What to do about cramster.com?
February 7, 2013 2:03 PM   Subscribe

I'm seeking suggestions for dealing with the existence of internet cheating sites that provide answers to university homework problems.

I teach a freshman-level engineering class. This week a student emailed me with a link to a page on cramster.com apparently created by someone in my class. (Cramster describes itself as a source of "Textbook Solutions", "Homework Answers", and "Subject Experts"; it is a combination of answer repository and expert network, designed to assist students to cheat.)

The linked page contains an upload of the first homework assignment, along with several anonymously contributed hints and answers, some better than others. I don't know who created the page.

I've already talked to my class about this, telling them that it's not right to upload stuff that I wrote (it's both a copyright violation and a university honor code violation), and asked whoever put it up to remove it. I have also updated the course syllabus to clarify what I consider to be acceptable collaboration. (I encourage people to work together on homeworks, but I don't want them consulting previous year's homework solutions, people who've taken the course before, and certainly not J. Random "Expert" Person on the Internet.)

I understand that sites like this are the future (cramster has raised $millions in VC), and it's pointless to fight the tide. Still, I wonder if there is something else I should be doing. I have designed my class to require the students to think a lot about the problems I assign; having a shortcut to the answer will make the course considerably less meaningful and useful. Colleagues have suggested that I

- request a DMCA takedown of the page
- request the university to track visits to the site
- base the course grade entirely on exams and zero percent on homework
- offer a reward for the identity of the perpetrator and pursue honors charges
- just chill out and let nature take its course
- ???

Have you had to deal with anything like this in your class? Advice and suggestions solicited. Throwaway email: cramster_jerk@yahoo.com.
posted by anonymous to Education (30 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Modify the problems so they are different enough that if you pay attention, you'll catch it, but on the surface, look the same. If you get an answer from the site, get them expelled.
posted by bensherman at 2:07 PM on February 7, 2013 [4 favorites]

Reduce the amount that the homework is worth. (If it's worth zero then they won't do it)

Have homework be turned at the end of class on the same day it's given.
posted by royalsong at 2:11 PM on February 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

I had a professor that quizzed us on our homework to make sure we didn't cheat. I don't know if that's a viable option with you because I don't know the nature of engineering assignments, but perhaps you can come up with something like this.

You could also take out homework entirely or make it a smaller portion of the final grade.

You could also do what bensherman suggested by altering the data and info that goes into the question. I had a statistics class where everyone had separate data for the questions so no one would get the same answers and if they did, it would be clear they were cheating.

Good luck! I'm glad you're doing this because as a student, I know how much it sucks to work really hard on your assignment and then have other people cheat.
posted by cyml at 2:12 PM on February 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

I took a class which faced a similar issue. What the TAs did was warn us that they had seen the posted answers, and that there was a VERY identifiable mistake. I don't know if it was true or not, but I didn't see anyone use it.
posted by tinymegalo at 2:19 PM on February 7, 2013 [6 favorites]

base the course grade entirely on exams and zero percent on homework

I taught university courses for a few years, but I left academia ~7 years ago so may answer my be out of date.

This is what I did instead of requiring and emphasizing homework. Assuming that the same or similar tools are available. Put a few practice problems on blackboard (or whatever program that your uni uses to let you run classes). I would actually have the answer be a multiple choice answer with feedback for common mistakes.

Now the goal for me was to just get students to practice with feedback before an exam. I would sometimes look up the number of students who practiced the problems and sometimes look up particular students, especially for the ones who came crying to the door after doing poorly on exams but then you can see that they never even logged on to try the practice problems.....

I don't think you will win against whack a mole what web page is out there now. Also, because you know that students do this, change your tests every.single.year. or that may be up there next.

Also, for me, having a student master problem solving and the concepts was far more important than having them demonstrate this to me.. why spend time on it? Some students don't need to do the practice problems to learn the concept. YMMV.
posted by Wolfster at 2:21 PM on February 7, 2013

The day they turn the homework in, have a one-two question quiz that asks about some intermediate part of the work. Depending on the size of the class this becomes slightly impractical, but is worth considering.
posted by jacalata at 2:22 PM on February 7, 2013

oh, and I disagree with 'make it all in class' because there's a lot less class time than non-class time, and to get a reasonably sized project done you need to use non-class time.
And I forgot to mention that the idea of the quiz is that if they completely failed it, they'd get no marks for the assignment - they can always come see you that same day to explain why they could do the assignment and not the quiz, and get the marks after all.
posted by jacalata at 2:24 PM on February 7, 2013

I've seen some universities are using a system to watermark the pdf download of the problem sheet with the name of the student who downloaded it, so at least they can see who uploaded it! Not perfect, though (pdfs are easily altered)

We're just thinking about this too. We are toying with the idea of creating a fake student account to peek behind the curtain, but that's probably best done with official sanction, or it could be considered some sort of entrapment. We may also drop some vague dark hints about 'knowing what's going on'
posted by firesine at 2:34 PM on February 7, 2013

I like quizzing students, where the homework is basically a de facto study guide.
posted by spunweb at 2:34 PM on February 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

cramster.com claims that posting homework problems is 'fair use', so unless you want to actually take them to court I don't know if they'll honor a DCMA notice.

