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Why computer science students cheat

Pressure to achieve running code leads more undergraduates to copy, collude on homework assignments

By , Network World
April 19, 2010 12:11 AM ET

Network World - Enrollment in undergraduate computer science courses is at an all-time high at colleges nationwide. But this trend that's been hailed by the U.S. tech industry has a dark side: a disproportionate number of students taking these courses are caught cheating.

More students are caught cheating in introductory computer science courses than in any other course on campus, thanks to automated tools that professors use to detect unauthorized code reuse, excessive collaboration and other forbidden ways of completing homework assignments.

Computer science professors say their students are not more dishonest than students in other fields; they're just more likely to get caught because software is available to check for plagiarism.

Half the academic dishonesty cases at the University of Washington involve computer science students.

"The truth is that on every campus, a large proportion of the reported cases of academic dishonesty come from introductory computer science courses, and the reason is totally obvious: we use automated tools to detect plagiarism," explains Professor Ed Lazowska, chair of computer science and engineering at the University of Washington. "We compare against other student submissions, and we compare against previous student submissions and against code that may be on the Web. These tools flag suspicious cases, which are then manually examined."

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Stanford University disclosed in February that 23% of its honor code violations involved computer science students, although these students represent only 6.5% of the student body. Of 123 honor code violations investigated last year by Stanford's Judicial Panel, 28 involved computer science students.

"The tools that we employ make it easy to catch students cheating," says Professor Mehran Sahami, associate professor of computer science at Stanford University. "I wouldn't say that computer science students violate the honor code more often or are any more dishonest."

Sahami says computer science students mistakenly believe that writing software code is similar to solving a mathematical proof, where one correct answer exists. What students don't realize is that software code is more akin to writing an essay and that a significant amount of creativity is involved.

"One of the things that happens in computer science and contributes to the cheating rates is that students are unaware of how dissimilar programs that do the same task really look," Sahami says. "They tend to think that it's OK if they copy portions of someone else's program. But our tools can discover this."

Behind the cheating epidemic

As more college students study computer science, the number of cheating incidents is on the rise.

At the University of Washington, total enrollment in the two introductory computer science courses is the highest ever, approaching 2,750 students over the last four quarters compared to 2,500 students a year ago. In these two courses, between 1% and 2% of the assignments are identified as involving academic dishonesty, Lazowska says.

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