MIT Study Finds Cheating Reduces Student Performance by up to Two Letter Grades

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First-ever study to detect and track cheating over the course of a semester. Researchers used Pearson's MasteringPhysics platform to detect cheating behavior

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Since the copiers do learn conceptual physics topics on which they don't copy the homework, it strongly implies that copying caused their declining performance on the algebraic problems.

Copying a few answers from another student's math or science homework occurs much more frequently than copying on examinations and is regarded as "not cheating" or "trivial" by over half of college students nationally. A revelatory, just-released MIT study contradicts this perception and found that homework copying greatly decreased learning--by up to two letter grades over the course of the semester. The report's authors outline how changing the format of courses and homework can reduce cheating on homework by up to 75 percent with associated reduction of course failure rate.

The report, "Patterns, Correlates and Reduction of Homework Copying," followed four of MIT's largest calculus-based introductory physics classes (a required course for all MIT undergraduates) between the Fall 2003 and Spring 2006 semesters. Building upon previous MIT research about the time it takes students to complete problems using Pearson's MasteringPhysics, an online homework and tutorial system used by MIT, the study's authors developed a step-by-step method to analyze students' homework submissions in MasteringPhysics to determine if students' answers were copied.

"We came upon homework copying through our research on learning in an online environment, rather than through moral concern," said co-author Dr. David E. Pritchard. "But our results are so compelling that they place a moral imperative on teachers to confront homework copying and to reduce it. Fortunately, we also found some simple practices that dramatically reduce copying without turning teachers into police officers."

The researchers determined that copying homework problems requiring algebraic responses correlated with performing poorly on problems that required similar responses on the final exam--by up to two letter grades. This decline caused repetitive copiers (students who copy over 30% of their homework problems) to have more than three times the failure rate as the rest of the students, despite starting the semester with equal ability in math and physics. Cheating did not adversely affect grades on conceptual questions, however.

"The decrease of copiers' relative performance on algebraic problems over the semester is as strong as anything in the education literature," said study co-author Dr. Young-Jin Lee. "Since the copiers do learn conceptual physics topics on which they don't copy the homework, it strongly implies that copying caused their declining performance on the algebraic problems."

The study's authors are Major David J. Palazzo, a physics instructor at the United States Military Academy at West Point and former post-doctoral fellow at MIT; Young-Jin Lee, an assistant professor of educational technology at the University of Kansas, formerly a research associate at MIT; Rasil Warnakulasooriya, statistician in the Learning Technologies Group at Pearson, formerly a post-doctoral fellow in physics at MIT; and David E. Pritchard, Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Physics at MIT.

In order to place the results in the context of previous cheating studies, the researchers conducted a self-reported, anonymous cheating survey, in which MIT students reported less overall cheating than students nationally. The survey showed that they considered cheating to be more morally serious than students nationally. In combination, these results led the researchers to conclude that homework copying is probably a very serious case of course failure nationwide. "It's hard to escape the conclusion that homework copying is an even worse problem nationally than in the worst semester we studied at MIT," said Major Palazzo.

The report also documents how changes to the format of MIT's course led to a 75 percent reduction in cheating over three years. A 42 percent reduction of copying occurred when the course format was changed from lecture-recitation format to the more intimate Technology Enabled Active Learning (TEAL) format of studio physics with hands-on laboratory experiments featuring more personal contact with teachers. A further reduction of 34 percent occurred in the second semester introductory physics section when Pearson changed the interface of the MasteringPhysics program in a way that made cut and paste from one student's work to another impossible and the grading system was changed from pass/no record to A, B, C/no record.

The report is published in Physical Review Special Topics: Physics Education Research and is available at

Pearson's Mastering programs personalize science and engineering learning with tutorials that provide immediate feedback and targeted help where and when students need it the most. Students learn at their own pace, in their own style, while educators are able to monitor student progress and communicate with their students online to keep them engaged and accountable for their work. A video preview is available at

Colleges and universities have seen increases in student performance using the Mastering programs. For example, after using MasteringPhysics, students make 15 percent fewer errors and solve problems 15 percent faster. And with MasteringChemistry, students have increased their exam scores by 12 percent.    

Mastering is available in a range of subjects, including biology, chemistry, engineering, physics, microbiology and astronomy. For more information, visit

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Media Contact: Susan Aspey, (800) 745-8489

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