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Cheating :(

March 2, 2008

I am the PICO (Person In Charge of Olympiads) for our school’s Math Olympiads for Elementary and Middle Schools. We offer the elementary one for anyone who is interested in 6th grade or below. The middle school one is required for the kids in the “middle school” math group (many of whom are still eligible for the younger one as well) and is done during a math period.

We have been doing it like this for 3 or 4 years now, with one year prior when we only had the elementary one. Our school is not a “gifted” school. Not every child is mathematically inclined. But, in our experience thus far, they all do eventually “blossom” and start “getting” how to do this kind of problem solving. One of my most gratifying experiences thus far was a student who had been struggling and thinking she wasn’t good at math finally getting her first olympiad problem and mouthing to me during the contest “I got one!”. She went on to be in the top 50% in the nation the next year. She was clearly very proud of the olympiad patch she earned for this accomplishment.

Well, last month during the February Olympiads, I had two (first year of middle school) students cheat on the middle school olympiad. Both handed in papers with an identical pattern of both correct and incorrect answers copied from a stronger student. (It was obvious from both the seating pattern and knowledge of what each student is capable of, who copied from whom.) One maintains innocence, claiming that he or she guessed on every problem, and it was all just a remarkable coincidence. (These are not multiple choice questions but open answer, so this is just not possible.) The other has admitted to copying.

So, I’m really saddened by this. These kids are required to participate in the olympiad, but they are not graded on it (directly, though their head teacher does use their performance as one of many observations she makes in determining how they may be doing with various things). We ask only that they give us an honest effort (and not just fill in 5 random guesses). For some of the kids, some of the problems will be over their heads at this point, but they should be able to find at least some that they can make progress on, or make an educated guess on, even if they can’t solve the whole thing. We have tried to point out that these problems are meant to be hard; that they are not expected to be able to do them all, especially in their first year or two of middle school.

I have spoken to their main teacher. She does not want to exempt or exclude students from the contests, feeling that if they “give up” now while the going is tough, they won’t get the satisfaction of seeing how much they improve over the years. I have had several parents of graduates tell me that their children (daughters, mostly) didn’t think they were good at math and wouldn’t have done those competitions voluntarily, but that these same students all finally did get better at these problems, and that experience had given them confidence in their abilities as math students and problem solvers. So, we’re pretty confident of the benefits of the program. But… I hate to see students feeling so pressured and/or frustrated that they choose to cheat.

So, aside from seating people far enough apart that there can be no question of cheating, any other suggestions?

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. Joshua Zucker permalink
    March 9, 2008 5:51 pm

    I am not a PICO any more but I asked around to another few teachers who are, and got some responses from people who prefer to remain anonymous:

    1) There are some students who ONLY enjoy the olympiads and the problem solving and their special talents would not even show up if we only did a traditional class.

    2) I suspected someone of getting answers from another source once. I now require that they turn in their scratch paper and they have to show some work that would indicate how they got the number. No random guessing allowed. Almost none of the problems are possible for them to do entirely in their head, so this isn’t burdensome. I find that it helps me to see how they solved the problems too.

  2. March 9, 2008 6:11 pm

    Thanks for your reply, Joshua.

    I have always encouraged the kids to guess when they don’t know an answer for two reasons:

    1) It is a good “test-taking skill” to guess if you’re stuck when there is no penalty for doing so.

    2) It is a good mathematical skill to be able to come up with a reasonable guess. (Of course, many of the guesses I see are not reasonable, but still, it’s something to aim for.)

    I like the idea of having them hand in their scrap paper. I don’t want to make them write out full solutions, because the contest is not really designed to give them time to do so in a careful way, but having something so that I can see what they did or didn’t do would be nice. If they are going to take a total guess, I can ask them to write how they decided what their guess should look like. (“I knew it would be a fraction because…” “It asked for a single digit and I thought it would be pretty high” “It said it was a three-digit number and I could tell that it would have to be less than 400 because…”) For some kids the need to write down why they are guessing what they are guessing would probably focus them on the problem more.

    Thanks for taking the time to ask around for me, and for sharing your colleagues’ suggestions with me.

  3. alice permalink
    March 27, 2008 12:52 pm

    I never thought I was bad at math, but I didn’t realize I was good at math either. My 6th grade teacher conspired with the PICO (I’m using the term that I just read a few minutes ago for the first time) to bar me from my own class until I sat and tried the questions with the other kids who were participating. I blew the other kids away and was put in the middle school group and got to go on the bus with the older kids to the math-meets. It did inspire me and now more than 2 decades later, I have a PhD and am a college science professor. I never would have done it if I weren’t, let’s say “encouraged” because it sounds nicer than “coerced”. The girls I was friends with in 6th grade all dropped out in 11th, some to have kids, some to just go on welfare, some to work at Pudgey’s. I was fully prepared at 11 years old to be one of them until an elementary PICO changed my life.

    Now, as to the specific issue – I am a teacher too and cheating always breaks my heart, but I think you should continue running the program the way you do, because you’re right, it’s a great way to show kids that they have latent talents. Maybe as the PICO you could (and this is an annoying suggestion because it involves some tedious work) have a reminder assembly to emphasize, possibly to a ridiculous extent, the point that the students are not graded on their performance. Do it in your sweetest, most tender, but enthusiastic Mr. Rogers-y temper. I taught middle school math for a short time, so I’m a little out of touch with what works psychologically on tweeners. But, then very briefly address the fact that cheating on something that doesn’t count is “losery” or some other word that might embarrass would be cheaters from going through with it.

    Sorry to hear that happened. But trust your gut, you’re doing a good thing.

  4. March 28, 2008 12:01 am

    Alice, thanks for your reply and your encouragement! We are done for this year now, but I am still thinking about how to present this next year to make sure that the kids don’t feel pressured by it. One of the problems is that the kids compare their scores with one another, which I think may be where some of the pressure is coming from. But the only way to prevent that would be not to go over the questions and let them know what the correct answers are, which would be very counter-productive. Anyhow, I do appreciate your thoughts and your story of how being “forced” to compete helped you come to appreciate your talents.

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