Shaping the Learning Curve Through a Code

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 16, 2002; 6:31 AM

The Georgia Institute of Technology freshman was packing for a family ski trip at his home in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., last December when he checked his e-mail. He found this message from Georgia Tech's College of Computing:

"Please be advised that your transcript will be reflecting a grade of 'I' [for Incomplete] in CS [Computer Studies] 1321 for Fall Semester 2001," the message said. "Your name has been turned into the Associate Dean of Students, Karen Boyd, for suspicion of academic misconduct on one or more programs."

The student, a graduate of one of the Washington area's best public high schools, said he "felt like someone just dropped a bomb on me emotionally." He had struggled in the computer science class, required of all Georgia Tech freshmen, but had made progress. He was happily expecting a B. Now he faced a possible F in the course and a disciplinary black mark on his academic record. "I felt that I had destroyed my life," he said.

We have been hearing much about cheating. Some public school teachers, including several in Maryland, have lost jobs for allegedly helping students improperly on their state achievement tests. In colleges across the country, students and their professors are still talking about my colleague Amy Argetsinger's story last year revealing that 122 introductory physics courses students at the University of Virginia had been accused of copying parts of their term papers--all because of a new computer program designed to sniff out plagiarists.

We in the media have left the impression that academic pressures and bad upbringing have produced such misbehavior. Many commentators say it threatens the integrity of our schools and the future ethical climate of our workplaces.

I have a different view, and the tale of the Georgia Tech freshman--whom I have promised not to name in exchange for his story--illustrates why I feel that way. I agree that many students are cheating. I don't like that, but we have always been clever and opportunistic primates, willing to take advantage of lax supervision or ill-conceived taboos. There is no evidence that today's students are any more likely to break the rules than any member of the species has ever been.

Do you think I am setting too low a standard? Are you telling me that you don't cheat? Let me ask a few questions: Have you ever exceeded the speed limit? Crossed a street against the light? Parked in a no-parking zone? I thought so. Nearly all of us break the rules, in many instances with potential consequences far more deadly than copying a friend's homework. Having swallowed that dose of reality, let's consider the nature of cheating in schools today, and what we ought to do about it.

The misdeed at Georgia Tech is quite interesting. That fine institution, for reasons that its official spokesman has politely declined to explain to me, forbids its introductory computer science students from seeking any help from other students on their homework. The course honor code says "we don't want to discourage discussion between students about ideas pertaining to this course," but Georgia Tech clearly doesn't mean that. The freshman was only one of 187 computer science students--of the 1,168 students who took the course last fall--accused of cheating last year. Many of the cases appear to be just like his--similarities in a few lines of computer code on a very complicated assignment which he discussed with a friend. All the available evidence indicates the school has done its best to instill fear in any student who might think of even raising the issue of CS 1321 homework with a classmate.

Mary DeCamp, opinions editor of the campus newspaper, Technique, described a reign of terror reminiscent of the rules against unauthorized sex in the George Orwell classic "1984." "An entire day at the beginning of the semester is spent lecturing on the evils of cheating and the horrible things that will happen if you turn in work that has not totally come from your own brain," she said. "You walk around afraid to even mention the words 'computer science' to anyone."

The father of the accused freshman says the university did not make clear the difference between discussion, which some of the rules say is okay, and collaboration, which is not. But the honor code and first-hand accounts from students like DeCamp make it clear that any kind of discussion risks a visit by the homework police. The CS 1321 honor code says "at no time is it acceptable for you to share your solutions to the homework assignments with other students, whether these solutions are complete or partial, nor is it acceptable to compare your solutions with other students."

The accused freshman was trying to overcome a bad start in the class. His first assignment grade had been a 46 percent. He devoted far more time to CS 1321 than any other course. He said he was not going to pass up any chance to get a firmer grip on the material. When he found himself with a homework assignment he did not understand, and no teaching assistants or professors available on a campus off-week, he convinced himself that just chatting with another student would not violate the rules. Many less devoted but perhaps wiser classmates decided not to turn in the assignment at all. It was only 2 percent of their grade. But the freshman wanted to be ready for the final, and that meant doing all the work.

He wanted to learn. That was his big mistake. The university officials who filled in the violation form were forced by the Georgia Tech rules to stray so far from their obligation as educators that they seriously listed part of the freshmanís offense in exactly these words: "He was trying to learn it."

The freshman said he still thinks he is innocent, but found himself so distracted by his fight against the charges that he signed an agreement for a reduced punishment so his second term would not also be a disaster. His fall term B was changed to a C. He agreed to attend an ethics orientation. But several other students are still fighting accusations, which the university says is the reason why it will not discuss the issue with me.

"To engage in a public discussion of the cases, while some students have yet to receive a hearing, could potentially bias the opinions of those who serve on the panels," said Georgia Tech spokesman Robert T. Harty. He said he cannot comment on the freshman's specific case without the student's permission and all university officers would refuse comment for at least the next month until the hearings ended.

That is too bad, because I am eager to hear their defense of such an irrational system. Try your best to learn and you're in trouble. Blow off the assignment and you're safe. And it is getting worse. A brand-new rule says a computer science student is wrong to try to seek answers to questions ANYWHERE other than from course materials or Georgia Tech staff. Rooting around in old books in the library, checking the Internet, calling your cousin at Caltech--all are forbidden.

Every successful educational enterprise I know encourages student discussion and cooperation. Nobody wants to see identical homework assignments (except, of course, if all that is required are the right answers). But the freshman was accused of similarities on 30 out of hundreds of lines of computer code, and his accusers--by their very words on the official form--admitted that he was just trying to solve the problem.

If a student copies but does not learn, he will be unprepared for the tests. That is where security should become an issue. Computer checks, alternate test forms, widely spaced seating--a wise teacher does whatever it takes to make sure she is getting accurate information on how much progress each student has made. It is much easier, and less counterproductive, to do that with good, well-supervised tests, rather than try to ban cooperation on homework.

The Georgia Tech freshman's father has sent letters to several universities and science-oriented high schools complaining about Georgia Tech and asking their views. Gerald L. Boarman, executive director of the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics and the award-winning former principal of Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Prince George's County, Md., said "I find it implausible that there is not something terribly wrong in the Computer Science Department" at Georgia Tech. Christopher Davis, professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Maryland, said he found Georgia Tech's "attitude regarding student work incomprehensible. It is common practice at major American universities, including the University of Maryland, for students to be encouraged to engage in teamwork, to learn together, to work on assignments together, so long as they fairly submit their own work at the conclusion of each assignment."

The freshman wants to transfer to another school. I don't blame him. Nobody told him when he was accepted to Georgia Tech that he would be forced to worry about what he said to his roommate about their lessons.

Georgia Tech is too fine an institution to tolerate a speech and homework police. It allows collaboration in other courses and, I hear, may be reevaluating its computer science policy. Cowering in your room, wondering if you have asked too many questions, staying off the Internet is not, as the school fight song says, the way to become a hell of an engineer.

_____About the Author_____
Jay Mathews, a Washington Post education reporter, writes a weekly Class Struggle column exclusively for He also covers school issues in a quarterly column for The Post Magazine. He can be reached via e-mail at

© 2002 The Washington Post Company

Permission to copy and post requested 2002/04/17.