March 18, 2013

Cheating: A Sociological Perspective

SternheimerBy Karen Sternheimer

Did you know that turning in a class assignment copied directly from your textbook without quotes is a form of plagiarism? A student who did this in one of my classes claimed not to.

Each year I encounter some form of academic dishonesty, the most common being copying from another source, directly or paraphrased, without quotes or attribution. The most egregious example: a student copied directly from a book I wrote. (In this case, imitation is not the sincerest form of flattery).

Why do people cheat? And how can sociology illuminate—and potentially reduce—this behavior, particularly in academia?

Donald McCabe, a business professor at Rutgers University, has studied academic cheating for decades. In his research, McCabe found that this is a very common behavior and certainly nothing new. In his 2001 article, “Cheating in Academic Institutions: A Decade of Research,” McCabe and co-authors Linda Klebe Trevino and Kenneth D. Butterfield found that several social factors help explain academic dishonesty.

They note that perceptions of peer behavior are among the most important factors that explain why people cheat. Students might think that if everyone else is cheating not only is it acceptable, Fbut maybe even necessary to remain competitive. Whether it is a curved assignment or competition for graduate admissions, fear of falling behind can be a powerful motivator for even the best students to cheat.

Rather than simply based on individual morality, McCabe, Trevino and Butterfield describe a host of institutional factors that contribute to cheating. Institutions that make the rules and consequences clear have less cheating. Having an honor code may also reduce the likelihood that students cheat, but having a culture that discourages cheating may be as good if not better.

Professors play an important role too: if few penalize or report cheating, students will have fewer disincentives. Reporting cheating can require extra paperwork for faculty, and that extra work may not seem worthwhile if administrators do little to punish those accused of cheating.

Of course technology enables new forms of cheating, and requires new forms of detecting academic dishonesty. New technologies are being developed to catch twenty-first century cheating techniques too. At our university we can use turnitin.com, a site for finding matches with papers in their database and the internet in general. I require students upload all written work to the site, and have found incidents of cheating, despite warning them that the site is for an academic integrity check.

While it may seem obvious that cutting and pasting from the internet is a form of cheating, I found that this occasionally was happening among my students. This year I started including the instruction “cutting and pasting from the internet or anyone else’s work is forbidden.” To my surprise, this instruction has dramatically reduced the practice. As McCabe, Trevino and Butterfield found in their research, providing specific details on what constitutes cheating is important, since some students seem not to know what is fair game.

Institutions matter in other ways; some directly promote cheating. Earlier this year, a report came out claiming that teachers helped students cheat on standardized tests. As educators are increasingly evaluated based on these scores, some teachers clearly feel pressure to help their students to prevent reprisals for poor student performance. Another news report last year claimed that some teachers had someone else take their teaching certification exam.

Cheating is about more than an individual’s value system or character; it takes place within important social contexts. Thinking sociologically we can come up with some possible ways to reduce cheating. McCabe, Trevino and Butterfield provide a list of suggestions, which include reducing the focus on grades in the classroom and institutions and instead concentrating on learning, eliminating strict curves, providing fair testing situations and fostering mutual respect.

In my experience, I have noticed students are more likely to cheat when they are underprepared academically and feel that even their best work is inadequate. For student athletes, who might have other serious time pressures, cheating might be a way to try to remain academically eligible. International students, for whom English is a new language, may also struggle both academically and with their new cultural environment. McCabe suggests that this too is an institutional problem, as universities actively recruit these students without providing the support they may need to do well on their own.

Understanding that cheating is a social process, what sociological factors do you think might reduce cheating?

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