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.