how to deal with deceptive students?
April 23, 2015 12:38 PM   Subscribe

I administer an online learning platform for a university in Massachusetts. Whenever a semester ends, I always get several reports from students claiming to have completed work that the system has no record of. In a recent case, I checked everywhere I could and even contacted the vendor, but I didn't find a shred of evidence to support this student's version of events. Yet he still insists he completed the work and won't back off. What can I say to him, and other students like him, without seeming like an asshole who won't help?
posted by Ain to Education (30 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
This isn't something you could just ask them to upload again?
posted by janey47 at 12:39 PM on April 23, 2015

@janey47 That would be up to the professor for that specific course; this is several months after the assignment was due. I'm basically tech support -- they usually only come to me once they've already disputed the issue with their professor.
posted by Ain at 12:42 PM on April 23, 2015

Be proactive about this at the start of every semester. Remind all professors and students, multiple times, to save any work they do outside the platform before submitting it in case there are technical difficulties. Then they'll be able to resubmit if something goes wrong.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 12:44 PM on April 23, 2015 [17 favorites]

In future syllabuses, perhaps you can require that the student keep a copy of all submitted work. For this student, just require that the assignment/s be in by some specific reasonable time frame (24-72 hours?) and give them the benefit of the doubt.
posted by aniola at 12:44 PM on April 23, 2015 [2 favorites]

OK, if you are the tech, then this is not your problem really. I am surprised that faculty allow this to be passed on to you: it seems suspicious that you are only receiving these reports after the end of the semester, after grades have already been submitted, and it would be the instructor's role to review outstanding assignments with the students during the semester and point out any missing assignments.

If you have looked everywhere and you cannot find evidence of submission, then that is your answer. Why would you be expected to provide anything else? Give that answer, and bump it back to the instructor if they still want to pursue the issue.
posted by epanalepsis at 12:46 PM on April 23, 2015 [32 favorites]

Part of the assignment is making sure that the upload happened. Does this platform have a way for students to do that?
posted by soelo at 12:46 PM on April 23, 2015 [5 favorites]

What can I say to him, and other students like him, without seeming like an asshole who won't help?

You're assuming too much responsibility here. You need to be firm, clear and matter of fact, and then refer them back to the professor. "There is no record of your submitting work on that date, and I have confirmed this with the vendor." There's nothing to do, and no more help to provide.
posted by jayder at 12:48 PM on April 23, 2015 [52 favorites]

Can the students provide a screenshot from their student view in the LMS that supports their evidence? Or is there a "submission received" email that is auto-generated--and if not, can the vendor provide one? That might solve this problem without any nice-talking required.
posted by epanalepsis at 12:49 PM on April 23, 2015 [2 favorites]

Does the "online learning platform" not give any sort of way to track this? It would seem to be an irresponsible omission for the system not to mail a timestamped receipt to the submitter when work is uploaded. Hopefully such a receipt would indicate not just time but also the size and cryptographic checksum of the file submitted and a unique identifier number for that upload and would be signed by the platform so that a receipt couldn't be easily spoofed.

In a properly designed system you wouldn't have to take the student's word for it.
posted by Nerd of the North at 12:49 PM on April 23, 2015 [2 favorites]

I agree with epanalepsis and jayder: all you can say is "Sorry, I have no record of this."

You say you're worried about seeming unhelpful — but honestly, there's nothing you could do to help these students, since you don't have authority to assign grades or make decisions about them. If you want to be extra friendly, you can add "Good luck" to the end of your email.
posted by nebulawindphone at 12:51 PM on April 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

@buoys in the hood

I have ways of seeing what they were doing and when -- server access logs, etc. -- so I'd be able to see if they at least tried to upload something or were working in the proper area. In the case I mentioned above, I found no indication that he did either one around the time he mentioned. He just won't accept that answer and I feel bad because there's nothing else I can do. I know he's probably lying, but I also remember being a student and how hard everything is.
posted by Ain at 12:53 PM on April 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'm wirth jayder on this one, though perhaps you might explain some of the things you have done to in order to demonstrate that you did make an attempt. "Despite searching the data logs, examining the online activity record, and confirming these results with technical support from our vendor, there is no evidence of your submitting work on that date. There are no other avenues available for me to find that data." You might even provide some screenshots of these searches (with private information obscured) to provide to the student, but that's going above and beyond, in my mind.
posted by Rock Steady at 12:55 PM on April 23, 2015 [4 favorites]

