeled it, I noticed that all four were looking around the room nervously. It was only a matter of seconds before they broke down. They fessed up that the sub had been so lackadaisical, that he allowed them to get up during the test, walk over to my bookshelf, and take down a physics book. They said that they just picked one at random, hoping to find a similar problem that would inspire them to the correct solution. While I must have had dozens of books there on the shelf, wouldn't you know the one the one they pulled down was the solutions book to the text I had pulled the problem from? They said they couldn't believe that they turned right to it. Three of the four of them copied the solution straight from the text, including the correct values given in the problem. Months later I found out that the fourth student also copied the solutions, but did notice the typo, and he carried it thru. He never did warn the others!

The following tales come from Maurice Barnhill mvb@UDel.Edu, and are reprinted with permission after appearing on the discussion group PHYS-L.

  1. One pair of students a few year back (in an honors class!) decided to share information on an exam. I give out blank paper at the beginning of the class and tell everyone to sign all the sheets so that none of them get irretrievably misplaced. These two passed sheets back and forth so that they could see each others answers. One of them managed to turn in a sheet with his name and work on the front and the other's name and work on the back!
  2. Long ago in a Keller plan course I was using multiple versions of each of the exams. Students took various versions, restudying if necessary until they got an essentially perfect score. I numbered the exams, wrote down which one they had been given, and graded them against the corresponding scale. One day after class I had two copies of exam 12 and none of exam 9. Turns out one of the students had been given the answers to exam 12, so when he got exam 9 he changed the number to 12 and wrote down the answers he had been given. Of course, I just looked up whom I had given exam 9 to and sent him directly to the dean.
  3. Later in the same course my TA found the answers to several of the versions written down in ink on a desktop at the back of the room. We grabbed some ink eradicator and headed for the classroom. For some reason I decided to take my answer key along. On comparison we found that none of the sets of answers were good enough to get a pass. So we left them there.
I do worry a bit that we may only be catching the stupid ones.

This one comes from Jeff Marx marxj2@ciue.rpi.edu:

Here's a true story that happened here at Rensselaer.

An assistant professor gave his mandatory final exam for Physics I last December during final exam week. As is prone to happen here in Troy, NY it snowed, hard. The professor noted during the exam that a few students (who as it happened all new each other) were missing. The next day he got a phone call. Needless to say it was one of the students who missed the exam. He claimed that he got stuck in a friend's apartment in Albany (only about 15 to 20 minutes away barring snow) and was wondering if he could take the exam now? Very reluctantly, the instructor told the student he could come in and take a make-up exam. The next thing the professor knew, he not only had the student who called but the rest of his gang of friends all claiming they were stuck together in Albany. Well, the instructor was livid. Not knowing what to do he sent them all away and told them to come back in 30 minutes.

When they came back he was ready for them. He told them before they could take the make-up exam they had to pass a small oral quiz. He set the four students down in opposite corners of a room and handed each of them a blank sheet of paper and instructed them to write their names and the answers to the following questions...

  1. What color was the car you drove in to Albany?
  2. What floor was the apartment on?
  3. What color was the apartment?
  4. How many rooms did it have?

He told me that some the guys didn't even try to answer any of the questions!!! They just knew they were exposed. He sent them on their way and failed them all.

Interestingly enough this true story may be based on a not-so-true story. The professor told me that in the 30 minutes he had to try and figure out what to do a story came him about a similar situation that supposedly happened here at Rensselaer, involving a rather famous teacher here... Four students come to the instructor and say they couldn't make it to a test because while they were on their way to the exam their car go a flat. The professor sat them in the four corners and asked them each to write the answer to one question: "What tire was it."

I doubt that this second story is really true. I have a natural tendency to be on the watch for urban (university) myths. I think they are fun to collect. Here at RPI, like just about any other school, we have a ton of them. The thing I find the most interesting is that some people buy into every one of them hook, line, and sinker. Perhaps there is a lesson in that for us physics instructors!

These come from L. Burns lburns@idirect.com:

I gave a multiple choice test with several versions of the test to prevent roving eyeballs. Unfortunately, there were a few typographical errors on the tests, so I put corrections on the board.

When I collected the papers, I found one student had corrected his question sheet not only with considerable zeal, but with intelligence commensurate with his other marks.

He had been give test one, but had changed **ALL** the questions to those of test two, and then answered them in a manner which resonated with that of his friend, who had been given test two.


I thought it as funny (arggh) as another time another student came to me and told me his mark on a test was not the 8 / 40 I had recorded, but 37. I said bring me the paper, so he showed me "his" paper - lo and behold, his name on a paper I had given 37 to.

After a period of self doubt, I started to examine the exhibit. The student's name was written in a different ink, on top of white-out that did not completely cover the last few letters of the name of the only student in the class who had received 37 / 40.

Arrgh ! :-)