Sunday, April 27, 2008

Would I Have Better Students If I Let Them Cheat?

No, I'm not invoking the b.s. idea that other professors use. ("You'll end up spending more energy trying to cheat than you would if you studied." I sincerely doubt it, or else we would not have to monitor against cheating.) Rather I'm thinking about a scheme that might increase the number of students with retention of the knowledge. Robert Frank has often decried the inability of former econ students to answer econ questions any more accurately than someone who has never taken a course. So if my intention is solely to increase the number of students retaining long-term economic knowledge, could I institutionalize cheating in a manner that would accomplish this?

Suppose I tell the students that during exams they are allowed to copy the answers of whoever they sit next to, provided they have the permission of the student they are copying from. In most classrooms, a copier would be able to sit on either side of a test-taker, so you would have a 2-1 ratio of copiers to test-takers. Now, instead of appealing to the lower ability students I target the content of the course to a higher level of difficulty and I test more frequently (maybe 4 or 5 per semester). The good students would then sell the rights to copying their exams, and would have a strong incentive to continuously do well in the course. I would provide credible enforcement of contracts. I would expect then, that 1 out of 3 students would develop a superior command of economic principles, while the other 2 would have forgotten them anyway within a few months of the course.

So, tell me where I go wrong in my logic, or what corrections would be needed to make this system work. No need to point out that the University would never allow this, as it undermines their principal reason for existing -- to signal productivity.


Matt E. Ryan said...

Well, there's no reason to believe that you would have a dichotomous result-- you could actually have a nice full market of knowledge to buy. Timmy knows his stuff always so he commands a premium, but Joan usually does B work, costs less, and I'm only a semester from graduating...

You mention signaling at the end, and this scenario has some of those characteristics too. With Spence, you've got high ability and low ability, and the former can act like the latter but not the reverse. Presumably, everyone in the class does not have the ability to do A work, but everyone had the chance to pay for it. As such, you've have an interesting result if 1) you had very few people that had the ability to learn the knowledge and 2) you had a number of people that are very willing to pay for the best grade possible (presumably twice that of the potential A earners plus at least one more). Since you cap it at 2 people, you create an auction-type scenario where the surplus for the seller ends up being very high. Of course, in perfect competition, we see more entrants on the supply side-- but we can't have that situation here.

How robust do you think this market would be? Do you think the buyers would find the sellers by the end of the semester? I imagine knowing your classmates would become a much more common occurrence. I also would imagine a scenario of long term dealings-- registering for common classes once you found a good buyer/seller connection. in an even more extended scenario-- could you imagine a wealthy family sending a high-skilled, low-income child to college with their own child to generate degrees for both?

Another thought-- let's assume that the prices go low enough such that someone who would otherwise have studied now paid for the good grade. Is it possible that this setup could reduce the level of learning? I think you're implicitly assuming a retention rate of less than 33%. That may be true or may not be true...probably depends on the class you're teaching.

Oh, and WVU exists to award degrees to the governor's family as well.

Bryce said...

The one big problem with this scenario is "transitive cheating." Super-smart student A sells cheating rights to student B. Student B sells cheating rights to student C, etc. With an efficient cheating network, only one or two students could supply a lot of the class with correct answers, dropping your 33% knowledge retention rate to a much lower level.

I thought a fair amount about alternative testing methods when I taught high-school science. One year I had open-ended extra credit on the final, but you had to spend a TON of time writing test questions. This was interesting because it was more attractive to the less intelligent students and enticed them to spend way more time studying then they would normally. I also considered having students write tests for each other and have their final test grade be a combo of their final and their test takers final (the better you did & the worse your test-taker did = higher grade for you), but I never had the guts to try that one.

I definitely think there is room for creativity in grading and testing, however.