You tell them what you told us (including the fact that you checked server logs), and you tell the professor the same thing, and you tell the student it's between them and the professor.
posted by mr vino at 12:57 PM on April 23, 2015 [4 favorites]

it really sounds like the system needs to provide confirmation that something was uploaded.
posted by entropone at 12:58 PM on April 23, 2015 [2 favorites]

What can I say to him, and other students like him, without seeming like an asshole who won't help?

This: > You tell them what you told us (including the fact that you checked server logs), and you tell the professor the same thing, and you tell the student it's between them and the professor.

You've done what you can to help, and that doesn't make you an asshole. If the students think you are, that's on them.
posted by rtha at 1:01 PM on April 23, 2015 [5 favorites]

As a fellow .edu IT person, of course we do want to provide all the help we can. But those log files are usually overwritten this far along in time!

I think you've done due diligence here: you examined the system to the extent that you can, and in your -- and the vendor's -- opinion, there is no evidence supporting the student's claim. Yes, it's hard/impossible to prove a negative, but they've got no evidence (screenshot, confirmation, printout, etc.) of their claim, right?

I have a hunch that a professor passed the buck to you when a student put too much pressure on them and wouldn't take "no" for an answer. You might mention this to your boss, and ask that an IT department policy clarify the timespan in which you can provide good evidence to support such claims.
posted by wenestvedt at 1:07 PM on April 23, 2015 [4 favorites]

I have to deal with this as well, as someone who teaches classes with electronic submissions of assignments.

The fact is, students will want things that are unreasonable sometimes, and it's not being an asshole to say "no." It's not even being an asshole to tell them that the discussion is closed if they won't back down.

You just need to tell him that unfortunately, there's no record of a submission attempt or even that he was online at the time, that you have exhausted the possibilities and found nothing, and that there's nothing that you can do. Now it is up to his professor. You can also tell him that in the future he should check to make sure his work is uploaded and that he saves confirmation codes, so that he doesn't run into this problem again. You don't need to tell him "you're lying." Even if you thought he was being honest, your answer would be the same!

If you were an instructor, I would suggest some policy changes that you could cite, but you're IT. This isn't even your problem!
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 1:20 PM on April 23, 2015 [12 favorites]

Maybe the student was hoping that the school's systems don't allow you to see whether he was logged on, what he was doing, his attempted submissions, etc and was just hoping that if he insists, it would be chalked up to, "Computers! Who even understands how they work?!" Give a slightly more technical run-down that gives student and professor a clear idea of how many ways you and the vendor are able to track and view things, even in cases where there are actual technical problems. The student, who is probably lying, has nothing to lose so he's doubling down on insisting he was the victim of a technical issue.
posted by quince at 1:30 PM on April 23, 2015 [4 favorites]

I feel bad because there's nothing else I can do.

Unfortunately this is one example of scammer trying to take advantage of your good nature. You have good records, you know what happened. This has happened to everyone who has taught at a university level at sometime or other.

The correct response is, as mentioned above, is to professionally (though briefly) indicate the facts: "I have no record of your assignment in the system". Then refer them back to their prof, who is responsible for their mark. If you want to be helpful and thorough with your documentation, communicate this to the prof as well. Making sure you can prove all this may become important if you get called to account by a dean or senate committee. It sounds like you've covered your bases, but you many want to collect all of that into a file.

While this can be upsetting and disruptive, it's really a student trying to game the system and your good nature. Be clear and professional but minimally engage the student. Be prepared to prove what you know if necessary. Almost always, they'll back down, but for that other 10% having your paper trail in order will be a great help.
posted by bonehead at 1:47 PM on April 23, 2015 [4 favorites]

I know he's probably lying, but I also remember being a student and how hard everything is.

