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Course correction: The Cuesta community reels after 67 students were recently caught cheating 

After seeing the results of the first few history quizzes of the 2015 spring semester at Cuesta College, Dr. Anthony Koeninger began to grow suspicious.

“Something wasn’t feeling right,” he told New Times. “So I switched up the order of the questions on the midterm.”

Koeninger describes what happened next as “brutal” and “devastating.” Not one, not two, but 67 out of his 250 students across six sections of “History of the U.S. to 1865” had cheated on the exam.

“I thought I was teaching and shaping good citizens, but that’s all collapsed now,” Koeninger said. “It’s disheartening and discouraging that so many students didn’t even care about learning.”

Ever since Koeninger discovered the academic dishonesty in early March, he, his students, and Cuesta’s administration have been grappling with the implications of the widespread cheating.

For Koeninger, that reflection has led to a tough conclusion.

“I’ve absolutely loved teaching for 32 years, but I’ve decided to retire at the end of this year,” he said. “I’m exhausted and drained, and I feel like my passion for teaching has just expired after this incident.”

Koeninger—or Dr. K, as his students call him—is 54 years old now, and he said the cheating incident pushed up his plan for retirement by several years.

“I told myself I wanted to teach as long as it was a passion and a labor of love, and I planned to stop as soon as it became just a job,” Koeninger said. “That’s what it has felt like these past few weeks.”

So how exactly did this happen, and what is Cuesta’s administration doing to address the widespread cheating?

“In terms of punishment for academic dishonesty, the whole range of possibilities is always in consideration when someone comes in front of me,” said Sandee McLaughlin, Cuesta’s assistant superintendant and vice president of student services. “What’s important to me is that punishment is fair and equitable.”

When contacted by New Times, McLaughlin confirmed the existence of the cheating incident in Koeninger’s classes, but declined to comment on any specifics. Her office is in charge of all student discipline.

“I’m not comfortable talking about any specific discipline to do with individual students because of FERPA regulations,” McLaughlin said. “In terms of the interactions I’ve had with [Koeninger’s] students, they feel that the discipline has had an impact, they’re sincere about rethinking their choices, and they feel the punishment was appropriate.”

McLaughlin pointed to Cuesta’s Student Code of Conduct, which states that all students attending the school must “assume an obligation to conduct themselves in an acceptable manner compatible with the Student Code of Conduct and Academic Honesty Regulations.”

Among the “acceptable penalties for violation” listed in the code are a warning, censure, disciplinary probation, restitution, interim suspension, suspension, dismissal, and expulsion.

Koeninger, meanwhile, was more than happy to discuss some of the disciplinary actions taken in the wake of the cheating incident. According to his firsthand experience and what he’s heard from students, he said all 67 students ended up with “zero” grades on the midterm, received a censure (letter of reprimand) from McLaughlin’s office, and were required to write an essay about academic honesty.

“Some of my colleagues thought that punishment was too light, but I thought it was fair, personally,” Koeninger said. “I want these students to have a second chance and learn from this.

“When she asked, I told [McLaughlin] that I was diametrically opposed to expulsion or suspension as a punishment,” he added.

In response to the details Koeninger provided to New Times, McLaughlin said the discipline he described was “only a part of the punishment,” but she declined to elaborate.

“I know for sure that all three of those punishments were handed down, but the college wouldn’t necessarily tell me about any further discipline,” Koeninger said.

New Times contributor Chris White-Sanborn is a student in one of Koeninger’s classes at Cuesta; he broke the news of the cheating incident in his March 19 “Cougars & Mustangs” column.

“[Koeninger] has an enthusiasm for life, humanity, his teaching subject, and his cats that fills a room in the best way possible,” White-Sanborn wrote in the column. “Koeninger, heartbroken, has described himself as naïve for not having created new tests in a while. He wanted to believe this wouldn’t happen.”

Koeninger clarified that—before this incident—it was his policy to change his multiple-choice tests, lectures, and study guides once per year, but he now realizes that wasn’t enough. He’s also added essay questions to his exams.

Koeninger said he believes a student or students from the fall 2014 semester provided a master copy of correct multiple-choice answers for the class’s exams—which hadn’t changed yet in early 2015—and that master copy was somehow widely disseminated.

According to Koeninger, the 67 students who were caught cheating came into the midterm exam with the correct multiple-choice answers lightly shaded in, and their cheating became evident when he analyzed how students did on the original versus the reordered exam.

In the aftermath of the cheating and the punishment, Koeninger said that multiple students have sincerely apologized to him by email and in person—some of them even shedding tears. He added that only a “small percentage” of students have dropped his class after receiving the failing grade, with most opting to stick around to try to pass.

“It means a tremendous amount to still see students learning and showing up to class,” Koeninger said. “It’s important to own up to your mistakes and then move forward.”

Koeninger said he plans to dedicate himself to coaching club baseball full time once he retires in December.

 

Contributor Chris White-Sanborn contributed reporting. Staff Writer Rhys Heyden can be reached at rheyden@newtimesslo.com.

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