Posted by: annemartinfletcher | June 9, 2012

What AFA Hasn’t Released on Cheating Scandal

Two days ago on 7 June 2012, The Stars and Stripes, citing a Matt Steiner story in the Colorado Springs Gazette and Lt. Col John Bryan, the Air Force Academy (AFA) Director of Public Affairs, reported that 78 cadets were accused of cheating on a (mostly) freshman Calculus II test. Yesterday, the Associated Press said that while an Academy spokesman reported erroneously that cadets took the test outside class without supervision, the cadets actually took the test in class with supervisors present. Below are some more tidbits that I haven’t seen reported elsewhere.

The actual number of cadets investigated is closer to 250 than 78. A number of these cadets, after being accused of an honor violation, resigned without going through the investigation. My sources vary greatly in the number, but I think around 20 cadets is believable. The reason they most frequently cited for resigning is that force reductions, requiring the Cadet Wing to be at a maximum strength of 4000 by the end of this fiscal year (1 October 2012) have increased pressure on cadets to succeed to an intolerable level. The resigning cadets felt that the Honor Violation (or misunderstanding) is just the last straw. Official sources say that the current number of cadets before graduation was around 4200, while an unofficial source tells me that USAFA is already at the 4000 number (or will be after a much smaller Class of 2016 finishes summer training).

Throughout the semester, Calculus students had taken around eight online practice exams, during which they were permitted access to Wolfram Alpha, an online help resource, to check their answers and get help on the steps to solve the problems. The instructors warned the cadets that this would not be available during the final, so they needed to make sure that they could do the problems themselves. The math department realized they had a problem when cadets that scored high during the earlier tests, failed the final online exam. This raised their suspicion that many cadets had just copied answers from Wolfram Alpha during the earlier tests, without actually learning the material. The department was then able to see which cadets accessed Wolfram Alpha during the day of the exam, and these cadets were questioned. Some of the cadets had correctly accessed the website to study before the exam, some accessed it during the exam and admitted to it, and records showed that some cadets accessed the website but denied it. It is the last group of cadets who face the most rigorous investigation.

Reaction to the “Cheating Scandal” varies greatly. Some cadets say that their instructors made it very clear that access was not allowed during the final. They also say that a failing final exam score did not necessarily mean a failure in the class. These cadets tend to be unsympathetic to those who did access Wolfram Alpha during the exam. Other cadets say that the pressure on them has led to over-competitiveness and has destroyed any sense of camaraderie, in the face of force reductions.

Normally, I’m very “old school,” in my defense of the Honor Code. “We will not lie, steal, or cheat, nor tolerate among us anyone who does,” is no different than the behavior my mother taught me, so I am continually surprised by the lack of this ethic among the general population. In this case, however, my experience as a Math professor at a private college with a strong code of ethics, makes me much more lenient toward these cadets who accessed the web-based help program.

In my course, I also use an online math resource for homework and tests. Its advantages are that it gives the students immediate feedback, it shows them additional examples, and it even has videos where an online teacher explains how to do the problem, perhaps differently than the way I approached it. No matter how clearly or how many ways (syllabus, writing on board, oral, practice,)  I explain which resources to use, there is always 10 per cent of the class that was absent or asleep or thinking about other things . . . and they miss the information. The most reliable way to ensure they understand is through practice. The USAFA cadets received lots of practice in taking the test WITH access to the help program, so I’m not surprised that many of them did this during the final. Students who understand directions are typically unsympathetic to those who mess up the directions; but a good instructor realizes that different people learn differently, and one has to be careful not to confuse them. I avoid the issue the cadets faced by printing my final, even though it requires a lot more time to grade it. I also have several tests during the semester that follow the same procedures I expect a student to follow on the final.

Consequently, in this case, I say give the cadets who used Wolfram Alpha during the exam a second chance. Do not do the same for the students who lied about it. Apparently, I am right in line with the Academy’s policy on this one issue. Given the fact that only 78 cadets are reportedly being investigated for an Honor Code violation out of the initial hundreds who were questioned, I am also inclined to think that USAFA is NOT using this issue as an excuse to reduce the size of the Cadet Wing.

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Responses

  1. Anne,

    As I understand your position, you feel that since cadets’ access to Wolfram Alpha during the practice exams was not disabled or blocked, those who accessed it during the final exam did so under the false impression this access was permitted under the rules of the exam, and therefore those cadets did not intentionally cheat. I disagree.

    This incident/scandal certainly is rich in material for discussion. Let me see if I can organize and present my own response to the issues I see raised. I apologize in advance for its length.