Lying is not hard, not even for a student.

Just tell him to talk to someone else, or to stop insisting. You can see the server access logs? So you know for a fact that he's making a fuss.

You are patently not an asshole for not helping someone who actually makes life difficult for you. Own that; it helps you if you are in a position where you can make a difference for some other students, who actually do need you help.
posted by Namlit at 1:52 PM on April 23, 2015 [2 favorites]

perhaps you might explain some of the things you have done

With the student directly, I would not recommend this. Firstly, it will give the student more to argue with. Secondly, it will not likely have a material difference on the interaction with them. Finally, it may quite possibly may make matters worse if the student finds something trivial to pick on.

It is a good idea to gather such information as part of a document trail, but keep that for the prof or the institution to produce if necessary.
posted by bonehead at 1:53 PM on April 23, 2015 [4 favorites]

Think of it this way: if the professor was going to be lenient or believe the student or allow late submissions to fully credit the student -- s/he would have already. You are on the receiving end of the student pleas that have already failed the basic credibility test, the professor. If there's no record, your work is done. Refer him back to professor (and keep a log of your efforts, as bonehead said).
posted by Dashy at 2:20 PM on April 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

I know he's probably lying, but I also remember being a student and how hard everything is.

"The computer ate my homework." is the updated version of "The dog ate my homework."

I agree that you should tell him "I have checked everything I can check and we have no record." You should not state that you believe him to be lying. But you can tell him you have done all within your power and cannot help him.

If you genuinely think there are system problems and that students are getting screwed because of some bug or oversight, then try to improve the system. But there will always be some folks who try to get over or are dissatisfied, no matter how good it is. You have to learn to be less of a softy.
posted by Michele in California at 2:51 PM on April 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

In the case I mentioned above, I found no indication that he did either one around the time he mentioned.

i would put this in an email to the student and cc: the professor. he's contacting you SEVERAL MONTHS after the work was due? why didn't he spend that several months actually DOING THE WORK and then making up a better fucking lie, like "well it seems to have disappeared in the system, and tech support was unfortunately unable to help me out, but luckily i found a draft of it on my hard drive"

not only is this kid a liar, he's a dumb liar, which is the worst fucking thing.
posted by poffin boffin at 3:04 PM on April 23, 2015 [11 favorites]

I worked in a support job where I ran into this issue at the end of each semester, though I usually worked with faculty and graduate assistants, so I didn't talk to students directly very often. I had a script/form message. I think it went something like this:
Dear $recipient,

I investigated the issue you reported by reviewing the logs and data available to me and consulting with our systems administrators and vendor. We did not recover any evidence of $student_name's reported submission attempt. Unfortunately, there's nothing else I can do in a situation like this. In such cases, I recommend that you consult with your professor, department, or college for questions concerning lost or missing assignments.

If you need help with any other issues, please let me know.


I tried to make it clear that I thoroughly investigated, but made no judgement about whether the student actually did what they said. I provided evidence that I could find or reported that I found no evidence. I avoided whenever possible becoming an arbiter of what the student did or did not do. I also tried to make it clear that there was no more I could do about it.

If pressed about hypothetical scenarios, I might have said something like "It's possible that $student_name experienced problems, but it would've happened in some way that is impossible for this system to determine, such as on their personal computer or internet connection. There's really nothing else I can do." I never ever gave my opinion of whether a student was telling the truth.

But once you've done your investigation, it's no longer a technical issue, it's an academic issue. Just keep referring them back to someone who handles such academic questions.
posted by ddbeck at 3:10 PM on April 23, 2015 [11 favorites]

Hahaha. This sounds like Blackboard and God did that platform bite. People saying that a sensible design would provide the submitter with a receipt...clearly haven't encountered the monstrosities that are most online classroom platforms, where there are multiple steps to submitting and goofing any one means it didn't happen.

