What is Cheating?

62. I will always remember that number; it was my score on the first exam I took in Graduate School—a class on Operating Systems taught by a professor who was let go later that year. Many factors attributed to my poor score. Some were my fault: I only briefly reviewed the material before the exam; my advisor at the time was encouraging me to focus on research and not on classes—it turns out that some advisers will give advice that is not in your best interest; and I was not interested in the material. Some were not my fault: The professor was an exceedingly poor instructor; several questions were ambiguous; and certain questions were a weird form of fill-in-the-blank that made answering them difficult unless you could infer the way the professor expected the question to be solved.

I was not tremendously upset by the score; while I have typically always done well on exams, I never cared about the results. After handing back the exams, he displayed the grade distribution. That was the point I became concerned; in a class of 30 students, 27 had a near perfect score. Two other students had scored around the same as me. Similar thoughts probably ran through their minds. Am I really that stupid? Am I in over my head?

Returning back to the lab, visibly upset, my labmates wanted to know what was wrong. They were all several years my senior and I always looked to them for support and guidance during the early years of my PhD. When I showed them my exam, one of my labmates exclaimed, “Why didn’t you tell us you had an exam today?” He grabbed some papers from one of his files and dropped into my hands an exact duplicate of the exam I had taken. It was common knowledge among the older students that this professor always gave the same exam. Normally that information is handed down to newer students, but I had not previously discussed my classes with my labmates—mainly because the previously mentioned adviser had me convinced the classes were largely irrelevant.

Initially, I felt a wave of relief rush over me. Given an identical copy of the exam to prepare from, I could have easily scored a near perfect score too. This exam did not prove the other students were more intelligent than me—possibly more savvy, but not more intelligent. My next reaction was a mixture of anger and outrage. The other students were Cheating!

My labmates disagreed. During the exam, no one used anything other than the knowledge in their head. To prepare for the exam, no student had used anything the professor attempted to keep hidden or anything the professor explicitly stated should not be used. While it still felt wrong to me, I had to agree with the arguments presented by my labmates. In my mind it seemed like the exploitation of a loophole. Part of it was probably a cultural difference; the majority of the students were from abroad.

In the end, my initial anger against my classmates was probably misplaced. The situation was actually caused by the laziness and apathy of the professor. What little ability the exam had to measure a student’s knowledge was completely destroyed by allowing copies of those exams to exist in the wild. If the professor does not care about fairly assessing his students, why should the students?

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