Field of Science

Why Students Cheat

As a member of an academic integrity committee at my university I have learned a lot of things. Some of these things I wish I hadn't. Maybe the better way to put it is Im glad I learned these things, but wish the problems did not exist to have to learn about them.

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.

Donald McCabe
A 2010 report of >40,000 high school students suggests that 60% cheated on an exam and 80% of students copy homework. Interestingly, it didn't matter if you were male or female, planning to go to college or not, played varsity sports or not, were a student leader or not, or attended a public or religious school, the only group that showed significantly reduced numbers were those (few) students attending a private non-religious school. While this study was for high school students, not college students, I think the habits/patterns students come to college with are important. A vast majority of students copy homework. I cannot say Im surprised about this one. I remember high school and how many assignments seemed like simple busywork with no real point. I expect much copying occurs on those irrelevant practice problems you didn't have time to do because of band practice or you had a basketball game. I think the issue is that once copying is common place or feels acceptable, what effect does that have after high school? Does the ability to decide that homework assignments are not worthwhile help establish a sense that the student decides which assignments matter? Does copying someone else's assignment make it is easier to rationalize copy-pasting assignments? I was surprised by the level of cheating an tests, 60%! Again, it mattered little if the student was college bound or not (59% or 68% respectively), in honor's or not (56% or 62% respectively), or active in the CharacterCounts! program or not (62% or 58% respectively). (CharacterCounts! is the organization that conducted the study.) This data contradicts my own bias that it is the struggling or apathetic students that cheat. Apparently no such difference exists. So what does this mean about the standards and ethics of the students entering our colleges or directly entering the workforce?

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.

We Have a Winner

My favorite 'philosophy of science' blog Evolving Thoughts had a contest last month. Well it was more of a raffle than a contest. Regardless, the prize was a signed copy of Dr. Wilkins book Species: A History of an Idea. (Since the prize still exists, should the previous sentence be in the present tense?) The results of the raffle are in.....and I'm a winner! Well, I'm a winner anyway, but I also will be the recipient of the aforementioned scholarly work.

So is the point of this post just to gloat?
No. The point of this post is not just to gloat, although that certainly is one of the points.
It's also to introduce to the Evolving Thoughts, which has a plethora of outstanding posts on biology, philosophy, and assorted topics. If you have some time to invest, I highly recommend some of the beefier posts found under the 'Ideas' tab.
It's also to share my excitement on having a text on the species concept. Right now the best book I have dealing, at least partially, with the topic is Ernst Mayr's The Growth of Biological Thought. I think the species concept has too much historical baggage and am not convinced that it is particularly useful in modern biology.

Paramecium, nice to meet you

How many of you recall one of the first cool science related thing you experienced? I bet if you think about it, even if you no longer give a rat's ass about science, you can come up with something from childhood. Maybe seeing puppies or kittens being born, watching a frog or butterfly develop from a tadpole or caterpillar respectively, seeing light split into diverse colors through a prism.
Malamute puppies


I can think of two things that got me hooked on the wonder and awesomeness of biology. One was 'discovering' my brother's microscope. It's a single eyepiece light microscope. I still have the beast and it still works, although it needs a new bulb. Once this device was discovered, it opened a whole new world to me: pondscum. That was when I was first introduced to a beautiful little beast. I didn't know its name or even what the hell I was looking at. What I did know is that it was love at first sight. Now I admit our relationship faltered when I met colecovision and was ruined when I realized the opposite sex was more than just a cootie factory. However, it ignited a longing that burned deep within me, forever influencing my...well let's not get overly dramatic.

The shear awesomeness that comes from seeing these little beasts swimming around in the pond behind your house with your own eyes, well eye since it was a monocular scope is inspiring. Here's a video using a much better scope than I had, which I hope can give you an inkling into that sense of wonder that arose in a child.

There are many aspects of Paramecium biology worthy of discussion: separation of 'somatic' and 'germ line' nuclei, the trichocyst, digestive progression, whole genome duplications, macronuclear development, RNA editing, endosymbiosis, etc. We will touch on a few of these in the next few weeks.

In God You Trust

I cannot tell you how happy it makes me that the House of Representatives took it  upon themselves to reaffirm the national motto of 'In God We Trust', Thanks douchebags, all 396 of you including my own representative Betty McCollum. Thanks for telling me that despite being born and raised in the United States of white heterosexual christian parents who themselves were born here of whit heterosexual christian parents who were also born here, I am not part of this country. I am not a member. In God We Trust. Thanks for promoting the hegemony and giving power to the tyranny of the majority.

As an atheist I do not trust in god. So that means I am not part of the 'We'. Since this is the national motto (for the last 55 years anyway, for the first 180 years we didn't have a motto about god), I guess I don't rate as part of the nation.
So to better ingratiate myself with the borg religious collective I will do the following,

I will:
trust in god to prevent hurricanes if more people pray more.
trust in god to prevent floods in a floodplain if more people pray more.
trust in god to stop the volcano from erupting once we throw a virgin girl in.
trust in god to protect my property, though not my neighbor's who believes differently.
trust in god that my football team will win if more people pray.
trust in god that the douchebag at work's basketball team will not win if more people pray.
trust in god to cure my treatable illness without modern medical interventions.
trust in god to look out for my family when I die.
trust in god to destroy the muslims.
trust in god to destroy the christians.
trust in god to destroy the buddhists.
trust in god to destroy the pagans.
trust in god to be better than all the other gods.
trust in god to make me superior to other races, sexes, nationalities, ethnicities, generations, and other people I don't particularly like.
trust in god to become corporeal in bread, me eat him, and it not be cannibalism.
trust in god that I will go to heaven because I am baptized.
trust in god that babies go to heaven even if not baptized.
trust in god that heathens go to hell regardless of age.
trust in god that undifferentiated cells are people.
trust in god that undifferentiated cells are not people.
trust in god to burn all the gays and lesbians in hell (unless there's the potential for a hot 3-way).
trust in god to allow gays and lesbians to minister and preach god's word.
trust in god that marriage is forever.
trust in god that divorce is ok too.
trust in god that gays destroy marriage.
trust in god that its ok to keep slaves.
trust in god that keeping slaves is an abomination.
trust in god that I get to rule my wife.
trust in god that I also get a bunch of virgin to screw when Im dead.
trust in god that he has actually had sex with a virgin and knows why this would be a good thing.
trust in god that there are unforgivable sins.
trust in god that all sins can be forgiven.
trust in god that only 144,000 people go to heaven and Im one of them.
trust in god that I am blessed, but the 12 year old starving African who is victim of countless rapes is not.
trust in god that by happenstance of my birth I get a free ride to heaven.
trust in god that voting on mottoes is a useful job of congress.

You know what? God as an idea seems capricious and arbitrary. Maybe it's not so bad being an outsider.

Loraxian Superheroes: Voting No were Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-NY), Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich) (You totally kick ass Mr. Amash!!!), Rep. Judy Chu (D-CA), Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-MO), Rep. Mike Honda (D-CA), Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA), Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA), and Rep. Pete Stark (D-CA). 

Loraxian Heroes: Voting present were Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) and Rep. Melvin Watt (D-NC).