More than half of all student conduct cases resolved between faculty members and students during the 2014-2015 academic year occurred in one course—Computer Science 201. 

A new policy regarding homework assignments implemented this semester seeks to prevent that from happening again. 

Starting this year, all answers to algorithmic problem-solving testing (APTs)—an online programming homework assignment—are available to students one week before the assignments are due. Students can utilize the answers in any way, including simply copying and pasting the solutions into their assignments for submission. The new policy for the APTs was put in place to curb stress and student misconduct in the Computer Science 201 class. 

How it works

The APT assignments for CS201 are due every other week and include writing four to six different programs of shorter code that fulfill a specific task. Once written, the file can be run through an APT tester that checks if the code completes its task by showing if test cases pass or fail. If all the test cases pass, then full credit is awarded on the assignment. A student has unlimited trials to get all the test cases correct on the APT tester before officially submitting the code.

In order to check for plagiarism, the department runs the submitted code though a measure of Software Similarity, which detects areas of substantial similarity between two sets of code. If the code is significantly similar, the professors use their judgment to determine whether the students violated student conduct policies. 

It is likely that if two students have similar codes for long APTs with more than one solution, they have violated collaboration policies. 

Jeffrey Forbes, associate professor of the practice who has taught CS201 15 times including this semester, said he has become experienced in detecting illegal collaboration.

Owen Astrachan, director of undergraduate studies for computer science and an instructor of the class, added that course policies on collaboration and plagiarism are clear. A webpage that is linked on the CS201 homepage is named “What’s OK and What’s Not OK” and specifically outlines the course policies. Each activity is assigned one of the following labels: permitted, permitted with citation, permitted with consent or forbidden. The activities include consulting textbooks, receiving help from classmates writing code and searching online for solutions. 

Still, some students had limited knowledge of the policies. First-year David Rein, a current CS201 student, said he remembered discussing the policies in class and was aware that the information is on the homepage. Yet, like other students, he did not explicitly remember the rules.

It's easy to cheat

According to the Overview of Report Resolutions for 2014-15 on the Office of Student Conduct's website, 123 of 201 faculty-student resolutions in that year were from the CS201 class. Ninety percent of the all the cases that year were for forms of cheating—such as wrongful collaboration and searching for solutions online. The rest were for plagiarism and lying. 

Astrachan said cheating is relatively easier in computer science than in other departments because answers to the APTs are available online. CS201 students write code in Java and the course has utilized APTs for more than 20 years. By contrast, CS101—which currently teaches Python—has only had seven years of APTs and thus fewer answers are online. 

Still, Rein explained that cheating is generally easy in most computer science classes. 

"It’s very easy to come up with exact search terms you need to find the answer on Stack Overflow or online," Rein said.

The benefits of cheating in computer science also outweigh the risks, Forbes said. Changing one character of code could be the difference between failing and acing an assignment. 

Sophomore Mallory Hahn, a former CS201 student, added that it is easy to get stuck on assignments, and students would rather search the answers online than ask for help. 

“When you [have trouble], it can be difficult to figure out what you did wrong," Hahn said. "It’s easier to google it." 

The repercussions of cheating also can be relatively insignificant. When a student violates the class’ policy, the professor must report it to student conduct. Faculty-student resolutions are mainly used to settle the misconduct. This process requires that the student accept the proposed resolution and admit responsibility. The first offense does not go on a student’s disciplinary record and the penalties—such as probation—can be insubstantial.

Additionally, cheating in CS201 is likely detected more often than in other classes. 

“The reason we have more in computer science than other places is that we can check much better than anyone else,” Forbes said. “In your math class, they are not able to check with a program for every pair of submissions, whether they match. I contend that in economics class, if they were able to do this, they will find more students copying than they think.”

Will the cheating stop?

Astrachan said students resorted to cheating because they were stressed and felt that they had no other choice. He added that he hopes that by making the solutions available, student stress will decrease while the same learning opportunities are offered. 

“It’s like the answers in the back of the book,” Astrachan said. “Do students still do [the questions]? They still do them and look up if they got them right.”

Forbes said that posting the answers also evens the playing field within the class. Some students who did not cheat were being penalized for reading our policies and believing in them, so he prefers that everyone have access to those same solutions. 

However, some students disagreed with the change and said that it can curb the learning process. 

Hahn, the former CS201 student, said she thought the new policy defeats the purpose of APTs and discourages people from going to office hours. She believes working through the APTs rather than giving up halfway is a more helpful way to learn the material. 

Rein, the first-year currently in CS201, agreed with Hahn, adding that struggling through the problems and asking for help from teaching assistants can promote learning. 

"When you go through the process of having to look something up, it does require you to think about what is the issue I am having with this and what is the question I need to be asking," Rein said. "If you have the answer right there, you don’t even think what is the problem, you can just copy and paste the solution."

Despite her criticisms, Hahn said she would have likely looked at the answers after getting stuck on assignments if the policy existed when she took the course. But Rein said he has not needed to look up answers because the APTs have been easy so far. He could see himself using them in the future, though. 

Both CS201 professors said they believed that doing the APTs without looking at the answers is more beneficial for the student. APTs are a small percentage of students' overall grades, so tests and quizzes will still more accurately reflect the students' skills. But they also understand why students will want take advantage of the new access to the answers. 

“I hope this policy will result in fewer students trying to get code from their friends or online," Forbes said. "If we succeed in that, what we will get is better learning."