Cheating at Mines: Parts One & Two

“There are numerous challenges we face as a society that require bright, talented, hard-working, and innovative mindsets to solve.  Many of these are best met by those folks that have specific training in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), as well as a compassionate dose of ethics, sensitivity, and moral responsibility.”

Chuck Stone, Professor, Physics

Future engineers are future problem solvers and the challenges faced by society will many times become the challenges faced by engineers. At Mines, students are well prepared in their respective STEM fields, but there is less of a focus on ethics and moral responsibility in their course work.

During the Fall 2015 semester, a campus-wide survey was conducted about cheating on the Mines campus. The survey asked questions that centered around the topic: “What do YOU think it means to cheat?” In addition to the survey, 26 interviews were performed, eight student interviews and 18 faculty interviews. The goal was to assess whether there is a discrepancy between how faculty members and students define “cheating.” In particular, the survey focused on three gray areas: using solution manuals, sending pictures of homework, and using an old test (not provided by the instructor) to study for an exam.

Is It Cheating? Yes No It Depends
Solutions Manuals Faculty 35% 11% 54%
Students 10% 40% 50%
Pictures of Homework Faculty 30% 8% 62%
Students 6% 13% 81%
Old Tests Faculty 24% 55% 21%
Students 7% 73% 20%

Note: Although the majority of students and faculty may agree, there is a statistically significant (P < 0.001) difference in the faculty and student distribution of answers.

The results of the survey were decisive – there is a discrepancy between what students and faculty think constitutes cheating. Furthermore, when asked “how many students in your department/major cheat?” faculty members answered 33% of students cheat, and students answered 38% of their peers cheat. It appears that students at Mines cheat, and that the practice is not rare.

The cheating statistics are more complex than they appear. The question on the survey asked how many students cheat, implying present tense, not how many students in your major have cheated. When students answered 38% of their peers cheat, they meant currently and on a regular basis.

38% of students cheating on a regular basis is a staggering statistic, however, this survey is only one data point, one snapshot in time. To make definite conclusions, more surveys and interviews are required. Therefore, this article, and the subsequent articles will not draw conclusions but rather highlight general themes and areas of concern.

The remainder of this article will illustrate the cheating story on the Mines campus from both student and faculty perspectives. The survey data, although important, only highlights general themes. It is the interviews that shed light on the complicated and personal nature of this topic.

“Unattainable standards. Teachers keep bumping up the homework and the difficulty and people just keep copying down the solutions.” (Aaron Zahn, Electrical Engineering, Junior)

It is well-known that the curriculum at Mines is hard and time-consuming. From students’ perspectives, it can even be overwhelming. Many students feel as though teachers expect them to use their “resources” i.e. venture into the gray area of cheating, because how else would it be possible to succeed.

From the interviews, faculty and students were found on both sides of the issue arguing for and against the use of solution manuals, pictures of homework, and old exams.

Faculty generally was more conservative with resource use but at the same time recognized the complicated nature of cheating, and the issue of a student’s intent. Students’ intent is important due to the nature of gray area cheating.

Gray area cheating is complicated for it falls under formative assessment. Formative assessment, i.e. homework, is a type of assessment where students are still learning the material. It is much harder to define cheating when a student is still learning, because students learn in different ways.

On the other hand, summative assessment, i.e. a test or a quiz, has a clearly defined cheating line since students are being tested on how much they know.

The issue of defining cheating in formative assessment can be seen in student and faculty interview responses.

For example, Aaron Zahn, a junior in electrical engineering, argues in favor of solutions manuals.

“I learn better with answers. The solutions manuals help me learn.” Joe Meyer, a senior in mechanical engineering, supports Aaron’s opinion on solutions manuals.

“I don’t think that having one right answer is bad. Having one right answer helps enforce a concept. It is reinforcing the most logical way of thinking.”

Faculty members also recognize that having the answers is not always a bad thing. An anonymous physics professor argues that sending pictures of homework “is like learning from a math proof. Someone has already done it but you can still learn from it.”

Another anonymous professor expands on this and highlights the issue of intent:

“Sending a picture of homework is not cheating. What makes it cheating or not depends on what the receiver of the picture does with it. If the receiver of the picture spends the time to go through it carefully, until they fully understand it, then this is fine. They have actually learned something through it. But copying it down without understanding is cheating.”

Under formative assessment, learning is key to defining cheating. If learning is involved while using a resource, it is tough to argue that it is cheating.

It may be that using a resource isn’t as important as how it is being used. Many students believe the use of these resources is justified and if the students are learning, their resource use is probably justified.

However, students do not always use their resources appropriately. This complicates the cheating issue even more for it is very difficult to differentiate between using resources appropriately and inappropriately.

Using resources appropriately vs. inappropriately was a common theme in the interviews. Faculty and students harped on the intent of the student, but there were still differences in how students and faculty defined appropriate use. While discussing resource use, important contradictions emerged from the interviews.

When asked whether or not students feel forced to cheat, faculty members were more inclined to say yes, while students usually answered no.

Students were also inclined to argue that there was not a cheating problem on campus, while faculty members argued there was. Students overall had more lenient definitions of cheating than faculty but still responded with a higher percentage of students cheating on campus than faculty did.

