Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
July 5, 2020

If you don’t want cheating, redesign your classes

By WILLA GRINSFELDER | April 19, 2018



Grinsfelder argues that the way the engineering department is structured allows for students to cheat.



Cheating has been on my mind a lot, lately. Classes have gotten harder; the material has gotten more theoretical; and the amount of time to do work hasn’t increased. In one class there was an email at the beginning of the year saying the instructor caught some students copying homework assignment answers from online, and since then I’ve seen my peers do the same. To some extent, I get it.

There have been multiple times where I’ve been pressed for time on a problem set and have considered just copying the answers down from online. I’ve worked on problems with friends before, and when I didn’t get what was happening, I had help. My friends explained how they worked through the problems and saved my butt. I’m sure that most other undergraduate engineering students are the same way. 

Recently, though, I started to notice how often I think about lying about circumstances to get deadline extensions, and it was way more often than I expected. I’ve wanted to ask professors for extensions because I just had “too much work” to do, when in reality I had extracurricular activities and a dinner with my roommate. 

I’ve wanted to ask for extensions because I “forgot” about an assignment, when I had really spent the afternoon watching TV and thinking about how I should have been doing my assignments. 

I don’t think that lying should be a way to get ahead in life, but I think that the way that the engineering departments at Hopkins are structured allows for exactly that. 

Our grades and success are determined by how well we do on homework assignments and tests, which essentially measures our value as students based on our ability to regurgitate and understand information. The concept of good grades leading to a better life has been drilled into most of us for so long that lying and cheating can sometimes seem like the only option when our futures are on the line. 

This isn’t just based on personal experience, either. According to a 2003 University of Michigan study, the three largest motivators for cheating are: “Not enough time,” “grade pressure” and “unpreparedness.” Of the 111 undergraduate engineering students surveyed, 47 of them reported that they had decided on at least one occasion to cheat in college. The study also found that there was a correlation between cheating in high school and college and cheating later on in professional careers. 

In one of my classes this semester, we talk about how engineering mistakes often cost people their lives. 

The most common example we use is planes: how mistakes in failure analysis have caused planes to crash suddenly, killing 175 people at once. Part of the reason I’ve become so much more conscious of my desire to lie is because the material I’m learning and the ways that I apply it are going to affect real people’s lives. Dishonesty in a professional career as an engineer could kill someone. That alone is more than enough of a deterrent for me. 

Yet, our education system doesn’t seem to be doing a great job of discouraging academic dishonesty. 

I know that it’s important to learn the theoretical information that’s essential to engineering design and mechanics, but I think that even more essential than the theoretical information (which is often easily found) is teaching honesty and a set of personal ethics. 

I’ve talked a bit about how I wish the University had a required ethics course for engineering students before, but even if we’re not thinking about how products affect people in the real world, I think students need to learn that their personal integrity is more important than the score they receive on a test. 

I think that understanding the basic mechanics of a problem that you are designing is necessary for anyone who wants to enter the workforce as an engineer, but the way that academic success is measured now doesn’t accurately gauge someone’s understanding of the material. 

I think that re-focusing our classes to be project-based and grading off of the success of those projects would be a much better way to determine academic success and understanding. 

Group projects that give a distinct end result (i.e. a crane that lifts a weight) are more effective because we have to be able to apply the real-world analysis and design techniques that we’ve been taught. 

You can’t look up the solution online, because you have to design the whole thing yourself. If you’re dishonest about the calculations or design criteria, it’s easy to spot, and the resulting failure can be determined in a much easier way than trying to assess someone’s intentions when they asked for help on a homework problem. 

Design projects and problems encourage honesty, hard work and responsibility, which should be much more important indicators of success in the field of engineering than lying or the ability to retain theoretical information.

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