Finals week at Binghamton University consists of sleep-deprived students roaming the Glenn G. Bartle Library and Lecture Hall in hopes of getting good grades. As the end of the semester rears its head, some students will do anything to succeed — even cheat.
Patrick Bahls, associate professor of mathematics at University of North Carolina-Asheville, believes the answer to reduce cheating in college classes is through assigning take-home exams.
By doing away with in-class exams and changing the test-taking environment, Bahls wants to promote a culture of learning where the goal is to gain not just high marks but authorship of a subject.
“The system is set up to encourage grade-grubbing,” said Bahls, who has taught at the college level for 13 years. Bahls said the college system encourages testing to be a high stakes game where the aim is to get a higher grade than your classmates.
On his blog, titled “Change of Basis,” Bahls wrote that “to ‘cheat’ requires that there be a ‘game,’ and that it matter that people follow the rules of that game, and further that it matter that in order to succeed at the game one must ‘do better’ than anyone else playing the game.”
According to Bahls, the natural response to this constructed game is cheating, and he calls for a testing system where students are guided by discovery and not prescription.
“A system emphasizing active learning rather than being passive receptors of it,” Bahls said.
According to Bahls, well-crafted take-home exams could take the pressure off and reduce incidences of students gaming the system by cheating. He said the current system gives students the wrong incentives by providing rewards for optimal performance rather than intrinsic rewards for mastery.
If educators lessen the emphasis on competition in the classroom, academic dishonesty will fade away, Bahls said.
Some Binghamton University professors disagree with Bahls’ hypothesis.
“I didn’t feel like I was competing in a cut-throat environment as an undergrad,” said Rolf Quam, a visiting assistant professor of anthropology. “It’s about you as an individual student.”
Quam, who assigns take-home exams in his upper-level course, believes a class structure based on take-home exams would make cheating more attractive since there is no way to police students outside the classroom and keep them from working together.
“Take-home exams place burden on the student to do it honestly. The burden is taken more seriously in upper-level students and small classes,” Quam said.
Quam noted that in-class exams offer a level playing field for students.
Bahls did have hesitations about completely removing in-class exams from the curriculum. According to Bahls, assigning take-home exams only without proper preparation would be a disaster if the students did not understand the purpose of them.
Vivien Levine, a senior majoring in political science and economics at BU, would welcome a shift from in-class timed exams to a take-home exam structure.
“I would like it because I’d have more time to formulate my answers and not be cramming to memorize so much info in a short amount of time,” Levine said. “And utilize the info I’ve used from class rather than only know it for the short term.”
Alan Lockard, a visiting assistant professor of economics, said it’s not the type of exam that causes students to cheat but how the class is run.
“What makes [cheating] more prevalent is how easy it is to get away with,” said Lockard, who will administer a take-home exam in his “Economics of Conflict” spring course.
“It has a lot to do with class size,” Lockard said. “In a ‘Principles’ class of 200, the students are packed on top of each other.”
To curtail cheating in a lecture hall of hundreds, Lockard stopped assigning his normal two midterm exams. Instead, he uses one final for his lower-level course where students are spread out and watched. Lockard agrees that high-stakes exams lead students to cheat, but only for the students who are desperate and did not keep up with the coursework.
Bahls noted his system of examination is not for every class.
“Everyone learns differently and everyone teaches differently,” he said.
For Bahls, some students will try to game the system regardless of whether an exam is inside or outside the classroom.
“We’re all human. Because of the way I run my classes, I know what my students care about academically,” Bahls said. “Even if the student is tempted, they’ll back away from cheating because they’ve developed this mutual respect for the teacher. Temptation will always be there.”