That being said there were aleays records of assignments stuck in transit or not visible to the instructor.

So ddbeck has it.
posted by canine epigram at 7:49 PM on April 23, 2015 [2 favorites]

I used to handle LMS's for higher ed. Every semester it feels, you'd get one or two professors asking if the LMS crashed and ate their work.

Fortunately, every LMS I've worked with keeps an activity log. If Joe Blows-off-classes insists they submitted homework, we would at least have logs of them logging into the site, viewing the course, etc. "We don't have any record of you logging in at all that day" is a pretty definitive answer.

Sure, websites can 503 and crash, and nobody in higher ed is good at tracking and fixing those, but the mature scholarly response to getting a random 503 isn't 'well, I tried, back to halo.' It's emailing your teacher saying you've tried to submit and the site crashed.

So what do you tell this person? Generally I'd email them back and CC their prof stating that I'd reviewed the student activity logs for the course, and that we had no record of them viewing the content that day. Sometimes it'd be more along the lines of 'we saw you load the quiz but never hit submit', which is totally up to the prof to adjudicate.

As far as not being an asshole who won't help: the time for helping is somewhere between the time the eror occured and final grades being due. Coming to you at this stage usually means they're desparate to pass a class. They're hoping you'll cover for them, and that's the real asshole move. It denigrates the hard work and study other students have put in, and helping someone by lying for them denies them the education they'll get when they actually do the work.
posted by pwnguin at 7:55 PM on April 23, 2015 [3 favorites]

As much as you can, I would try to let go of feeling bad/mean/assholeish over this. This student is a lying liar, and YOU should not feel like the guilty party for not somehow finding a way to enable his lying. Given all the evidence you listed here, as well as the fact that the student waited months to raise this issue rather than dealing with things immediately, indicates a scammer.

If it makes you feel better, some students just do REALLY outrageous things. I once had a student who was caught with his phone out during an exam, and then when we checked his written work it turned out to be literally a verbatim copy of the top Google search result on the essay topic. And he STILL sat there with a straight face and claimed he did not cheat and had no idea how this could have happened (!!!!) Of course these people will play on your emotions and try to make you feel bad so they get what they want, but that's because they are deceptive people, not because you should feel guilty.

Ultimately, what I would do in this case is to tell the student something along these lines:

"Our system records your logins, access to the site, and attempts to upload course material. I am happy to provide all of this information directly to your professor if you would like me to. Of course, as I am not the instructor of record of this course, I have no power to change your grade. That said, if you believe this documentation would be helpful for your professor to see in determining whether to make a change to your grade, please let me know and I will forward it along."

This phrases things in the most helpful way possible -- here is what I will do for you! And of course if you had an honest student here who really did have a record of, say, making 5 attempts to upload the assignment, you would indeed be happy to forward that to the professor and he/she could make a determination from there. And, I think this also sets truthful limits/boundaries -- unless I am drastically misreading your role here, even if it WERE the case that you had a clear record of the assignment being submitted, and something weird going wrong where the prof just didn't receive it for some reason, you STILL would not be able to go in and change the student's grade, right? You'd be happy to forward that documentation to the prof, but I'm assuming ultimately it would still be his/her call of how to deal with the situation and grade the work. So, offer up what you can do, send on any documentation that the student requests, and be clear about what your role is. That is not asshole behavior--it's simply doing your job!
posted by rainbowbrite at 7:46 AM on April 24, 2015 [2 favorites]

I would like to add that sometimes, letting the student see the log can help. I deal with library fines and if I send them a screen shot of the fine with the dates and times, they seem to back down quite a bit. They realize you can see all of the information and they usually move on. I agree, after you've investigated, it's back to the professor.
posted by haunted by Leonard Cohen at 11:09 AM on April 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

I would provide the info that you DO have: Joe logged in on dates A,B,D and E and submitted the following assignments to the server-storage: A-paper, B-quiz, D-paper, and E-exam. There is no record of login or assignment submission for date C or C-paper on any date.
posted by CathyG at 4:06 PM on April 25, 2015

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