It does not make sense that students when interviewed state they do not believe there is a cheating issue, do not believe students feel forced to cheat, and then the student population responds that 38% of students cheat.

It could be that the students interviewed have a different perspective than the rest of campus, but student and faculty interviews suggest a more complicated reason. Possible explanations of these subtle disconnects will be addressed in a future article.

This article serves as an introduction to the cheating issue and main themes the survey touched upon. There is a discrepancy between what students and faculty think constitute cheating, as well as multiple other contradictions.

From the faculty and student interviews, three main themes emerged: students cheat but do not recognize it, differences in student and faculty expectations (the fine line between being overwhelmed and challenged), and getting a good grade versus learning the material. The remaining articles will cover these three themes and address potential solutions to the cheating problem at Mines.

This research was designed to start the conversation about what it means to cheat on the Mines campus. If you have any questions or comments please email:

Overwhelmed Closet Cheaters

People, in general, are very good at justifying their immoral actions. We all have ethical blind spots and the cheating on the Mines campus is a good example of one. Will Buckles, a sophomore in petroleum engineering states: “I feel that I should be able to use any resource that I have to be able to understand the answer and solutions and process to a problem.” And this is a common sentiment.

There is a catch, however. Faculty and students qualify that resource use is only justified if a student has the intent to learn from the resources. The good intent is crucial.

The survey data shows that from sophomore to senior year, cheating increased from 29% (sophomores) to 35% (seniors). (The cheating increases more in graduate school.)

There are many potential explanations as to why cheating increased, but one hypothesis is that students have better intentions towards the beginning of their schooling than at the end. The increase in cheating by grade could be a quantifiable representation of students losing their good intent.

Students either begin college not using the resources or using them to the best of their ability. Then as students progress through the institution, the work increases, students become tired, and then they start to fall prey to habit and lose their good intent without realizing it.

Students aren’t making a conscious decision to start cheating: it happens without them even realizing it. The practices are the same or nearly identical to when they first started. It is the intent that has changed. Originally students learned from the picture of homework, solution in a manual, or going through an old exam. At the end, the resource became a tool to get by.

Why do students lose their good intent? There are many hypotheses, but it seems likely that students simply get overwhelmed.

When asked whether or not students feel forced to cheat, Steven Clark answered “I don’t think so. I think students just get stressed out or get crunched for time.” This was a common response by both faculty and students. Student run out of time and their good intent starts slipping.

The curriculum at Mines is difficult and intense. And that is the way students want it. Students did not choose to become an engineer because they thought it would be easy- students wanted to be challenged. However, there is a difference between being challenged and being overwhelmed.

Another student, Joe Meyer, when asked whether or not students felt forced to cheat, answered: “Not at all. I think if you get to the point where you feel forced to cheat, you should reevaluate where you are. If you have to get the answers from someone else all the time, maybe engineering isn’t for you and the problem isn’t with the class.” Joe enjoys being challenged and holding himself to a high standard. However, he did qualify his answer with the following statement highlighting his issue with how the engineering curriculum is designed.

Mines students take pride in working hard and attending one of the toughest engineering schools in the nation, however, the pride has become less positive.

Many Mines students associate being miserable with working hard – as if you need to be miserable to work hard. This can been seen in students’ boasting about how much work they have to do, how little sleep they have gotten, how long their assignments are, etc. It is an unhealthy mentality, and it breeds cheating.

Faculty also recognizes that there could be an issue with how they and other faculty members approach the engineering curriculum:

“I think the problem here at Mines is that individual instructors are asking too much of their students for each class. Do we understand why we are doing what we are doing in our curriculum? If we are risking a student’s mental health, that is an issue.” (Cortney Holles, Professor, Liberal Arts and International Studies)

The above quote discusses how the curriculum at Mines can be harmful to a student’s mental health and how it is important to design the curriculum appropriately.

“Above all, faculty need to deal with the realities of present media as well as scientific collaboration as the major venue for research.  Much of our teaching is old fashioned and rooted in pre-internet approaches…I believe we can and should develop better teaching models at Mines… More project-based, hands-on work, more flipped classrooms, less professors standing up and talking when the lecture could just be up on YouTube, or provided via a massive open online course (MOOC)-style format.” (Lincoln Carr, Professor, Physics)

More specifically, an anonymous senior in the petroleum department argues for a change in the type of homework at Mines.

“I think our instructors should be focusing on smaller, conceptual, thinking-type HW not the 10 hr. assignments we’re used to.  It’s tough to learn a concept, when you spend 90% of HW time entering it into a spreadsheet or program.” (Anonymous, student, Petroleum Engineering, Senior)

The sentiments displayed by both faculty and students shows that there is an issue with how the curriculum is designed and approached at Mines. These quotes highlight the greater issues of overwhelmed, desperate, even miserable students, and how the curriculum can both reinforce the negative mentality and stifle learning. It is important to reiterate that students at Mines want to be challenged, and do not want their engineering education to be easy. With that being said, students and faculty would like to see a change in how engineering education is approached.

The cheating survey and interviews shed light onto these larger issues because they are connected. Overwhelmed, short-of-time students are a product of their school’s environment. To solve the cheating issue, the faculty, students, and administration need to address the environment and mentality at the Colorado School of Mines.

See also: Cheating at Mines: Part Three, published in May 2016

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