Freshman engineering homework problems should already be longer (with fewer of them per week) and heavily emphasize showing their work, so I question the ultimate helpfulness of a shallow resource like cramster. I wouldn't make homework worth nothing (because otherwise they wouldn't turn it in at all, and I think homework is valuable both for students and professors to gauge progress), but you could emphasize that the students need to demonstrate that they grasp the concepts, not just get the right answer at the end.

Or, if you see a homework problem of yours on the internet, mark it zero for all students. Hopefully they get the point.
posted by muddgirl at 2:40 PM on February 7, 2013

I've already talked to my class about this, telling them that it's not right to upload stuff that I wrote (it's both a copyright violation and a university honor code violation), and asked whoever put it up to remove it.

I would not bother with the copyright violation argument in the future. It uses up time that could be spent on more effective rhetoric.

What I would do would be to dig up scores from some random previous course and show the correlation between low engagement with the homework and low results on the exam. And then mock up a cartoon or flowchart showing a student copying out most answers for a homework assignment and then 1) crashing and burning in an exam, and 2) doing mediocre on the exam and crashing and burning later in the program.

"The homework is a study guide for the exams, and engaging the problems in it is the best way to study. You don't want to skip this stuff, because trying to cram it all later is a miserable slog that can badly screw you over. I know you guys can try to do it the easy way, but I warn you, what looks like the easy way is really the hard way. This is engineering, you learn it by doing it."
posted by sebastienbailard at 2:45 PM on February 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

(I am serious, though -- if everyone can give the same answers and get full points in the first place, they're probably not well thought out. If you're stuck for ideas, get in touch with other teachers, especially ones who spend a lot of time going to conferences and so on.)
posted by wintersweet at 2:50 PM on February 7, 2013

Consider whether a flipped model would work for your class, with at-home lectures and in-class "homework".
posted by bizzyb at 2:58 PM on February 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

If using answers from an internet solutions site is considered cheating, then you have a group of students who are violating your school's code of ethics, and they need to be stopped.

I have a friend who went through a similar situation with his physics students. He warned them that this was cheating, and that it wouldn't be tolerated. After several examples came to his attention, he posted some answers to his own homework questions that had been posted on one of these sites, adding in a deliberately wrong bit of logic that would be easily identifiable if the students used the cheat site. Several students ended up being brought up on charges in front of the dean. I'm not sure if they were dismissed from school, but it was a great deterrent for the rest of the class. It took some time and effort, but it stopped the cheating.
posted by blurker at 3:17 PM on February 7, 2013 [8 favorites]

When I was in school, the exams were such that you could not complete them if you hadn't done the homework. You just weren't fast enough without having practiced. I don't know if this is feasible in your classes, but it seems like the best way to negate the problem.

The same thing happens in the IT world with Cisco tests. There are "study guides" all over the place. You can have all the answers to all the questions, but if you don't know the theory behind it, you will fail the test because the questions are constructed in ways that test knowledge rather than memory. Things like "put these concepts in the proper order" and "which answer is wrong", where the wrong answer changes from test to test.

(The tests are also adaptive- if you nail the basic concepts on a subject, you move on. If you don't, the testing software will ask more questions on that topic. It's kind of evil, but works really well. Probably not possible in most schools, but something to think about.)

This seems a little "high school", but maybe it will work: homework is worth nothing, or nearly nothing. But the day the homework is due, you give a quiz that covers the topics. But not a rehash of the same questions, rather, the quiz covers the work that was done. "In question 10 about the tensile stress, what is the name of the formula that was used to get the right answer" or "in question 8, reprinted here, what happens if you double the initial weight?" To answer those kinds of questions, the person had to have legitimately done the homework.
posted by gjc at 3:24 PM on February 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

I don't know anything about engineering problems, but is there a way you can post your assignments with a variable that changes for each class? Like, "Ok class, for your homework you'll see that there is a mystery variable. Today's mystery variable is 3. So tonight in your homework, substitute 3 for all the mystery variables." Just change your variable for each semester.

