MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XX No. 4
March / April 2008
Nuclear Disarmament Activities at MIT:
Rising from the Ashes
Difficult Times Ahead Require a Higher Level of Faculty Participation in Setting Policies
The World at 02139
Skills, Big Ideas, and Getting Grades
Out of the Way
Newsletter Elections to be Held this Spring
Spellings Commission on the Future of Higher Education Hints at National Standardized Testing for Universities
Is the Campaign for Students
Shortchanging Graduate Students?
Budget of the U.S. Government (FY2008)
Notre Dame; Cardinal
Student Culture: PSETs
Intentions and Outcomes: My Understanding of the Fall '07 Faculty Meetings
Comment on Professor Sanyal's response to my article "Finding Polaris and Changing Course"
The Task Force on Student Engagement:
A Path Forward
Faculty Statement of Support for the
Task Force on Student Engagement
Undergraduate Admissions (1957-2008)
Printable Version

Student Culture: PSETs

Sheila Widnall

Problem sets are the backbone of our teaching in many subjects; for many, problem solving is the essence of the MIT education. Faculty usually make their expectations for academic integrity clear to students at the beginning of the term and reinforce those expectations throughout the semester. While many of us value collaboration between students on PSETs as an aid to the learning process, most of us require that the work turned in be the student's own.

Faculty vary as to the portion of course credit derived from PSETs. In some cases, the entire course is weighted towards exams so that PSETs are seen as a learning tool. In other courses, PSETs are a substantial portion of the final grade.

The Committee on Discipline (COD) has dealt with several cases this year involving PSETs that seem appropriate to bring to the attention of the faculty.

The issues that emerge from these cases should cause many of us to recommit ourselves to the ground rules we set for academic integrity in our courses and the follow-up required to ensure commitment of faculty and TA staff to these values. Of course the few cases we deal with are at the extreme of student culture and behavior and do not represent the behavior of the majority of MIT students.

One theme in these cases is the copying of PSETs, primarily from last year’s solutions, which are freely available to students from bibles or the various course Websites. Obvious violations occur when students turn in problems copied blatantly – word for word – from last year’s solutions. This is particularity egregious in situations where the problem statement and the resulting answer have actually been changed. Often unaware of this, the student blindly copies and hands in last year’s solution.

In some cases, the student may hand in a problem from last year’s set that was not included in this year’s PSET. There is often a sense of entitlement about this process in that the student feels he deserves more credit for doing work that wasn’t required, handing in an extra problem. Or that this is a valid “time-management” technique.

Course TAs are often the first ones to pick up on this plagiarism and most appropriately refer it to the faculty in charge of the course. In some cases, however, there is a sense that some TAs may be sending a mixed message to students that this behavior is OK “but don’t do it again.”

The final straw for COD occurred when a student handed in a Xerox copy of last year’s PSET as his work on an assignment and argued for full credit because it represented work that he would have done.

The COD urges faculty to make their academic expectations clear, to have a consistent culture across faculty and TA staff, and to refer cases to the COD when violations occur. The Institute’s academic integrity policy leaves the response to an act of academic dishonesty to the sole discretion of an individual faculty member. A faculty member can fail a student for the assignment, lower their grade, or fail them completely. In addition, there are two options for the faculty member to more formally document the act of academic dishonesty. The simplest option is to place a letter in the student’s file with the Office of Student Mediation and Community Standards (OSMCS). If you feel that the incident needs to be taken further you are encouraged to file a complaint through OSMCS to be heard by the COD. If you are unsure about how you would like to handle a particular situation you can contact me or Dave Kennedy, director of OSMCS and staff to the COD, to talk through your options.

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