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Chemistry and physics departments looking to limit cheating

Chegg, an online student services platform that rents students textbooks and other study materials, is cooperating with professors in Boston University’s chemistry and physics departments after it was discovered students were using the platform to cheat on online exams. ILLUSTRATION BY AUSMA PALMER/ DAILY FREE PRESS STAFF

Boston University professors in the Department of Chemistry and Department of Physics professors are working with Chegg, an online student services platform where users can rent textbooks and get tutoring help, to crack down on students using the site to cheat on quizzes after evidence surfaced last week.

General Chemistry 2 students who contact their professor and admit to cheating will have their semester grade marked down by one letter grade. Students who do not admit to cheating, but are discovered to have cheated, will receive an F in the course, according to an email sent to chemistry students.

Binyomin Abrams, one of three professors teaching General Chemistry 2 this semester, wrote in an email to The Daily Free Press that students were able to use notes and the textbook to complete quizzes remotely, but were prohibited from using other extraneous resources.

Abrams wrote that despite this rule, students were found to be using a specific Chegg feature to obtain answers to quiz questions.

“They used the Chegg Tutors feature,” he wrote. “It seems that this is designed for students to pose questions that a ‘tutor’ from Chegg then answers. They uploaded the questions from the exams — the PDF.”

Abrams also wrote that his team discovered that students were cheating through an investigation, but feels it is inappropriate to discuss the specifics of how the investigation took place while the situation is ongoing.

“A faculty member in our department shared the experiences of a colleague,” Abrams wrote. “We then investigated whether this was happening in our course as well.”

Chegg’s honor code prohibits using the site to cheat, and says that universities can contact Chegg to investigate cheating, according to their website. However, it does not specify how Chegg conducts these investigations with the universities.

General Chemistry 2 professors are not the only ones with cheating concerns during remote learning. In an email to his Organic Chemistry 2 students, Pinghua Liu, a professor of chemistry, wrote that he received emails from students who were concerned about others cheating on the class’s third exam.

“For some of the cheating behaviors (reports we received in the weekend), Prof. [John] Porco, [Arturo] Vegas and I will discuss with the Dean’s office and the Chair,” Liu wrote, “so that we can protect these hard working students.”

Ayla Celik, a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences, is enrolled in a General Chemistry 2 class taught by Tom Tullius, a professor of Chemistry, Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics in the BU’s School of Medicine. Celik said she thinks that remote learning makes it easier for students to cheat.

“I’m not surprised that people used Chegg,” Celik said. “I didn’t use Chegg, but it seems like such an easy way to cheat, whereas in a classroom you’d have to put in so much more effort to try to cheat.”

Tessa Sharma, a sophomore in CAS, said she thinks the one letter grade penalty for cheating is fair given the coronavirus-related challenges students are facing. She herself is a student in Abrams’ General Chemistry 2 class.

“I think [the General Chemistry 2 professors] recognize that this kind of cheating is probably a result of people’s extenuating circumstances and all the craziness that’s going on right now,” Sharma said. “I think the professors are being fair about the punishment.”

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  1. In light of recent *global* events, it does not appear that members of the Chemistry department are being very understanding. They are making students in different time zones wake up at 8am EST for exams, even if that is 2am for them. Also, for cheating penalty measures, they are reducing one’s grade by a letter grade on top of getting a 0% for the exam (which often is 20-30% of the final grade) – tantamount to failing the student. Other departments are simply giving a 0% for the test upon which the student cheated, which is reasonable. The department should really look at this as a symptom to a much larger issue, and see how they can be more accommodating for students during a global pandemic rather than threaten to track “cheaters” down via their IP address, Chegg payment info, etc. and fail them.

    Lastly, I would love to see the University refocus this kind of energy and attention to detail on more prevalent, hazardous issues on campus, like properly addressing sexual assault cases and mental health issues.

  2. Diane Lind Fenster

    As a non cheating former student I strongly disagree with the comment of A. In my opinion the professors are being very generous indeed. Were I in charge,I would submit the names of confirmed cheaters to the dean for consideration of expulsion. A fails to consider that there are actually stressed out students in each of those chemistry classes who chose to take the test honestly. If any of the professors grade on a curve, they will be penalized because of their ethical behavior. A also seems to have lost the perspective that he or she is taking chemistry to learn. If they have not learned the material, let the grade reflect that, so that they can retake the class rather than forge ahead to the next chemistry class with a shaky foundation in science. If you were a graduate school or a medical school, would you really want to select a student who had not mastered the prerequisite courses? And supposing the honest student is not admitted to an advancedcourse of study as the school could not differentiate between students who actually learned chemistry and students who excelled at cheating? Save me from a physician or scientist “educated” by “understanding” professors who wink st dishonesty.

  3. There seems to be some broad strokes being made here. First, I would not assume that because someone cheated that they aren’t a hard worker. There was a lot in play the week that the quiz in question was given. It was given just within days of the five day window given to students from all over the country to move their things out of the BU dorms. The emotional and financial stress caused by being told that you need to board a plane during a pandemic and move all of your belongings out of the dorm and find somewhere to store it if you don’t live in Massachusetts could have been significant for many students. At home, students might have been dealing with parent job loss or family sickness due to COVID19 . This time is not normal so acting like all students (many of whom are freshman still adjusting to college) are going to make the best choices is probably unrealistic. Yes, there were students who did not choose to cheat despite similar stresses but acting like extenuating circumstances didn’t exist and couldn’t have effected students differently is unfair. At a time when people are calling for communities to come together to support one another and for understanding for people’s different situations, I’m not sure why the school is choosing not to show the same compassion for its youngest students at a time when they are most vulnerable to making poor choices. Less than a year ago they were recruiting many of these same students with promises of providing a supportive environment in which to grow as a student and a person. Growing as a person and student often includes making mistakes.

    • PS, I totally agree with you. Boston University should have compassion and empathy in time like this. Not one of us have ever experienced the situation that all of us are in today.

  4. As a former Physics Teacher/Adjunct Instructor there are obviously many other ways of cheating on an online exam which are not addressed. Similar to the old fashioned take-home exam help from a smart friend- electronically or in person-can not be properly policed. A Zoom meeting with a detached camera(not attached to a laptop or phone) where the student and surroundings are visible and monitored might work but would require advanced planning.