If a student tries to use homework that someone posted from another semester with a different variable, then you can totally bust them for cheating.
posted by NoraCharles at 3:29 PM on February 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

Multiple versions of the homework assignment, given out randomly, with different answers. If the class is small enough, give every student a unique set of problems. Consider making all your homework problems presented on a webpage, where your server-side language generates certain values at random, changes the order of the items being worked on, etc, while also generating keys for you to use when grading based on those values. Then each student's homework would be unique.
posted by eustacescrubb at 3:36 PM on February 7, 2013

When I was in school, the exams were such that you could not complete them if you hadn't done the homework. You just weren't fast enough without having practiced. I don't know if this is feasible in your classes, but it seems like the best way to negate the problem.

Please don't do this. For those of us with test anxiety, even if we practiced multiple hours a day we still get scared and take longer on the test. Knowing the test was deliberately designed to require me to go quickly would have terrified me more than even a normal test.

You should make sure that whatever option you choose doesn't punish the students that are not doing anything wrong.
posted by winna at 4:22 PM on February 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

Seconding sebastienbailard. Also agreeing with wintersweet in that the questions should be crafted such that identical answers are unlikely (unless it's a math proof).

Engineering at Waterloo has a pretty good academic reputation, and here's how they handled assignment copying while I was there:

If it was flagrant cheating (cut and paste from a website, or like the time someone had the audacity to turn in a literal photocopy of someone else's assignment), then these cases were submitted for formal academic discipline.

Otherwise, normal grades were awarded, even for copied work. Although it appears lenient, this was actually a shrewd tactical decision made by the Dean's office that really paid off:
  • First, assignments were only worth 10% of the final mark in all courses (15% in first year and 0% in senior year), so the grade advantage gained from cheating was minimal.
  • Second, and more importantly, the exams comprised questions that were presented in novel ways and were of a higher difficulty level than those on assignments, such that only those students who understood the material and were already adept at working through assignment questions would be able to answer them correctly and within the allotted test time. Exams were not allowed to simply be a collection of assignment questions.
  • Third, an evaluation clause was instated specifying that failing the exam meant failing the course (exams were typically 50% or more of the final grade anyway).
  • Finally, the administration kept records of who was suspected of cheating on assignments (one student ominously received graded photocopies of his work once, while the originals were kept in a sealed administrative file), tracked their performance within each subject matter area, and used this to deny leniency during grade appeals. Some generous profs would warn students that they were officially being tracked. (TA's have lots of time for handling the tracking paperwork since all copies of a plagiarized assignment can be graded at the same time.)
The result was an overwhelmingly strong correlation between those who copied assignments and those who failed the exams and washed out of the program, which suited the school's goals just fine. In fact, they used the tracking to help prepare the finals -- the topics with the most cases of suspected cheating were heavily emphasized on the exam.

And UW Eng is an honours program, so a pass is 60% and under 70 is just probationary pass
posted by ceribus peribus at 4:30 PM on February 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

I dropped in to offer the same idea as bizzyb above: consider a "flipped" model, with out of class reading / online lectures and in-class homework, possibly in small groups or possibly not.

Algorithmically altering each problem (e.g., "use the last 4 digits of your student ID for all items labelled 'wxyz'") is useful only at the minimal level of making everyone do their algebra. That's circumvented as soon as someone posts online that the answer is (V1+V2)/(R1R2/(R1+R2)) (or whatever).

DMCA takedowns etc. are pointless. You'll be wasting your time leading horses to water, but you can't make them drink anyway, so why bother?

Instead, just assign a minimal "participation" grade for handing in homework, and put the focus entirely on the exams. (Or on preview, what ceribus peribus said above.)
posted by RedOrGreen at 4:35 PM on February 7, 2013

Some profs prefer in-class quizzes to assignments; very popular in math courses as I recall.
posted by ceribus peribus at 4:42 PM on February 7, 2013

Please don't do this. For those of us with test anxiety, even if we practiced multiple hours a day we still get scared and take longer on the test. Knowing the test was deliberately designed to require me to go quickly would have terrified me more than even a normal test.

The tests were designed to be easy/fast for someone who knows the material, and brutal for people who don't. There was no guessing or estimating available, nor were there any gotchas or psych-out things. The one I specifically remember was factoring in algebra. Super easy if you've done the 100 problems a night homework as we were assigned, but a nightmare if you hadn't.

