Cheating with Homework Solutions

by Richard White

A funny thing happened on the way to me trying to help my students.

For my AP Physics students, who on any given night are going to be working on some pretty challenging homework problems, I’ve made answers or complete solutions available online for a few years now. It all started when I realized that students when getting stuck (like they do), and finding themselves unable to proceed past a certain point without the assistance of a just-in-time nudge in the right direction. We were spending time the next day in class, too, going over problems that, often as not, were just based on a simple misunderstanding that could have been easily diagnosed by the student him or herself, if only they’d had the solution to see.

The first year I made solutions available, the percentage of students completing homework assignments jumped up, of course. Better, though, was the fact that test scores increased as well, indicating perhaps that the “just-in-time” assistance was having its desired effect, and people were able to make better progress in picking up the material.

This year, with a new text and no solutions that I have any right to publish online, I’ve spent a fair amount of time writing up my own solutions to the homework problems for posting online. It’s time that I’d like to think has the benefits already discussed. Here is my solution for problem #39, an electric field diagram for a positively-charged rod.


It’s a pretty good diagram, with one problem—the rod, as described by the problem in the book, should have a negative charge.

It’s the kind of careless mistake that can happen to anyone once in a while. But what are the odds that 13 of 28 of my students made the exact same mistake that I did? What are the odds that 13 of 28 misread the problem, just as I did?

“Infinitely small” is the correct answer.

What are the odds that most if not all of the 13 simply copied my answer without even looking at the problem in the book?

“Much higher.” Right again.

And here we have the conundrum: how do we make solutions available to students “just in time,” but not “too soon?” How do we create conditions such that a student has to struggle just the right amount for the answer to a problem is revealed?

I’m not sure there is a way, or at least not a good one. I’ve taken online training courses in which the presentation of text was timed so that the reader couldn’t move on to the next topic until some pre-set amount of time had passed, which became an extremely frustrating experience for me (I read pretty quickly, or at least more quickly than whomever set up the time delays).

This question of trying to create conditions for maximal learning are more important than ever with the increased interest in Massive Open Online Courses. These courses, with enrollments in the tens of thousands, rely on students being able to manage their own progress through the content.

As more and more of our learning moves into an online format, I think one of our challenges is to teach students how to resist the temptation to look too quickly at the solution for a problem. There is value in wrestling with a problem for a bit before moving on to seeing the solution, and I’ve experienced firsthand the frustrations of physics students who reveal: “I can understand how YOU solve the problems, Mr. White. I just can’t do them myself.”

And that’s just it: following someone else’s work is not the same as doing the work on one’s own, and at some point, the skill in question—solving physics problems, writing a computer program, writing an essay—has to be developed. Copying down someone else’s answer is obviously not the same as arriving at the answer on one’s own, and my students all know that, and acted appropriately guilty when I called them on their “cheat.” They all clearly knew that they had taken a useless shortcut in blindly copying down the answer.

They’re under the same pressure that we all are, though—they occasionally simply don’t have time to do everything that is required of them. And I can sympathize. I’ve lost track of the times that I’ve been double- or triple-booked for meetings through no fault of my own. But there simply are no shortcuts for this kind of thing. The synapses between our neurons require training and practice for true learning to take place.

“Training and practice.” There are no shortcuts.

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