Monday, 11 March 2013

Tales from an Economics Department

Hello. My names is Kostas Economides and I am a lecturer in the Department of Economics at the University of the South of England (USE for short). Well, actually that is not true really as all the names of individuals and institutions in this blog have been changed to protect the innocent - and the guilty! While chatting with friends and colleagues recently we exchanged stories from our times at USE and elsewhere, and it occurred to me that other people might find them interesting or entertaining - hence this blog. But I will let you, the reader, be the judge of that. This first group of stories concerns students attempts to cheat in coursework and exams. Don't get me wrong, I am not saying all students are like this - not even all Greek students (all the students in these stories are Greek). But as you will know if you work in HE, these things do happen.

1 Let's test the hypothesis

Not long after I had arrived here to work at USE the Head of Department, Professor Michael Rowe (sometimes called Mike Rowe the Micro Man,) knocked on my office door and asked if I would come and be an independent witness in an interview with some students about an alleged cheating offense. I followed him back to his office where there were a couple of young Greek women standing outside looking rather nervous. Mike explained to me that the two women, Maria and Sophia, were sisters. Although Maria was two years older than Sophia they were both second year students. Maria had originally started doing an accountancy course but she had decided to switch to economics and so now both sisters were on the same degree programme. They had both submitted essays on the topic of price discrimination for the second year micro course that Mike was teaching - and the essays were identical - word for word (even down to the spelling mistakes and grammatical errors!). With anonymous marking and so many students on the course with different tutors involved in the marking process maybe they thought the matching texts would not be spotted. Mike called them in.

Mike invited Maria and Sophia to sit down and then placed the two essays in front of them, side by side. He asked them to confirm that they were the essays each of them had submitted, and then to explain how it happened that they were word for word identical . Maria answered by saying that although they were not twins they were very alike and went about their work in much the same way. She admitted that they had talked together about how to answer the question but denied that they had actually written the essays together, or that one sister had simply copied the other sister's work. Sophia nodded her head in agreement.

After listening to Maria's answer Mike said "Are you sure that is how it happened? Are you saying that you definitely wrote your essays independently?" . The sisters looked at each other and nodded their heads. "As I said before" said Maria "we are very close as sisters and you will find our work is often very similar".

"OK" said Mike. "As you know", he said looking at me "we are economists and we like testing hypotheses". "I am going to ask you to go with Kostas here and sit down for an hour in different rooms and rewrite your essays - with no notes or books to look at. Then we can test the hypothesis that you produce similar answers independently!

As you might expect, the answers that were forthcoming were not that similar at all. One (Sophia's) was quite good and similar to the one she had submitted for assessment. The other (Maria's) was rather poor and contained a number of errors and misunderstandings.

However the story has a happy ending. Never again did either of the sisters try to cheat by copying each other's work and in the end Maria did slightly better in her finals than Sophia - although they both got Upper Second Class degrees.

Game on

This story reminded me of something that happened when I was teaching at the University of Profitis Ilias in Greece. It concerned a group of four students who were taking a class in Game Theory with Professor Dimitrios Papadopoulos. An exam was scheduled for Friday morning and the four students, who shared a house, decided to do some last minute revision together on the Thursday night. However they pretty quickly tired of Game Theory and switched instead to playing computer games - and drinking a few bottles of Mythos while they played. As happens in this kind of situation time passed quickly and they suddenly realised it was well past three in the morning. So off they went to bed, with one of them supposedly responsible for setting the alarm to get them up in time for the morning exam. Well, you can probably guess what happened. Either the alarm was not set properly or they just slept through it. One of the students woke up and realised that it was already nearly 9.30, and the exam was scheduled to start at 9.

Eventually the students got dressed and got into their car to drive to the university. By the time they arrived the exam was over so they went to plead with Professor Papadopoulos. "We missed the exam because we had a puncture on the way here" they claimed. "Please give us another chance to sit the exam. We revised for it and we are ready to take it this afternoon, or tomorrow even." "Very well" said the Professor. "Come here tomorrow morning and I shall have an exam for you to sit".

Saturday morning came and the students arrived at the Professor's office to take the exam. "OK", said the Professor "I want you to go to separate rooms to take this exam. Good luck". When they were settled and turned the paper over to see the exam questions this is what they read.

Question 1 (10% of the marks). Briefly outline the notion of the Prisoner's Dilemma.

Question 2 (90% of the marks). Which tyre was it that had the puncture?

Strip search

Another story that Professor Michael Rowe shared with me concerns a student who was seen cheating in an exam. The invigilator noticed that every now and then this particular student leaned down and put his hand into his sock, glanced at something and then resumed writing. The invigilator said nothing during the exam but when the exam was over and before the students were allowed to leave the room she phoned Mike Rowe to tell him of her suspicions. The suspected cheat was asked to remain behind. When Professor Rowe arrived he asked the student if there was anything he would like to say about his conduct during the exam. The student said "No, nothing". "OK", said the Professor, "Would you please remove your shoes?". "You want me to take off my shoes?" said the student. "Yes please". "And now your socks". The student removed his left sock. "And now the other one please". The other sock was removed but the student kept his foot clenched. "Please just unclench your foot" said the Professor. And onto the floor dropped a piece of folded up paper with lots of helpful notes in tiny writing on it. "How did that get there?" said the student. "It must have been on the floor of my flat when I was getting dressed this morning".

Needless to say the student was accused of a cheating offence and subject to disciplinary procedures. But my question to Mike Rowe was "But what would you have done if the student had secreted the notes in his underpants!".

The heat is on

This also reminds me of an occasion when I was invigilating an exam in Greece when I thought a student was cheating. He was quite a few rows back and every now and then he seemed to be leaning to his left and looking over the shoulder of the girl in front of him. I should mention that it was in June and it was very hot despite the air conditioning in the exam room. Most of the students, including the girl, were not wearing very much in the way of clothing. I walked down to get closer to the student I thought might be cheating. I whispered to him that I was keeping my eye on him and he should not be tempted to cheat, because if I caught him I should certainly report him. "Oh, no", he said, "it's not that". "Look, when I lean slightly to the left I can see that girl's cleavage". "Would you like me to move you to another desk?" I replied. "Oh, yes please" he responded "otherwise I shall never be able to concentrate in this exam!"

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