Deceitful Grading

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I have two students whose take-home exams seem to follow the same lines of argument in a few questions. They use different sentence structure but use largely the same vocabulary and make mostly the same points in the same order. They didn't answer all the same questions, and sometimes one said a lot more than the other, but it really looks as if they were working together on some of the questions and deliberately trying to avoid looking as if they did. So here's my question. I had the thought to grade a couple of their similar answers with drastically different grades. If indeed they cheated, and I rob one of them of a whole bunch of points, the student probably deserves a lot worse. But it's not fair. I should do it to both. That's the downside of my plan. The upside is that it would almost assuredly motivate them to come to me to complain, and then I could point out how remarkably similar their exams were with both exams right in front of them. I'm not asking for advice here. I'm not going to do this. What I'm interested in is the ethical question. Would it be wrong to do something like this?

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Strolling randomly thru my menu of Delightful Appetizers, before heading to bed, I came across an interesting tale by Jeremy, of the Blog Parablemania. It seems he has two students whose take-home exams appear to follow the same ideas in Read More


the student probably deserves a lot worse. But it's not fair. I should do it to both. Would it be wrong to do something like this?

If I were trying to justify giving different grades like this, I'd start with the fact that fairness is not the same as justice. And unless you've signed on to some university guidelines that require fairness, you are under no obligation to be fair as long as you are being just.

I happen to think such an approach would fail to be appropriately assertive, which would indicate a lack of virtue, which would be wrong (assuming all the usual stuff, of course, such as a genuine link between lack of assertiveness and vice and virtue as a legitimate way of articulating moral experience, blah blah blah). On the other hand, I can also see the possibility for cunning to come into play in order to catch the rascals, maybe ala Homer's "Resourceful Odysseus." I tend to think Odysseus exercises a peculiar virtue of cunning, though I have doubts whether he's a great model for us Christians (wise as serpents, innocent as doves). Since you don't seem to have a problem ascertaining that an impropriety has been committed, I think you'd be more virtuous confronting the students directly rather than through the 'differing grades ambush'.

If you wanted to be fair, perhaps you could rob one of points in one question, and the other in another question? But what if this too backfired, and they do not come to you to complain? You will never know then...

Since you don't seem to have a problem ascertaining that an impropriety has been committed

It's not the sort of thing I could prove if I had to defend myself before a disciplinary board, at least if they say the right things. If they insisted that they were simply taking their words from class notes, in the order I presented things in class, using as exact terminology as they could to duplicate what I said, I think it would be hard to prove cheating. That was why I thought of this in the first place, because it might get them to admit it much more easily.

Always best to take the highest ethical road. Confrontation. Ask them straight out. Ask them to defend their approach. Ask them to show you how they used similar phraseology in the past.

Gives them the benefit of the final doubt ("believes all things") while entering into an entirely appropriate dialogue for a student and teacher.

Then grade the papers of their merit.

My wife told me that a professor she TA's for has a very Machiavellian approach to these kinds of problems. Today she went in front of her class clearly a little steamed. Then she told them that they had discovered some cases of cheating. She said that cheaters who contacted her by Friday would simply fail the class. However, if they failed to come to her she would press their case with the judicial review board, and advocate that the persons be expelled from the university.

Now truth be told, they knew of one case of cheating, but by 5pm six people had emailed to confess and a couple had come by the office.

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