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On student cheating

If you work in education, you likely saw the reports earlier this month relating to a new study on the incidence of high school cheating.  David Crary wrote the Associated Press report I saw, which made me wince:

In the past year, thirty percent of U.S. high school students have stolen from a store and 64 percent have cheated on a test, according to a new large-scale survey suggesting that Americans are too apathetic about ethical standards.  Educators reacting to the findings questioned any suggestion that today’s young people are less honest than previous generations, but several agreed that intensified pressures are prompting many students to cut corners….

Other findings from the survey [done by the Los Angeles-based Josephson Foundation]:

•  Cheating in school is rampant and getting worse.  Sixty-four percent of students cheated on a test in the past year and 38 percent did so two or more times, up from 60 percent and 35 percent in a 2006 survey.

•  Thirty-six percent said they used the Internet to plagiarize an assignment, up from 33 percent in 2004.

Despite such responses, 93 percent of the students said they were satisfied with their personal ethics and character, and 77 percent affirmed that “when it comes to doing what is right, I am better than most people I know.”

I don’t know the agenda of the Josephson Institute, or if they even have one, but the survey only reiterates findings well known to educational researchers.  Just one example is a study done in 2001 by McCabe et al., which showed well documented long term increases in cheating.

In reacting to the most recent reports, and apart from the director of the Josephson Institute, who is quoted as asking about the social costs of this cheating – what is “the implication for the next generation of mortgage brokers?” – everyone else in the article rushes to defend students.  They live in a more competitive environment, kids are under stress, and the temptation is greater (this, believe it or not, was the defense offered by the National Secondary School Principals Association).  A teacher from Philadelphia is quoted as completely absolving students of all responsibility:  “A lot of people like to blame society’s problems on young people, without recognizing that young people aren’t making the decisions about what’s happening in society.  They’re very easy to scapegoat.”  The fellow from the NSSPA added:  “We have to create situations where it’s easy for kids to do the right things.  We need to create classrooms where learning takes on more importance than having the right answer.”  Easy to do the right things?

These perspectives are, I fear, common, and I think disappointing:  because there are social pressures to unethical behavior, and because we cannot attribute 100% of the blame to individual actors, we should therefore wholly absolve individuals of any blame at all.  And in a culture where mid-level wrongdoing lands one in jail but big-deal wrongdoing gets one a book contract and an appearance on Leno where one can make he requisite public apology and be forgiven and move on, criticizing unethical conduct or pointing out how central integrity is to one’s work and life choices ends up sounding puritanical.  Ok, then, consider me a Puritan. [I should note, by the way, that the quotations in this article do not misrepresent the wider university culture; for example, research reports by Keith-Spiegel et al. (1998) and Schneider (1999) found that faculty tend not to actively prevent student misconduct or confront cheating students.]

Cheating, it is true, is certainly a symptom of wider educational dynamics that need to be addressed.  I often hear it asserted that the No Child Left Behind K-12 testing environment means, among other things, that students come to college with less experience at doing serious research and writing papers.  Ignorant of the protocols of writing, they are said to more easily give way to the temptations of online appropriation.  Gerald Graff wrote a persuasive book a couple years back that argues college sets students up to fail – they come to us Clueless in Academe, unable to participate in research generation but held to standards of work we have never taught them.

Some research also suggests that even bright college students continue to suffer the consequences of their high school environments.  A study reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education, done by Mark Engberg (Loyola University-Chicago) and Gregory Wolniak (University of Chicago National Opinion Research Center), using data collected on 2,500 students, found that “those from schools with high levels of violence tended to have lower grades.  Having attended a well-maintained and well-equipped school seemed to offer many freshmen advantages over their peers” (CHE, 11/28/08).  And a related project, done by Serge Herzog (from the University of Arkansas) “found that, even after controlling for differences in background and academic preparation, low-income freshmen tended to post lower grades if their high schools had high levels of violence or disorder.”

As many students arrive at college unprepared, instructors have understandably reacted by reconfiguring their assignments.  Instead of the drop dead system of midterm, final exam, and big research paper, most classes (at least in my experience at public universities) now offer a wider range of low-impact assignments.  Students now get daily journaling grades, may take multiple reading quizzes where low grades can be dropped, are more readily offered extra credit, and so on.  But this dynamic has, I think, contributed to the explosion of cheating.  Too often students don’t see any harm in copying the Amazon book summary (usually taken right off the book jacket) in turning in an annotated bibliography when they know the bibliography assignment only counts as, say, five percent of the grade – it feels like make-work and so it’s handled that way.  Meanwhile, professors are reluctant to impose the academic death penalty (an F in a course or academic suspension) when it was a low-stakes project.  So over time students learn they can get credit for work that isn’t their own and professors live in frustration but feel they can’t really keep up in playing classroom cop.

A lot of attention has been given to the growth of a reported entitlement culture among students, evidence of broader forces at work in the culture and perhaps also the result of a customer is always right mentality that some see at work even in academic, and in a very limitedly anecdotal way I see evidence of that as having emerged over the last five years.  Even five years ago, when I would meet with students accused of cheating, the main reaction was emotional meltdown – crying, apology, please give me another chance, and so on.  Today the most common reaction is anger – how dare you accuse me of cheating! – and this even in cases where the open and shut evidence is laying there on the table.  To some extent these impressions are confirmed by the broader work done on student cheating, which is partly summarized by McCabe, Trevino, and Butterfield in a 1999 report:

With regard to individual characteristics, results have typically found that underclassmen cheat more than upperclassmen, that male students cheat more than female students, and that students with lower grade point averages cheat more than higher achieving students.  With regard to contextual characteristics, studies have found that cheating is higher among fraternity or sorority members, among students involved in intercollegiate athletics, among students who perceive that their peers cheat and are not penalized, and is lower at institutions that have strong academic honor codes.  (211).