    Study Skills

    In my (admittedly non-professional) opinion, Calculus (and Calculus II) are relatively straight-forward math classes. The concepts can be challenging to learn the first time, but the gamut of concepts, problem types, and solutions is completely constrained. The objective I see in teaching it (I did recently tutor my son through Calculus I, a thoroughly enjoyable experience for me), is to first get the student to “see” the solution (understanding), and to then have them practice that solution enough times over several days (spaced repetition) to be able to recall that solution procedure from memory during a closed book test.

    One part of good study skills, however, is having the self-discipline to practice answering problems without the use of “lifelines” (like Wolfram Alpha or referring to the textbook or your notes). It seems that a significant portion of the students did not understand the material adequately during the course to complete the practice exams without the use of external resources. That should have been a red flag to the students that they were not ready for the exam and needed to study more. However, we both know how time-constrained cadet life is, and perhaps they were simply unable to learn the material in the available time.

    Access to Wolfram Alpha During the Final

    If the instructors did not want the cadets to access Wolfram Alpha (I’ll call it WA) during the exam, technological solutions to prevent that access are not fundamentally difficult (e.g. blocking access to that URL and IP address range). I can certainly envision, however, Academy organizational structures making it infeasible to technically prevent such access only for the test and only from the test computers (I always found it “challenging” to work with the Communications Squadron when I was a contract network administrator at Elgin AFB). If the instructors did not want to go through the trouble to prevent the access technically (e.g. if organizational issues made it difficult to do so), I believe they had a duty to their students to make it clear that such access was prohibited. However, I think that even if the instructors had not done so, it should have been obvious to the cadets that they should not use WA to solve final exam problems. Any student at the college level surely understands the difference between practice exams and a final exam, and it is generally understood that unless access to information resources (textbook, notes, etc.) are specifically authorized, then such access is prohibited.

    For those who have not used WA (http://www.wolframalpha.com), it must be noted that WA is presented like a search engine, but it is specifically designed to answer queries like, “If x^3=27, what is x?” and more complex questions, such as those found on Calculus II exams. Therefore, I find it difficult to believe that cadets taking a Calculus II final exam would think that accessing such a computation engine during the exam to answer a problem would be considered acceptable, even if the instructors did not make such a prohibition clear. After all, cadets are not taken from the lower end of high school class standings. Most cadets are pretty smart. Most of our class were certainly smarter than I!

    Finally, if the exams were being taken in a proctored setting as reported by the Associated Press, any cadet who was unclear about what resources he or she could access during the exam could easily ask the proctor. Therefore, I conclude that cadets who accessed WA during the final exam were, in fact, knowingly cheating, a clear honor violation. In addition, any cadet who denied accessing WA during the final who actually did access it, was also lying, another clear honor violation (although it might fall under the category of a “pop-off”). In fact, if a cadet somehow thought they were allowed to access WA during the exam and did so, why would that cadet then lie about such access? Clearly, such cadets knew that such access was prohibited but mistakenly thought that their access would not be discovered.

    Honor Training

    I suspect that on the order of 800 cadets took the problematic Calculus II final exam. Not every cadet takes Calculus II the same semester, depending on their math preparation prior to the Academy. However, most of the Class of 2015 was probably taking it, along with a few cadets from 2014. The class probably entered with around 1,200 cadets (as we did), and will have lost some during the course of the year. If your numbers (close to 250 investigated for potential honor violations, e.g. accessed WA during the final exam) are correct, then around one in three cadets accessed WA during the final exam. I consider this absolutely damning evidence of failure of the Academy to form these cadets into individuals who, when presented with a moral dilemma, choose an honorable course of action. When a small fraction of those trained fail to master the material, it’s easy to blame “a few bad apples in the barrel”. However, when a substantial number fail, I, like Philip Zimbardo in his “Lucifer Effect” study of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, tend to blame the barrel rather than the apples. If one out of three Class of 2015 students failed this moral challenge, is it reasonable to believe that the ethical skills of other classes preceding 2015 were much different? I suspect that many other instances of cheating have been occurring in recent years, and that this is merely the tip of the iceberg.

