Ambiguity surrounds policy on solution manuals

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In a success-driven society, the stress of attending college can cause students to use online resources to complete homework faster and gain an upper hand in class, according to some South Dakota State professors and students.

However, SDSU does not have a direct policy against solution manuals. This leaves it up to students to make ethical decisions when doing homework.

SDSU policy defines academic dishonesty as cheating, plagiarism, fabrication or misrepresentation. Cheating, in particular, is using any unauthorized assistance in taking quizzes or exams, writing papers or completing homework assignments.

Under this definition, any online resource not authorized by an instructor — such as Chegg, Quizlet, Wolfram Alpha or Google — is subsequently a form of cheating.

So, the ambiguity sets in. There’s no answer to whether or not it’s ethical to use online solution manuals.

Douglas Raynie, head of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, encourages students to use old exam solution manuals, which he makes available to his students. These show step-by-step instructions on how to answer questions. 

Raynie believes solution manuals can be beneficial to student learning when used properly.

“The ethical issue isn’t necessarily making those materials available, but rather how they’re used. I very much encourage students to use them to check answers,” Raynie said. “It’s more in checking problems, understanding how to set them up and the critical thinking process.”

While Raynie says time management and priority setting is key to overcoming this temptation of using solution manuals, he believes the root of the problem will always exist.

“Is there an overemphasis on success, whether it’s a parent [expectation] or a student trying to get into professional school to have a certain GPA or make the Dean’s List … the fact that we’re a success-driven society is what leads to temptations,” Raynie said.

Students at SDSU feel the pressure to use online shortcuts on their assignments, according to junior mathematics major Taylor Deutsch. While she has “fallen victim to using them,” she thinks they are an ineffective way of completing assignments.

Many students think it’s an efficient way to study, but Deutsch doesn’t think so.

“Seeing the answer before you complete a problem isn’t going to help you at all,” Deutsch said.

Kurt Cogswell, head of the Department of Mathematics and Statistics, said solution manuals can be beneficial for students who use them correctly to simply check their answers rather than directly looking up the solution.

“Whatever study tool you have in mind, if it enables the use of study techniques, I encourage it … otherwise it’s counter-productive,” Cogswell said. “If students understood the impact of using it both ways, they could make better decisions about how to use it.”

Although, faculty should “do a better job” of helping students understand what the ethical issues surrounding solution manuals to better their study habits, Raynie said.

Without this understanding, students can end up using solution manuals as a crutch instead of gaining the practice they need with the material, Deutsch said.

“When it comes time to study for that next test, you’re going to wish you would’ve done the problems on your own versus taking the easy way out — because most likely, you’re not going to know what’s going on if you let a website do all of the work,” Deutsch said. “To eliminate this temptation, students can cancel that online account and hit the books. We take for granted the resources available on campus, so I recommend using those as well.”

To improve study habits, Cogswell believes going through homework problems and engaging in study material can result in deeper understanding rather than copying and pasting a solution verbatim.

“It gives you immediate gratification [when you use a solution manual], but it doesn’t take you through other mental brain and physical process of building it into a logical structure that you can work with and recall,” Cogswell said.

The use of solution manuals can create risk-versus-reward confusion for students trying to develop their own college study habits, according to Raynie.

“I think our students know the difference between right and wrong and ethical and unethical. The issue becomes — this week I have two tests and three papers due and now there’s that feeling of being overwhelmed,” Raynie said. “Some professors will work with you and some are hold and firm on their deadlines, and now if you have this sense of being overwhelmed the temptation is to [use those resources].”

Another aspect of online resource temptation is plagiarizing papers — whether it’s a persuasive piece for a composition class or a lab report for chemistry.

Jason McEntee, head of the Department of English, claims the department’s own online tools, such as TurnItIn, have allowed them to decrease, but not fully eliminate, plagiarism in the department.

“It does happen, but what’s sort of interesting is having the TurnItIn software and having students know that … so it automatically scans it and while it hasn’t deterred plagiarism 100 percent, it makes them pause before they make a poor decision,” McEntee said.

By the time a student successfully plagiarizes or finds a paper to turn in for their assignment, McEntee believes they could have completed the assignment on their own without breaking the rules.

According to English major Jamie Jansen, her English professors encourage her to use online resources whenever possible to find information faster. Jansen believes other students should be able to benefit from internet searches and quick-find information.

“Any majors can benefit from websites that allow them to find more information than they would searching on their own in the library or using flashcards,” Jansen said. “The internet is an abyss of unknown facts that we can use on our homework to achieve good grades, and in my opinion, while looking up the information, you do learn as you read it.”

In his freshman-level classes, McEntee said he spends time explaining university plagiarizing rules to students for them to become better writers. He also addresses the consequences of using websites such as Spark Notes, where students can find book summaries without reading any of the actual books.

With all of these shortcuts readily available to students, Cogswell believes undergraduate students today face more academic pressure than they used to.

“It takes more self-control and more self-discipline to use these potentially self-advantageous technologies in a good way,” Cogswell said.