Academic misconduct is a symptom of wider problems in the university culture, and part of the responsibility rests with professors who spend too little time helping students see why the originality of work matters so much to intellectual work.  But even in the context of student hostility in the face of accusations, at some level students know that cheating is wrong.  If they engage in it they are more likely to be lazy or overworked than evil.  But dishonesty is not justified as a shortcut in a scene of overwork, or by the fact that many others are doing it too.  The rationalizations one encounters when it comes to plagiarism collapse even under the simple logics of moral conduct any young child should be picking up on the schoolyard playground.

A final paradox produced by all these factors is that even while cheating skyrockets, at least in my world, professor-reported misconduct remains low.  In my own department of roughly fifty full time faculty, in a given year only five or so will report academic misconduct of any kind, and this is the dynamic in a system where reporting cheating only starts a professor-controlled process (that is, professors at my university need not fear that by reporting minor infractions inexorable suspension will be set in motion).  Here again, the research confirms that my experience is not unusual.  Diekhoff et al., report that only three percent of cheaters report having ever been caught; Keith-Spiegel report a faculty survey that showed 71% of professors said confronting student cheating was one of the most negative aspects of their job; and a 1994 study by Graham found that only 9% of instructors who caught students cheating had penalized them (all this is summarized in Vandehey et al.).

Many faculty may simply be living in naivete, imagining that their own creativity in coming up with assignments on which cheating is “impossible” has exempted them from the broader trends.  Others suspect cheating but might feel that getting too serious about it is itself unfair, since the most likely outcome is that the obvious cheating novices will get busted after a five seconds Google-search but the more systematically clever (and thus more objectionable) will still get off scot free.  It is also possible that professors are astonishingly vigilant but simply choose to handle cheating within their own classrooms.

Blogging on the Chronicle of Higher Education website, Laurie Fendrich (a fine arts professor at Hofstra) argued that college honor systems make less and less sense given the wider erosion of an understanding even of what the term honor means:

In our society, nobody has an obligation to own up to the truth.  Instead, we have an obligation to get as far ahead as possible as long as someone else doesn’t stop us.  In no case does honor apply to resisting temptation – which is precisely what’s called for in order for cheating not to occur under the honor system.  Since honor in America doesn’t exist, we should replace college honor systems with an academic penal code. (We should have a penal code for faculty malfeasances as well, but that’s for another discussion.)  I propose that it be phased in slowly, so that incoming students understand the new rules.  The new rules should be something like this:  The first cheating offense earns the grade WC, for “withdrew from course for cheating,” and the student is required to withdraw from the course.  The grade stays on the student’s transcript until graduation, when a “W” replaces it if there are no further instances of cheating.  A second offense earns another grade of WC, and the two grades remain permanently on the student’s transcript.  The third offense follows the American way:  Three strikes and you’re out.  Expelled for cheating.

I like this idea but am also skeptical that it will solve the wider problem.  Still, I think it would a step forward.  I wonder if most professors would be willing to report cheating, since many I talk with are hesitant to take actions that connect to permanent transcript notations.  But maybe I’m wrong – perhaps faculty would favor a system that simply gets the student out of their classes.  I also think Fendrich goes too far in downplaying the role of honor codes on college campuses (the investigation by McCabe, Trevino and Butterfield I mentioned earlier found strong evidence that the existence of an honor code does make a still-significant difference in creating a strong college culture of more honest behavior).  But the actual proposal seems reasonable.

Until we all, students and teachers alike, do more to discuss these issues in our classes, stay vigilantly on the lookout for misconduct that is currently undetected, and make use of the procedures for handling unethical behavior, cheating will persist and likely increase, and the most important opportunities for character formation available in the university environment will be lost.

SOURCES:  Peter Schmidt, “Studies examine major influences on freshmen’s academic success,” Chronicle of Higher Education, 28 November 2008, pg. A21; David Crary, “Lie, cheat and steal? In survey, many high school students admit those misdeeds,” Atlanta Journal Constitution, 1 December 2008, pg. A3; Laurie Fendrich, “The honor code has no honor,” Chronicle of Higher Education (excerpting her post on the Chronicle Review blog), 12 December 2008, pg. B2; Patricia Keith-Spiegel et al., “Why professors ignore cheating:  Opinions of a national sample of psychology instructors,” Ethics and Behavior 8 (1998), 215-227; Alison Schneider, “Why professors don’t do more to stop students who cheat,” Chronicle of Higher Education, 22 January 1999, pg. A8-A10; Donald McCabe et al., “Cheating in academic institutions:  A decade of research,” Ethics and Behavior 11 (2001), 219-232; Donald McCabe, Linda Trevino, and Kenneth Butterfield, “Academic integrity in honor code and non-honor code environments,” Journal of Higher Education 70.2 (1999), 211-234; Michael Vandehey, George Diekhoff, and Emily LaBeff, “College cheating:  A twenty-year follow-up and the addition of an honor code,” Journal of College Student Development 48.4 (2007), 468-480.


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