    In some ways, this event could be looked upon as an informal, low-stakes test of the character of the cadets taking the exam, as well as a test of the Academy’s character development training system. I would be the first to admit that the Academy has a great challenge on its hands in developing leaders of character today. While every generation tends to decry the following generations, a number of studies have certainly indicated that cheating is far more widespread in high schools today than in previous decades. Nevertheless, the Academy IS tasked with developing leaders of character who will respond honorably to moral challenges when the stakes are much higher than the grade on a math course (e.g. life and death decisions). The cadets taking this test were freshmen, but they were not basic cadets, weeks after graduating high school. The Academy had almost an entire year to instill in them a habit of approaching decisions from a moral and ethical point of view. If you were to assign the Academy a grade corresponding with the percent of cadets who did NOT access WA during the final exam, it sounds like the grade would be around 70%. Such a very low success rate at developing a moral perspective that the Academy considers fundamental should be a huge red flag and wake-up call to the Academy and Air Force leadership. Not only did the Academy perform poorly at teaching honor, it also apparently was unaware of how poorly it was teaching it. This implies a need for a massive overhaul of the character development curriculum. If the Academy does NOT undertake such an effort, our Air Force, and our country, will reap the sad results.

    Final Thoughts

    For readers who have not attended the Academy, they should be aware of a few points regarding an Academy education. At least when Anne and I were there, a normal course load was six to seven courses per semester (a full course load at most colleges is four). In addition to the academics, cadets spend each weekday afternoon and some weekends participating in athletics. And in addition to that, they must take care of military tasks such as preparing for inspections on a regular basis. Cadets’ time is intentionally over-subscribed. No cadet that I knew was ever able to do it all (although some were pretty incredible). The time pressure is daunting. In addition, academic courses are mostly graded “on a curve”. That means (for example) that the top 20% on an exam get an A (regardless of their score), the next 20% get a B, etc. That makes Academy academics a zero-sum game. Some will win, and some will lose, and your competition is your classmates, all of whom also graduated in the top of their class.

    The pressure is intentionally high because some graduates will be placed in situations of even much greater stress later in their career, and it is important for these future officers to learn, before they encounter such situations, how to handle and accomplish far more than they think is humanly possible. However, it is also important to realize that any subjective self-assessment of the level of pressures on cadets is likely to have low reliability and accuracy. Cadets will ALWAYS say they have too much to do, and too little time to do it in. An accurate assessment of the objective level of pressure being placed on cadets of any given year is probably close to impossible.

    In this incident, I believe that the Academy leadership needs to acknowledge that their character development program has substantially failed the Class of 2015 (and probably their predecessors as well), have an open discussion about the failure, and do some deep reflection on how they can better develop and evaluate cadet character in the future. The cadets who cheated or lied are still young, freshmen in college; one year out of high school. The scandal can become an outstanding opportunity for individual growth , learning, and personal development. The cadets who did not cheat or lie might understandably feel betrayed over honor code violators who are retained. Both cohorts will certainly be an opportunity and test for the senior Academy leadership to demonstrate their leadership skills. I hope they rise to the challenge.

    Dan Bloemer
    USAFA Class of 1980

  2. Dan, Well said. I was a doolie your 1st class year and had a situation come up on a test during my 1st or 2nd class year. While taking the test I let me eyes wander to the cadet’s test beside me. I saw his one of his answers and immediately knew that it was the correct answer and not the answer I had chosen. I changed my answer to what I knew was the right one and my conscience grabbed me. I knew I couldn’t do that even if no one saw what I did, so I erased my answer and left it blank rather than cheat.

    Granted, that was a couple of years later than what happened to these cadets, Just like Anne I was taught by my parents about right and wrong, but as humans we also intuitively know right from wrong. This has been proven multiple times in tests with children. The Academy does have a big task in determining why so many cadets chose to cheat and figure out how to make sure the honor code is embodied in everything a cadet does. Only then will the graduated cadet be able to instinctively make the right choice when the pressure is even greater.

    Bill Horton, PE
    Class of 1983

  3. Oops. I meant, of course *Eglin AFB* not *Elgin*!

    Bill, I’m glad you made the best choice. There has been some interesting recent research on how the mind works with regard to ethical decision making (see, for example, http://www.npr.org/2012/05/01/151764534/psychology-of-fraud-why-good-people-do-bad-things ). The research reported in that article identified that an important factor in how people approach an ethical challenge is their frame of mind. Those viewing a challenge as an ethical challenge are far more likely to “do the right thing” than those approaching a decision from a business perspective. From what I’m hearing from fellow grads in the ‘Springs area, the Academy leadership just doesn’t recognize how badly they’re failing at teaching ethical behavior. That bodes very poorly for the future of our Air Force.

  4. I left the USAFA Faculty two years ago. While there I supported the Honor Division as a Senior Mentor for Cadets on Honor Probation, and taught a couple of Honor classes to Basics.

    I recognize the challenges and issues facing USAFA Leadership in this field. I would be happy to provide any information, from an insider’s perspective, which may contribute to this discussion.

    Ben Paganelli
    Class of 1988


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