Jeremy Côté

What Counts As Cheating?

This sounds like an easy question, but I think I have a bit of a different perspective on it.

In science and mathematics programs, it’s not too difficult to cheat. I’m not talking about cheating on tests or exams, but on assignments. That’s because most professors don’t write their own problems. Instead, they assign them from textbooks. The upside is obvious: they don’t have to spend time crafting new questions every semester. Unfortunately, the downside is that textbooks questions tend to be posted online. No matter how obscure the book is, there’s a good chance that someone has taken the time to post the answers.

This presents a dilemma for the student. On the one hand, the answers to the assignments are right there, waiting to be looked at. On the other hand, is looking at those answers considered cheating?

I understand those who take the perspective that it is cheating. After all, the student isn’t doing the work themselves. They are outsourcing it to someone else online. Because of this, it should count as cheating. I think this is a good line of reasoning, and it makes a compelling case as to why students who use online answers are cheating.

But, I still disagree with this assessment.

I think I have a more nuanced view of the problem. As in most things in life, the truth is that it depends on the situation. It’s easy to slap a declarative statement on any discussion, but it often hides the complexity of the situation. I think this is the case here, and I want to make an argument for when looking at the answers online shouldn’t be considered cheating.

This is how a typical assignment goes. The teacher gives it to the students, along with a due date. The students then work on it during that period, asking questions if necessary. Most of the questions get answered, but some might not. The assignment is handed in, and is handed back perhaps two weeks later. By that time, the student has forgotten the content of the assignment, and going over corrections isn’t the most compelling thing (especially since there is new homework to do).

But what if instead the student works through the homework, trying all of the questions, and then looks online to check their work? By doing this, they can check their line of reasoning and make the necessary corrections to their argument before handing in the assignment.

I think this method has several benefits. First, it gives the student quick feedback on their work. Instead of waiting weeks before an assignment is handed back, they can check their work as they do it. This keeps the problem fresh in the student’s mind. Plus, it’s more motivating to do corrections during the time you’re working on an assignment than later on when you have other things to do.

Second, checking the answers online encourages deeper thinking about a problem. How so? Suppose you work through a problem, and think that it’s straightforward. You then compare your answer to one online, and you see that there’s a whole lot more to the question than you realized. This makes you stop and say, “Oh wait, I forgot about this particular aspect.” The result is that you go back and figure out what you did wrong. If you never checked your work, you would only see the mistake you made a few weeks later. By that time, you probably won’t put reworking through the problem high on your list of priorities. That’s why it’s worth checking your answers while you write them. It gives you a chance to dig deeper on a problem that you went through too quickly.

Third, checking your answers online helps you avoid losing marks. Yes, I know this is controversial. If you’re getting help online, did you really “earn” it? My answer to this is “yes”. That’s because I’m thinking about what the main purpose of school is supposed to be: to learn. Not to get things on the first try, not to produce the best work on your own, but to become competent in whatever subject you’re studying.

Tell me who you would consider to be “learning” more. On the one hand, you have a student who does their homework, doesn’t check their answers online, and gets decent grades. On the other hand, you have someone who does the questions on their own, then checks online and makes the appropriate changes before submitting their work, and gets great grades. I would say that the person who consults the answers online is doing more work. Not only do they try the problems themselves, they then do the extra work of making sure their answers are good and doing the necessary corrections. By the end of the assignment, I would say this person has thought more about the questions than the person who does the work themselves and submits it as-is.

Sure, the second student consulted the answers online. But in the grand scheme of things, I don’t think this should be a bad thing. The point is that they are invested enough in their understanding (and success) that they took the extra time to look at the answers and fix their own. By the time exams roll around, I would predict that this kind of student has had more experience with the content than the other person. This is why I don’t think shooting for better marks is a bad thing. The marks help you as a student, and it’s not the point of learning anyway.

Like anything, this perspective has some caveats. You can absolutely find yourself in a situation where you forego even trying the assignment because you looked at the answers online. As you can imagine, this isn’t in the spirit of what I meant. If you’re going straight to the answers online, you’re not learning too much (except how to find the answers you need). Likewise, if you finish your problems and “check” online by just copying the answers you find, that’s of limited use as well. The best way to do it is to slowly look at the answers online, and make sure they match what you have. Anytime something is different, don’t keep on reading the answer. Go back to your own work and see if you can spot an error in reasoning.

The reason I think my perspective here is a bit controversial is because some people might complain that you don’t end up “earning” your grades. I can understand that viewpoint. However, if I’m completely honest, I don’t think it matters in the long run. In my eyes, grades are a tool to get you where you want to be in your education. They aren’t really an indicator of learning. It’s unfortunate, but that’s the way it is. Therefore, I don’t put too much stock in my grades, preferring to see if I can explain the concepts I learn.

The ugly truth is that school doesn’t reward you for trying your best and learning through growth. The educational system rewards those who can perform well on the first try, which is why I actually think using the answers you find online isn’t cheating, but a good use of your time. Of course, you need to do this responsibly, but if you do the work first, I don’t think it’s a bad thing to check your work online.