Over the last year, we have had many discussions about cheating at the collegiate level. These discussions have been driven by a number of distinct, though related, factors. Regardless, work by Donald McCabe was recently brought to my attention. Now I have not followed the literature on scholastic dishonesty, although I am starting to become more familiar with the 'genre'. First, I was not actually aware there was a body of literature, because I thought the problem was too small. Yes, students cheat. Students cheated when I was a college student and students cheat now. But I do not cheat, therefore I assumed most others do not cheat.
So there is a problem in our colleges. Cheating is endemic and occurs institutional wide. Of course we should probably figure out ways to deal with it, but it is probably important to try and understand why students cheat in order to prevent or at least reduce the incidence of cheating most effectively. Luckily McCabe has already done the hard work for us in the form of confidential surveys. Students themselves tell us why they cheat and I think there are some important things to think about.
First, it's the students themselves. (I'm doing this one first because it fit into my bias that there is something wrong with those who cheat. The nice thing about this mindset is that the solution to deal with cheating is simply punitive.)
1. 'Students cheat because the class is too hard.' Well boo-fucking-hoo. Welcome to the real world. You don't have to go to college, you don't have to take the class. Maybe if my required class is too hard for you, maybe you should find another major because maybe, just maybe, you are not cut out for the field.
2. 'Students cheat because they don't like the class.' Since you do not have a vested interest in the material, all rules of ethics and appropriate conduct are moot. Now that is a value system I think society will be happy to know is coming.
3. 'Students are paying a ton of money to take the class.' Ah the old entitlement argument. Yes, you are paying a ton. In fact I would argue that you are paying too much. But even though money is changing hands, you are not a customer, therefore the concept 'the customer is always right' does not apply. Your payment allows you the chance to strive to get those grades and that degree. Diplomas are not handed out once your check clears. It was a lot cheaper to go to school when I went and I was able to get by with a part-time job and some modest loans. College students often are working 30+ hours a week while taking full credit loads. I point out to my students that university policy states that a 3 credit class should equate to an average of 9 hours of work/week for a student to get a C grade (ergo more hours to get a better grade, in general). So if you are taking a 15 credit load, that equates to 45 hours a week to obtain a C. If a student sleeps 7 hours a night (not enough), devotes 50 hours a week to studies (in order to get a couple Bs), works 30 hours a week, spends 2 hours a day commuting to school, work, and home, then that student has ~2 hours a day (every day) to eat, shop for necessities, breathing, wash the car, etc. It is virtually impossible to take a full credit load and work even 30 hours a week and expect to do well.
4. 'Students cheat because the professional world teaches them it's ok.' Pretty much true isn't it? How many people went to prison or even lost their jobs following the financial collapse? We had to deregulate the banking industry and look what they did with that newfound power. Of course, the financial crisis has nothing to do with corporate greed, it is all the fault of the poor who bought houses they couldn't afford. Look at our political leaders, how many obvious unethical acts happen in Washington and are actually punished? Charlie Rangel anyone? Newt Gingrich anyone? One's still in office and the other is the current frontrunner for the republican ticket for president of the US. So really, at even the highest levels, we are teaching students that cheating for personal gain can be acceptable and that the ends do indeed justify the means.
5. 'Students cheat because all the other students cheat.' I have some sympathy for this one. It really is a fairness issue. If you know that your colleagues are cheating and getting good or even better grades than you, then what can you do? You could bring it to the instructor's attention, we are not as omniscient as we want you to believe we are. Still the 'if everyone jumped off a bridge, would you?' adage comes to mind. (Full disclosure, my friends and I used to jump off a bridge into the Saccarappa River in high school.)
(Actually, we jumped off the wall to the left of the electrical tower on the left of the video.)
Second, what about the faculty, do they play a role in student cheating? Obviously, the faculty are not actively helping students cheat, but are they indirectly contributing? What do faculty do or don't do that may make cheating acceptable.
1. 'Faculty would report cheating but there are no rewards.' The old, I would do something about it, but what's in it for me? Really? This strikes me as another sense of entitlement response. If there is nothing directly in it for me, why should I do it? How about dealing with issues of fairness the students brought up a minute ago? If you know students are cheating and doing little about it, then you contribute to the mindset outlined above. I expect that most colleges/universities have policies dealing with issues of cheating. For example, all cases of cheating at my university must be reported to the appropriate office. (The instructor has complete control over the action to be taken regarding the incident, but the information needs to be provided to the central office.)
2. 'Faculty would report cheating but it's too much work.' Another for the 'boo-fucking-hoo' file. I guess students who have many things pulling on their time are not allowed to pick and choose what to do ethically, but faculty who have teaching, research, families, and other things pulling on their time can freely pick and choose what aspects of their jobs to do ethically.
