Monday, January 4, 2016

Iron Law Omission: Cheating

When I posted the Iron Laws of University Life, I forgot one key Iron Law:
Iron Law of Cheating: Most cheaters are either not bright or are very lazy, but most are both dim and lazy.
I was reminded of this tonight by Max Fisher:
This axiom is, um, axiomatic cheating can be risky, leading to F's and even expulsions, so why cheat if one is bright and not lazy? Ok, when one is ambitious... I had a student who was on the edge of qualifying for honors, and chose to put together three or four papers into one master argument for an honors class.  In his/her presentation, it sounded pretty good.  But then when I read the paper, the cutting and pasting eventually revealed itself, including the inclusion of a footnote thanking big name scholar for his comments. 

Of course, I may take too much comfort in this Iron Law--that smart cheaters get away with it.  And that probably happens, but the majority of cheating I firmly believe is detectable precisely because the people involved are dim and lazy.  Whether it is detected depends on the assignments professors develop and how attentive they and their teaching assistants are.

I always used cheating as an example of expected utility:
postulating the benefits of cheating are an improvement of one grade (from a C to a B or a B to an A in the grade in one class), which might mean a slight uptick in one's GPA over four years
the likelihood of being caught is low, say 10%
the penalty for cheating is a F for the course
so small change in GPA > or < .1*F
For most students, the calculus would deter against cheating as the small uptick of one's GPA is not worth the slim chance of an F on one's record.  The student who caught cheating got an F in an honor's class.  You can imagine what signal that sends to potential graduate programs.

But yet some cheat--those who don't get this math.  Which then goes back to dim...

Whenever I think of cheaters who get away it in the short term, I am reminded of:
Karl-Theodor Maria Nikolaus Johann Jacob Philipp Franz Joseph Sylvester Freiherr von und zu Guttenberg (yes, I copied his name from Wikipedia), who was the German Defence Minister before he was revealed to be a plagiarist.  He went from being seen as the potential successor to Merkl to giving a lousy talk at defence conferences in Canada.

The bright side is that it gives me an excuse to post one of my favorite videos of all time:

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Regarding Herr Plagiariser's full name: in retrospect, the abolition of noble titles in Germany may have been the most important thing the Weimar Republic ever did.