There has been an upsurge in unnoticed cheating among students, which, according to researchers, is a significant cause of course failure, with the advent of lecture-hall laptops and online coursework.
A researcher from the University of Kansas has teamed up with colleagues from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to get a better handle on copying in college in the 21st century.
Young-Jin Lee, assistant professor of educational technology at KU, and the Research in Learning, Assessing and Tutoring Effectively group at MIT spent four years seeing how many copied answers MIT students submitted to Mastering Physics, an online homework tutoring system.
"MIT freshmen are required to take physics. Homework was given through a Web-based tutor that our group had developed. We analyzed when they logged in, when they logged out, what kind of problems they solved and what kinds of hints they used," said Lee.
Lee said that it was easy to spot students who had obtained answers from classmates before completing the homework.
"We ran into very interesting students who could solve the problems - very hard problems - in less than one minute, without making any mistakes," said Lee.
Students also were asked to complete an anonymous survey about the frequency of their homework copying.
The researchers found that students who procrastinated also copied more often. Those who started their homework three days ahead of deadline copied less than 10 percent of their problems, while those who dragged their feet until the last minute were repetitive copiers.
The students who copied frequently had about three times the chance of failing the course.
Results of the survey show that students are twice as likely to copy on written homework than on online homework.
The study showed that doing all the homework assigned is "a surer route to exam success" than a pre-existing aptitude for physics.
"People believe that students copy because of their poor academic skills. But we found that repetitive copiers - students who copy over 30 percent of their homework problems - had enough knowledge, at least at the beginning of the semester. But they didn't put enough effort in. They didn't start their homework long enough ahead of time, as compared to non-copiers," said Lee.
The study has been published in Physical Review Special Topics: Physics Education Research.