Daniel Zhao

According to a recent News survey, students are more likely to cheat in STEM classes. But many faculty members in mathematics and sciences told the News they have not witnessed high rates of cheating in their classes.

The survey found that out of more than 1,400 undergraduate respondents, 14 percent have cheated during their time at Yale, and 24 percent reported having copied answers from another student’s problem set this past fall. Two percent of respondents did not answer the question. Of those students who reported having cheated and answered the question, 35 and 40 percent of student respondents said they would be more likely to cheat in mathematics and sciences, respectively. The next highest percentage belonged to economics with approximately 14 percent. 

Still, in interviews with the News, a variety of faculty members working in these fields — including physics, chemistry and mathematics — said they do not have to frequently deal with instances of cheating. Many of them also noted that while they did not mind if students collaborated on problem sets, copying answers from other students’ problem sets would ultimately hurt the students themselves.

“I do ask the TFs for a course to watch for evidence of copying and watch for it myself on all submitted work, including exams,” said James Duncan, professor of biomedical engineering. “If I suspected a violation, I would talk to the student directly and potentially report it to the  Executive Committee. We have followed this procedure over the years in the past and there have been some cases, although we have not found anywhere near the kinds of numbers you are reporting.”

Chemistry professor Martin Saunders, who has taught organic chemistry and served on the Yale College Executive Committee in the past, said that the committee saw “the most tendency to cheat” in the organic chemistry course, even though he did not recall dealing with cases of academic dishonesty when he taught the course himself.

Saunders noted that the course is especially high-pressure because it counts toward medical school admissions requirements. Cheating cases aside, Saunders said that when he taught the course, students would often try to negotiate for extra points on their exams after they had already been graded — “an illustration of the kind of pressure that they seem to feel,” he said.

Chemistry professor Charles Schmuttenmaer said that he has taught many pre-med students in his general chemistry lectures, and he did not get the “impression that they cheat more than anyone else,” but noted that they are “competitive.” He added that the higher level of cheating in STEM fields might “[have] to do with the fact that [the questions] are not essay questions.”

Earlier this month, Stephen Stearns ’67, director of undergraduate studies for Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, told the News that it was not surprising that there could be cheating on problem sets in demanding courses, such as the introductory physics classes.

But in response to his comment, Adriane Steinacker, a physics lecturer who currently teaches Physics 181, said that mastering the material covered in her course is often necessary to succeed in other classes in a variety of disciplines and asserted that her students put in a lot of effort into learning physics.

“I have often seen students struggle through 180 and part of 181 to finally achieve their best performance on the final exam in 181. Had they given up half way through, they would have missed out on the sense of empowerment that comes along with succeeding in a discipline perceived to be tough. Perseverance tends to pay off,” Steinacker told the News.

Still, many professors said that they do not mind if students collaborate with each other on problem sets, so long as the final work is their own.

Chemistry professor Patrick Holland, who taught “General Chemistry I” in the fall, said that students are hurting themselves when they copy problem set answers directly from others. He explained that it hinders them from utilizing homework assignments for their intended purpose — to test their understanding of the material that will eventually appear on the exams. Beyond that, he said, students will be less able to recall the material in the future if they do not honestly complete their regular assignments.

“If … students don’t consider cheating on problem sets ‘really’ cheating, I think that belies an immature vision of what a problem set is for,” Holland said. “Perhaps some students see it as part of the grade instead of as preparation. I see problem sets as a tool to help you figure out whether you are on track, or whether you still need more effort.”

Mathematics and physics professor Vincent Moncrief wrote in an email to the News that he does not “object to students conferring among themselves on how to solve homework problems provided they write up the psets individually.”

Schmuttenmaer said that in his introductory chemistry class, he requires students to solve “the same question with different numbers,” which acts as a preventative measure for cheating.

Holland and Saunders both noted that problem sets that are not graded for accuracy as a reminder of the true intent of problem sets. Holland said that he often had classes during his undergraduate career in which problem sets were optional, and Saunders highlighted that he assigned problem sets in his courses but did not grade them for accuracy, which meant that there was “no motive in students copying.”

“It is unfortunate if students focus primarily on getting through the assignment and turning it in and getting a good grade at all costs,” Holland said. “I see cheating as short-circuiting the educational process and skipping the understanding part. It’s also putting the ends before the means. The grade might help them within the next month, but next year when they have a class that builds on it … they’re going to need to understand this material. That’s true of many STEM classes.”

Less than two percent of the News’ survey respondents reported having cheated on an exam this past fall.

Asha Prihar | asha.prihar@yale.edu

Carly Wanna | carly.wanna@yale.edu

Asha Prihar served as managing editor of the News during the 2019-20 academic year. Before that, she covered community service, Yale's professional schools and undergraduate student life as a staff reporter. She is a senior in Silliman College studying political science.