3. 'Faculty would report cheating but it's an administration job.' No it's not. This seems more a glorified version of #2. How is it a job for administration? Your class, you have to report it to get it into administrations hands in the first place. Have you at least done that? Didn't think so.
4. 'Faculty would report cheating but the administration puts up too many roadblocks.' Well, now I can commiserate. It is a pain to deal with a student who has cheated. I am not talking about the paperwork and process, just the mental energy required. We are disappointed in the student and ourselves, we realize the ramifications reporting could have on the student (yes, it's their own damn fault, but it still sucks). Of course some roadblocks are real and some are imaginary. Speaking of my own experiences and my institution the direct roadblocks were mostly imaginary. Yes there is paperwork to fill out, but it is not too onerous. Basically, what happened, what did you do, and did you tell the student. It is important though, because students have rights. Once the report is filed (remember it's your job to do it) the student is notified and can appeal the instructor's sanction. The appeal is heard by a student-faculty board and the sanction is almost uniformly upheld. However, instructors can and do make mistakes, so this is an important committee to have in place. I would point out that generally the instructor does not even have to attend the appeal session. (I point these latter issues out to offset concerns that it's a lot of extra work for instructors and that students can use this system to readily get out of the repercussions.) Now that I've established that there are few direct roadblocks, there are indirect roadblocks. We used to have a student group that discussed cheating, including plagiarism, and why it's an important issue to new students. This group was disbanded in large part because the administration thought it sent the wrong message, 'we have a cheating problem'. (I expect to hear that the administration will also disband the police department to avoid concerns over a 'crime problem'.) This attitude sends the message to faculty that the administration takes a 'see no cheating, hear no cheating, speak no cheating' mentality and that of course leads to faculty not seeing and hearing cheating, and certainly not reporting it.
5. 'Faculty would report cheating but I'll get hurt in the student evaluations.' This is not so much a case for me, but I know of situations where this is an issue. It is well documented that student evaluations, both good and bad, have little value. Evaluations and earned grade is tightly correlated. However, if renewal of your contract is in part based on student evaluations, you don't want to fail a student over plagiarism. At least one school, removes the evaluations of students sanctioned for academic dishonesty, which can help offset that problem (although the student's friends might still nail you in the evaluations).
6. 'Faculty would report cheating but we don't want to hurt the student's future.' This one did not come from McCabe's studies, but I've heard it numerous times. See it apparently not the student's fault they cheated, it's the instructor's for reporting it. That's a great approach especially when we are shipping these graduates off to run businesses, become doctors, lawyers, etc. Part of this probably stems from the fact that many instructors do not know what happens to reports of cheating at our institution. Basically, reporting serves two functions, to ensure students know their rights (again faculty make mistakes) and to have a history. When a student in my senior level course cheats, it probably isn't the first time. However, from my perspective it is the first time. If I report it and there is a history of previous cheating, the university can now step in and potentially suspend or expel the student.
Third, what about the institutional role? Does the institution play any role in establishing conditions that tacitly promote or actively reduce cheating? (Short answer: Yes.)
1. 'The institution contributes to student cheating by promoting faculty adherence to policy.' As noted above, most, if not all, colleges/universities have policies related to academic dishonesty in some form. However, having a policy does no good if there is little to no adherence to it. Having a policy is good, but colleges/universities have a huge number of policies that can be inundating to the faculty. Some ways to get around this is to organize the policies into easily identifiable units (Teaching policies). Since everything has moved online, there needs to be a simple way for faculty to be able to find and access it. If I've spent ten minutes searching for the policy on cheating and have come up empty, I'm probably done looking. Sending timely and appropriate reminders to faculty regarding policies is helpful. Send the links to policies related to teaching a couple weeks before each semester starts, send the links to policies related to research whenever a research grant is funded, etc. If faculty are aware of the policies, they are more likely to be responsive to them. If the administration makes it clear that these policies are important (by making it easy to find and identify them for example), it encourages faculty adherence.
2. 'The institution has an honor code and stresses its importance.' This appears to be one of the most critical factors in reducing student cheating. Schools with a strong honor code have less endemic cheating than those without one or that have one but do not support it. It's important not only to have an honor code, but to have student involvement with maintaining the code. If there is student buy in at the get go, there is student support. Students are more likely to report cheating by colleagues when it is viewed as an honor code violation. For this to happen, the administration needs to be actively involved. If the administration is actively involved and the students are actively involved, then the faculty will have to be onboard as well.
These latter two points I think can be filed under the idea of community establishment. If students are part of a community (even if it is a large university), then they have a vested interest in its and their reputation. Things like honor codes and student involvement serve to establish a sense of community.
Here's an NPR interview with Dr. McCabe from 2010 on cheating. I also encourage you to look at the associated story and check out the comments to see many of the above issues described.