Learning Tool or Cheating Aid?

After students at Texas Christian University are suspended for allegedly using the Quizlet app to cheat on their exams, professors are warned this case may be the tip of the iceberg.

May 14, 2018
 

Many students graduated last week, and on Twitter, many thanked the free app Quizlet for getting them there.

“Today I graduated and I couldn’t have done it without God and Quizlet,” says one tweet.

Shout out “to Quizlet for making this possible,” says another, above a picture of a student in their graduation cap and gown.

Why such devotion to Quizlet?

Quizlet is a free app (that makes money from advertising and paid subscriptions for additional features) for making flash cards and online quizzes, which can be used privately or shared publicly. It’s very popular with students, and many are likely using the site legitimately. But some students are also using the tool to upload questions from real exams, and other students are finding them.

"Yeah sex is cool and all but have you ever found your entire final on quizlet [sic],” asks one student in a tweet.

“When you Google one question and find a quizlet [sic] for the whole test,” says another above a picture of a cartoon cat dying and going to heaven.

Other students openly tweeted about using Quizlet to cheat -- either opening Quizlet in another browser while taking an online test, or studying questions on Quizlet in advance that they knew were likely to be on their test.

At Texas Christian University last week, news broke that 12 students were suspended after allegedly using Quizlet to cheat on a final. The students are contesting the decision, saying that they used Quizlet to study but didn’t know that the questions they were seeing would be on their final. CBS News reported that their professor said the students had a duty to say that they recognized the questions.

A TCU spokesperson said the students’ appeal process is ongoing. Chip Stewart, associate dean and professor of journalism at TCU, is the administrator handling the academic misconduct case. Stewart was not permitted to comment for this article, but he said on Twitter that the professor in this case was not at fault for not changing the questions in the exam.

“I find a moral flaw in the argument that if a prof has a copy of his/her exam from a previous semester stolen and posted on Quizlet, students who knowingly use and pass around a secret link to it are innocent because it’s the prof’s fault for not changing the exam,” he said in a tweet.

In another tweet, Stewart warned that “all profs should be on notice -- just expect that your exams have been stolen and posted on Quizlet or elsewhere.”

At least one professor has already discovered her exams on Quizlet. Reading about the TCU case, Genelle Belmas, associate professor in media law at the University of Kansas, decided to check Quizlet out. She said she was “disturbed” by how many of her own test questions she found on the site after less than one minute of searching.

Belmas said that one of her students from last semester had posted two sets of questions from her weekly reading quizzes, as well as questions from a midterm. The student, easily identifiable by her username on Quizlet, had received an A-minus in the class, said Belmas.

The student’s motive for sharing the questions isn’t clear, but Belmas suggest that the student might have been part of a sorority (Greek houses have been known to create and share test banks).

Though the questions were word for word the same, some of the answers to the questions were wrong, said Belmas. Luckily, Belmas said, she had switched up the questions this semester, but if you’re asking students something factual, “there’s only so many ways you can ask the question,” she said.

Kelly Ulto, clinical professor of accounting at Fordham University, said that she wasn’t aware of any of her materials being on Quizlet, but said it was a “real possibility” for many professors that their materials were being shared. “Because of this possibility, I try to stay away from test banks and will make up new exams each semester.”

Laura Oppenheimer, marketing director for Quizlet, said that Quizlet is built to help students and their teachers practice and master whatever they are learning. “Our goal is to support legitimate educational growth, not cheating,” she said.

“The misuse of our platform to develop bad habits, such as cheating or cutting corners on assignments, is disappointing to us and our team works hard to uphold academic integrity on our platform.”

Oppenheimer said that Quizlet’s team is “continuously adding features -- both seen and unseen -- to ensure Quizlet is used properly to support learning everywhere.” Quizlet has an honor code that asks that students “be aware of and uphold their teacher or institution’s policies regarding posting or sharing course materials online,” said Oppenheimer.

“What may be acceptable at one institution (reviewing past exams, for example) may not be at another,” said Oppenheimer. “That’s why we ask that students review their institutions’ policies and use that as a guide when determining how to best prepare for their classes.”

Quizlet’s community guidelines explicitly prohibit cheating and publicly posting copyrighted content, including test banks, exam questions and other confidential course content. Oppenheimer said that any student or educator can request that content be removed if it is negatively affecting their course.

David Rettinger, associate professor of psychology at the University of Mary Washington and president of the International Center for Academic Integrity, said he was aware of cases of plagiarism on Quizlet and other learning platforms such as Course Hero, another site where students can upload and share learning material.

Rettinger said that these sites “often have material that instructors would be surprised to discover is there.” But Rettinger said it is plausible that some students might use the site without knowing what they were looking at.

In the TCU case, Rettinger said, the university is in a difficult position as it could be tricky to prove what the students did or didn’t know about the content they saw on Quizlet. “Without knowing what was posted and how the students used it, I couldn’t venture an opinion about whether it qualifies as cheating,” he said.

But there are some questions that the university can use in its determination, he said -- did the students receive an unfair advantage over their peers? Did they violate the trust of the community? Did the students knowingly do something dishonest?

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