Monday, July 23, 2012

On student deception and righteous justice

Good book.
Highly recommended.
In one of my classes, I have a writing assignment that students must complete. The assignment involves reading a fairly-easy-to-read book (Fist, Stick, Knife, Gun)  choosing a micro-level (person-level) Criminological theory, and linking what the theory says should happen with what the main character, Geoffrey Canada, experiences in the book. Students must turn in a .doc (or similar) file of the assignment using an online 'drop box' website.

The assignment itself has a minimum length of 5 double-spaced pages of 12-point Times New Roman font, with 1" margins.  Realistically, a decent student, having read the book and listened during class, could probably poop out in a couple hours a paper that would earn a B from me.

I occasionally get students who, for whatever reason, decide that '5 full pages' means 'anything over 4 full pages', and turn in papers in the 4 1/2-page range.  This irks me, but I don't take off too much from their grade (5-10%).

However, this last semester, I had a student (we'll call her Jane) try and pull a fast one on me.  They tried to stretch their <5 page paper into 'looking' like 5+ pages.  This is the story of this attempt, and its outcome:

When I grade my student's papers, I typically print them out 2-pages-per-printed-page, and mark them up by hand.  After reading 10-20 of these papers, little deviations from the standard format (larger margins/font/spacing) are pretty easy to spot.

When I came upon Jane's paper, I noticed right away that *something* was amiss.  The lines on Jane's paper looked *slightly* more than double spaced (clue #1), and it just *barely* hit the full 5 page mark (clue #2). Also, something about the font seemed odd, but I couldn't place it (clue #3).  At this point, I was intrigued.

Thankfully, as I mentioned earlier, I have students submit their actual assignment file to me (not just a printed copy), and in this case, it was a MS Word .doc.  I opened Jane's paper up in Word and looked at the spacing setting.  It was set to 'double space plus 10 points', which isn't a huge difference from regular 'double space', but is enough to add up to maybe 1/8 of a page over the course of 5 pages of text.  This alone isn't a big deal, as sometimes MS Word has this as a default setting.  When I set it back to regular 'double space', it took a little off the length, but the spacing still looked a little off.
The further I dug into the paper,
the longer Jane's nose seemed to become.
Jiminy Cricket was getting pissed off.

So I dug a little further into the document, and the font size was set at 12 for the text when I put the cursor on the first line.  This was normal, but also confusing because if it wasn't the font, and it wasn't the line spacing, why did the lines still look too far apart?  When I selected more than one line of text, however, the font size box went blank, indicating that there was a change in font size somewhere in there.

After a couple seconds of trial and error, I realized that ONLY the punctuation (, . : ;) in Jane's paper was size 14 font, and all of the words were size 12.  What this does is make any given line *look* like size 12 font, but the spacing between the lines acts as if everything is size 14 font.  Over the course of ~4 1/2 pages of text, this adds up to almost a 1/2 page extra length.  In a single printed paper, noticing the difference between a size 12 and size 14 comma is pretty difficult.  However, knowing what to look for, it became almost comical how large the punctuation was. Compare this paragraph with the rest, and you'll see what I'm talking about.

This is where I became angry.  It's one thing to try and eek out a little extra length by making paragraphs hang over a couple words into a new line.  That's just smart editing.  It's quite another thing to replace all of the punctuation in the document with a slightly larger font and try and pass this off as a longer paper. That's deception, and needs to be punished with the hand of righteous justice!
Ok, so perhaps a little less righteousness...
So, having caught the deception red handed, I had to figure out what to do about it.  As I noted earlier, I typically take off 5-10% for a paper that is less than the minimum length.  This was a case where the paper was not only too short, but where the student intentionally tried to deceive me.

I thought about this for a while.  Probably longer than I should have, given this was a single student's single assignment.  Finally, I came up with, what I think, is a reasonable punishment:

While I could have failed the student on the assignment, as it was worth 30% of their final grade, the student would have basically failed the course.  This seemed a *little* harsh for changing punctuation font size.  However, I wanted the punishment to still hurt and not just be just a slap on the wrist with no real effect on their grade (or thinking process).

It said "Hello!? Is it
me you're looking for?"
If Jane's paper was actually 5 pages long, the way it was written would have earned her an A-.  Since it was actually about 4 1/2 pages long after 'fixing' the spacing and font changes, this would have originally meant 5%-10% off, earning Jane a B or B-.  Since Jane intentionally tried to deceive me, I took an additional 20% off their grade, bringing it down to a D-.  So overall, the A- paper was knocked down to a D-.

Since the assignment was worth 30% of the grade, the combined 30% taken off Jane's paper grade meant Jane lost about 10 points off their final grade in my course, 3 points for being too short, and 6 points for the deception.  I probably should have taken more off, but in the end I think this was a reasonable punishment.

As a bonus, Jane came to my office before the next class (before grades were posted) and asked for their graded paper back.  I had the pleasure of seeing them squirm as I explained, in excruciating detail, how I discovered their deception.  I have to say I somewhat enjoyed seeing Jane's smirk fade, and her face pale, as I explained how that affected their paper (and final) grade.

And you will know my name
is the LORD, when I lay
my vengeance upon thee.
As I explained all of this, I made sure to keep my voice very calm and even, and keep my eyes locked on hers.  This, I hope, inflicted a little more fear in Jane then if I had just yelled and waved about.  As I spoke to Jane, I imagined being Jules (from Pulp Fiction) when he gave his Ezekiel quote.

Seeing the calm, righteous anger of someone with a cold hard stare is, in my opinion, much scarier than seeing someone blow up.   Hopefully this serves as a deterrent to Jane in the future the next time she tries to con her professor(s), but I doubt it.

In the future, I might implement a word count minimum, rather than a page length minimum.  This would hopefully, cut down on at least some of the more blatant ways to cheat...

So, was I too hard?  Was I too easy?  What do you think?
Image Credits: PeanutsPinocchioJusticeJules,