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Davis, California

Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Studying for tests with ethical restraints

UC Davis Student Judicial Affairs, professors weigh in on appropriate test ethics


With an exam or two approaching quickly, students at UC Davis are often open to creative and convenient ideas for studying. In the search for that next piece of relevant material that might make the difference between passing, failing or getting an A, there are few practical limits to what can be used to study. Social media has aided in the access and sharing of study materials, but it has also raised a number of legal and ethical issues.

If you’ve ever studied for an exam on a group study guide online, the term anonymous koala might be familiar to you. Google Docs allows users to share and edit documents online and includes options for how it can be shared. It can require a sign in or it might only be accessible by a link with no sign in necessary. Google will then designate you some form of anonymous animal.

Ahmed Suboh, a fourth-year political science major, regularly uses Google Docs to create community study guides.

“I had actually formed the idea from peer to peer file sharing,” Suboh said. “The concept is, I have a part of the file, you have a part of the file, somebody else has a part of the file, we will combine together and download all of each other’s sections so we can get one whole document, one whole file, at a faster rate than it would take for us to take from one person, take from another person.”

As a commuting student with a job, Suboh admitted that he was not able to attend every lecture. Instead of continuously asking his friends for the notes he was missing, he decided a mass exchange would help him fill in the gaps.

“What’s really interesting is that I formed the idea out of selfish need,” Suboh said. “That’s what humans do; that’s what we are conditioned to do. I did it because I had a piece of my notes missing, and I needed to complete them. However, I was willing to share what I had in order to achieve that. And that’s where it’s not selfish anymore.”

To keep students from possibly using his study guide to cheat, Suboh has begun disabling the document right before the test. Other than possibly viewing it during an exam, sharing and using a group study guide is not generally considered cheating or illegal.

“Students are encouraged to study together,” said Donald Dudley, director of Student Judicial Affairs (SJA). “For graded assignments, students can only work together to the extent permitted by the instructor.”

Dudley suggested that if students are not aware of the degree to which they are allowed to work together, they should asked the professor or work independently to be safe.

Although Suboh commented that the guide is generally efficient and effective, one of the issues with the idea is a lack of willingness by some people to contribute.

“Typically people who already have their own comprehensive study guide will never contribute because they believe that they have nothing to gain,” Suboh said. “The study guide is not intentionally meant for people who don’t have a complete one, but it ends up being so, because the people who seek it out don’t have the complete document. They need assistance. And so they end up being assistance to someone who also needs assistance.”

Another possible issue has to do with the idea of a shared study guide in general, and what effect it might have on how the class is graded. Suboh commented that oftentimes people will come up with different answers to the same question, but argues that this contributes to discussion and gives a broader answer to the question.

One of the concerns with a comprehensive, effective study guide shared by everyone is the possibility of exploitation.

“I’ve made myself give over my phone during exams when I go to the bathroom,” Suboh said.” Which makes me feel more comfortable myself for being more academically honest because I don’t want to have the power of a whole study guide on my phone that I can access.”

According to Dudley, there could be potential legal issues with the use of online group study guides, depending on the source of the material and how it is distributed. If it is a transcript of audio recorded without the professor’s permission, if it is verbatim from slides that were photographed without permission, or if questions from a previously unreleased test show up on the guide, in many cases that material legally belongs to the professor. However, any material given to students by the professor is fair game.

“If an instructor distributes an exam and students are allowed to keep it, it is up to [the students] what to do with them,” Dudley said.

Jeffery Williams, chair of the undergraduate council and an agricultural and resource economics professor at UC Davis, said the academic senate is currently beginning discussion on the issue of ownership when it comes to professors’ material, as several professors are starting to find their own tests and problem sets online, posted by students without their permission.

“It’s certainly having the effect that you can’t as a professor reuse any material you’ve previously done, which means you’re always starting from scratch with new exam questions, new problem sets,” Williams said. “That’s a lot of work to always have to have something new and not be able to recycle something from three or four years before.”

Although the illegality of sharing copyrighted material publically online is clear, students stumbling upon the material creates an ambiguous issue which Williams is reluctant to consider cheating.

“I can see how it can be called [cheating],” Williams said. “The professor should be making this available to everybody if some get it. It’s an unfair advantage. I think it’s cheating if we make clear that you should not have that advantage.”

Williams said his personal method of avoiding this unfair advantage was to change the style of his tests to be based more on reading recent articles, but this has increased his workload, as he must continuously come up with new testing material.

On top of this ambiguity in unfair advantages, Williams mentioned that UC Davis has seen a rise in individual instances of cheating. Williams and Dudley both commented that faculty should bring instances of cheating to the attention of SJA.

“It’s a lot of work to get a case strong enough that [SJA] can handle, so as an individual faculty member it’s often much simpler just to ignore the problem,” Williams said. “I’m sure there have been cases that I’ve not caught, I’m not hunting for them, but whenever I’ve had one I’ve given it to [SJA]. I think that’s important as a faculty member.”

Williams said the academic senate is not looking for a universal solution for all the problems of unfair advantages and instances of cheating, but one reasonable expectation is that students will not use unpermitted electronic devices during tests. Dudley pointed out also that a students work is expected to be unique to the class they are turning it into.

Although there are certainly legal consequences for cheating, Suboh pointed out that the ultimate consequence is a lack of education.

“I find it a little bit sad,” Suboh said. “You had every opportunity to study, you had every opportunity to ask questions, you had every opportunity to write down notes and you chose not to. And then at the end, you chose to cheat, which, yes, comes at a great benefit to yourself, but then at the end you’re telling yourself that being in this class was not worth your time. Learning was not worth your time. What was worth your time was finding all the answers at the end and then dumping them out of your brain five seconds after you walk out of the room, which is really scary to me. What concerns me is people not caring about their education, because there’s something completely lost by cheating.”


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