With the growth of websites like Cramster.com, which provides answers and step-by-step explanations for problem sets from a wide selection of textbooks, the convenience of the Internet has spawned an ethical dilemma.

Students could use the site to check their answers or explain tough problems, but some administrators and professors say the site are more likely to hurt students’ grades than help them.

The temptation to use sites like Cramster to cheat is obvious. Most students have experienced a scenario where it’s the middle of the night, an assignment is due in a few hours and it’s too late to get help. A failing grade isn’t an option either.

Using Cramster, the student could look up the question and copy every step of the answer.

Some students are likely already doing exactly that. Among the textbooks on Cramster are several used for University of Michigan courses – for example, “University Physics,” the required text for Physics 140.

Esrold Nurse, assistant dean for student academic affairs in LSA, said students who try to get ahead by copying the answers to homework problems are only hurting themselves.

“I’m not sure that’s giving you an edge if you’re doing that,” he said.

He said a study guide is only as helpful as the effort a student puts into using it, and that it defeats the purpose if students are simply going to the answers without learning to solve the problems.

“I wouldn’t recommend it,” he said. “I don’t see the benefit.”

Along with textbook solutions, the website also provides students with lecture notes and practice exams as well as forums where students can ask for help. The site has a point system in place, called “Karma Points,” that rewards users for participating on the site – for example, by submitting solutions to unsolved textbook problems or by helping others on the forums. For 550 Karma Points, Cramster users can get a $25 Starbucks gift card. For 5,000, they can get an iPod, and for 30,000, users can get a Sony Vaio laptop.

To view the solution sets to all problems in a given textbook, students must pay a fee of $9.95 a month. Users who don’t pay the monthly fee can only view the answers to odd problems.

Robert Angarita, president and co-founder of the site, said Aaron Hawkey, an alum of the University of California at Los Angeles, developed the idea for the site while he was in college and wanted a resource to help him with his own classes.

Hawkey began to gather content, like practice exams and explanations for problem sets for his own use. He launched the site in February 2003, after graduating from college.

Angarita said student abuse of the solution sets is a concern. Still, he said it’s up to students to decide how to use the site.

“We’re not there for them on the midterm,” he said. “One of the things we try to do is replicate the experience someone would get studying in a study group.”

Prof. Gus Evrard, who teaches Physics 140, said referencing solution sets might help a student who’s stuck on a homework problem and has no other way to get through it.

“I don’t see that practice as abusive,” he said.

But he said it is unlikely that students who rely too heavily on solution manuals and sites like Cramster will gain a good understanding of the material.

“You don’t learn physics by memorizing the solutions to five thousand physics problems,” he said. “You learn physics by organizing your thinking through finding answers by yourself.”

A statement on the Cramster website says that whether using Cramster constitutes cheating depends strictly on whether the student’s intention is to use it as a resource to learn or just to copy the answers.

The site also warns students not to cheat.

“Please make no mistake: if you plagiarize a homework solution from a friend minutes before class or the night before from Cramster, you are cheating,” the statement says. “Please don’t. We want you to understand how to do it, be prepared for your exams and succeed academically!”

Plans to expand Cramster to include help on biology, economics, high finance, and business statistics are underway, Angarita said.

He also said the site will also begin catering to high school students by the start of the 2008-2009 school year.

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