How Economists Caught Cheating College Students

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At least 10 percent of college students cheat on exams, according to one measure.

That’s among the findings of a new study released by the National Bureau of Economic Research, a private nonprofit based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was written by “Freakonomics” author and University of Chicago economics professor Steven Levitt along with National Taiwan University economics researcher Ming-Jen Lin.

CBS MoneyWatch reports that even before the authors studied students taking midterm exams in an unidentified college professor’s classroom, they noted the extent of scholastic cheating. The findings of a 2005 survey indicated that 11 percent of 8,000 college students surveyed in the U.S. and Canada admitted to copying from others’ tests.

Levitt and Lin were invited into a classroom at an also unidentified university by a professor who suspected his students were cheating. Based on their observations, the authors created an algorithm to help catch cheaters.

The algorithm focuses not on matching correct answers among certain students — which could be explained by their having studied together. Instead, it homes in on matching incorrect answers, which Levitt and Lin write “prove to be a stronger indicator of cheating than matching correct answers.”

Levitt and Lin found that at least 10 percent of 242 students had cheated on the midterm.

The unidentified professor withheld the grades of 12 students considered “most suspicious” until the first day of the next semester. Although that resulted in those students being disqualified from scholarships, “none of the 12 accused students complained or sought redress,” and four actually confessed to cheating, the study states.

The study also found that when seats were randomly assigned to students for the final exam — and there was increased monitoring by teaching assistants during that exam — cheating virtually disappeared.

What are your thoughts about the frequency with which students appear to cheat? Let us know what you think below or on Facebook.

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