As you head into finals, are you planning to cheat? Just enough to pass your class? Or to get an A? Just enough to boost your grade a tad? Should the likelihood—or not—that you will get caught impact whether or not you cheat? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you are in the majority, as 61 percent of undergraduate college students admit to cheating.
Academic dishonesty is on my mind because I’ve just read a troubling account in the Chronicle of Higher Education of a “shadow scholar”: someone who makes a living writing papers, theses, and exams for college students and entrance essays for those seeking to enter universities. I’ve long been aware that this service exists and I have worked with at least one person whose ignorance suggested that his doctorate was obtained with the services of such a person, but it was still chilling to read details about this person’s work.
Also in the news is the case of University of Central Florida Professor Richard Quinn. Comparing data between his summer and fall classes, Professor Quinn noticed that the fall class scored about one and a half letter grade higher than his summer class—a first in ten years teaching this capstone business course. Professor Quinn received an anonymous tip that about a third of his 600 students had made use of a test bank (which has answers!).
The professor has been receiving some publicity for his speech to students detailing the violation; he offered amnesty to cheaters who confessed and agreed to take an ethics seminar. In the speech, the professor describes himself as “physically ill” and “absolutely disgusted” by the cheaters. Meantime, his assistants have recreated the midterm—without the aid of test banks—and every student in the course was required to retake it.
Here is an interview of one of the students who says that he thought he was reviewing a study guide, and therefore had no idea that he was cheating.
Researchers conclude that students cheat because their peers do. As they point out, today’s students face a highly competitive world and try to take every advantage to receive top grades. In this context, recognizing that their peers are cheating and reaping the benefits of good grades without the requisite work, students do not want to be, or feel, that they are at a disadvantage. As earlier researchers in this field pointed out, social learning theory helps us make sense of this: we model our behavior based on what we observe. If “everyone is doing it’, then it’s normal, right?
Universities continue to try to outwit students bent on cheating their way through college. In fact, the same university at which Professor Quinn teaches was the subject of a New York Times article on the high tech ways to colleges are attempting to thwart would-be cheats. Of course, one of the issues that we expect will impact cheating is faculty response to the problem. I received my first clue that faculty do not necessarily respond as they should or could when I was a teaching assistant in graduate school. I discovered that two students had plagiarized large passages of a book in their term papers. The passages were lifted straight out of the assigned readings! I expected that the professor would be as outraged as I was—both at the offense and that the students didn’t even bother to find books they thought we were unfamiliar with from which to copy. As I recall, the university policy was that cheating students would receive an “F” in the course and possibly face other disciplinary proceedings.
So what did the professor do to the culprits? He gave them each a “C” and the case did not go to the university administration. So while some of us bemoan the lack of student effort to match the demands for a good grade, many faculty and university administration —either directly or indirectly—are complicit in this game. If faculty look away at student cheating—as happened with the professor and the two plagiarists—what message does that send to students? And if department chairs and university administration over-rule faculty who drop the ax on students, what message does that send to students? Like other entities, universities are conscious not to offend their ‘customers’ and many will do anything but upset their students, including condoning cheating.
There are many other relevant issues that are worth their own discussion so keep an eye on the blog for related posts. Meantime, some issues to consider: If and when you cheat in class, who are you cheating? Yourself ? Society? Your parents? Your classmates? Ultimately, are you cheating yourself of an education, and if so what does that mean?