That's all I mean. I'm not saying they were designed to make you rush, just that if you aren't conversant with the material, you'll be there for the maximum amount of time.
posted by gjc at 5:30 PM on February 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

I think it depends on what YOUR goal is. Is your goal to stop copying? To get the students to learn the material? To get good grades? All the above? Cheaters are gonna cheat. You need to decide if you want to or have an obligation to catch the cheaters.

I do not know enough about engineering classes, but if it were me and it were possible, I would assign reading of new material as homework and use the in class time to work through problems. Some days, you work through the problem on the board, some days they work collaboratively and hand it in and some days they work alone and hand it in at the end of class as a mini quiz.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 6:01 PM on February 7, 2013

Make the HW worth very few points. For example, a class I am taking right now has a breakdown of 45 % from exams (one prelim and a final), 40 % from final project and 15 % from weekly HW. The idea is that you do the HW to learn the material so that you do well on the exams and the project. People who cheat on the the HW are going to do very poorly on the exams anyway.
posted by peacheater at 8:22 PM on February 7, 2013

I would make the homework worth 0%.

Seriously. Have short weekly or bi-weekly quizzes (you could even assign them a question directly off the homework to do live in class once a week), and base the exams directly on the assigned homework.

Throughout my STEM undergrad (and hell, grad school) it was easy to find the answers to homework questions if I didn't want to do them. The reason I did the homework was because I knew that it would make the exams easy.
posted by no regrets, coyote at 9:16 PM on February 7, 2013

I was not aware of this site. Thanks for the pointer. Are there any others like it that educators should be aware of?
posted by Tallguy at 6:27 AM on February 8, 2013

There are several good suggestions above, but I would encourage any teacher to sit back and think about the purpose of college-level homework in the first place. I also think that even in the absence of Cramster there are numerous ways to cheat, and it is likely that services like Cramster will only grow in the future. So all of this must take into account that there are always shortcuts available for students. You can certainly engineer methods and questions that reduce the number and ease of shortcuts available, but this can never be eliminated.

I would argue the main purpose of homework is to practice skills that can only be learned by doing, rather than listening or reading. In this way, students cheat themselves when they use a shortcut like this. The only way to convey this is to explain this to the students.

There is also the sense that homework provides a grade for effort. I actually think this is a good thing and I have some percentage of my course grade determined by something that is relatively easy but that takes repeated effort and application. This allows for students with some level of test anxiety, etc. to have an outlet to help improve their grade. It also gives me a way to track effort before assigning final grades. Cramster, or other outlets for cheating, dilute the informativeness of this, but it does not eliminate it. If this is your primary concern, one solution would be to increase the amount of credit for simply turning in the assignment.
posted by Tallguy at 6:41 AM on February 8, 2013

Granted, it's been 20 years since I've been in college.

A lot of responses state "dont make homework worth nothing or they wont hand it in".*

How about:

1) Homework is worth nothing, however
2) Submission of all homework is the requirement of being allowed to take the exams.

*Homework was always worth nothing. You did the assignments or got booted from the class.
posted by sandra_s at 7:14 AM on February 8, 2013

I'm not a teacher and not in engineering, but this is my $0.02 as a good student who has learned from online answers:

Answers to homework are easy to find. I am not exaggerating when I say every single problem from Stewart's calculus book is available online. However, as some other people said, the homework is practice. I do my homework because if I don't, I'm in for one hell of a ride come the midterms. Every once in a while, I get very stuck on a problem. I google it, read it very carefully, then do the problem on my own. Good students will do the homework, do well on the exams, and receive, say, a 10% grade boost. Bad students will cheat on the homework, do poorly on the exams, and the 10% won't be enough to keep them afloat. If you are curving the class, everyone getting 10% won't affect grades. (That being said, I feel 10%--maybe 15% for freshmen--would be the right amount for homework. Anything more and you start to be able to pass the class with really low test grades.)

I would not worry about students swapping hints. Hints are good. Bad students won't have any idea what to do with them, and good students will learn from them. I also wouldn't worry about cramster. I've never used it because it always asks me to make an account. I don't know anyone who uploads stuff to cramster, to be honest, but if students are doing so, you may be giving homework that is too difficult or not giving enough instruction. Situations like that are usually what leads me to go online in the first place.
posted by obviousresistance at 11:04 AM on February 8, 2013

nthing that in my (math) classes in undergrad, homework was typically worth 10-20%, and if you cheated on the homework, you would fail the final.

I could not have passed any of the classes I took without understanding the homework myself, but 10% was a good incentive to actually do the work.
posted by oranger at 1:05 PM on February 8, 2013

« Older Have legal fees ever been awarded from a motion...   |   How to "copy on drag" text in Windows 7? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.