VOL. 9 NO. 2 THE MAGAZINE OF THE UNIVERSITY OF UTAH FALL 1999
Cheating? Here? One student examines what the U is doing to spread the truth about academic dishonesty on campus.
by Kathryn Austin, illustration by Randall Royter
While preparing for finals, a student receives an old copy of a test given the previous semester by the same professor. She uses the test as a study guide. But when she sees the final, she realizes that this is no guide. It is the same test. What does she do? "I took the test, intentionally missing a few questions so the professor wouldn't be suspicious. I had no idea that he didn't change his test questions." Is this cheating?
Or what about the student who didn't know how to begin a paper on Chaucer's Canterbury Tales? "I read some published articles on Chaucer and chose an argument I liked," he states. "Then I formulated my paper around that argument. I don't know if it was cheating, but I felt justified because it was the first paper my professor liked. He thought it was creative."
Are these cases of cheating unusual? Not really. Although cheating has had a long and dishonorable history in academic life, cases in recent years have become more complex. Today's students are faced with more opportunities to cheat. The Internet has introduced ample sources for plagiarism. Computer hacking allows students to preview upcoming tests. Compact digital watches can hold massive amounts of information to be viewed discreetly during an exam. And as John Francis, associate vice president for academic affairs, points out, "Today we can't always depend on parents, churches, and schools to teach integrity." Moreover, in recent years, articles condemning the "cheating culture" prevalent in today's schools have been published in everything from the Reader's Digest to The Chronicle of Higher Education. So how is the U addressing this undesirable aspect of academia?
Faculty members at the U must first determine the cheater's intentions. Stuart Culver, a professor in the English department, explains that "with paper cheating, the faculty member must first make sure that the student knew what he was doing. Often the student needs to be informed about what constitutes quoting too freely from a source. The opportunity to rewrite a paper for a grade is provided only when the student obviously didn't understand." But who can say whether the student understands? When it comes to academic dishonesty, the professor must be the judge, jury, and even the prosecutor.
In 1997, the University published a new "Code of Student Rights and Responsibilities." Francis chaired the committee that wrote the student code. Jurisdiction over academic behavior was delegated to the colleges and departments. He says that the committee "realized the necessity to take academic integrity seriously, and therefore allowed the departments to take responsibility." Now, the student who is caught damaging University property will be handled differently, and by a different committee, than the student who is caught looking on his neighbor's test during an exam. Stayner Landward, the dean of students, who manages cases of misbehavior, says that the differentiation between academics and behavior must be decided case by case. But once he makes the determination with the college or department, the sanctions available to him differ substantially.
The 1997 Code outlines three sanctions a faculty member can take against a student in the case of academic misconduct. Faculty members can "require the student to rewrite a paper(s) or to retake an exam(s), reduce a grade, or give a failing grade." It states that "in no event shall the academic sanctions imposed by the faculty member be more severe than a failing grade." Landward, on the other hand, has expanded the choices for addressing cases of misbehavior. Rather than simply suspend the student, Landward designs sanctions "to assist students whose integrity has had a momentary lapse." His goal is to "make sanctions educational." For example, several students were caught stealing computers from the library; their rationale was that the University owed them something for having misspent their tuition. Landward required that the students first replace the computers and pay for any damage, and then write a research paper on how funds appropriated to the University are used. Through their research, the students learned that their perceptions were based on misinformation. In another case, a student who was preparing for graduation was found guilty of fabricating a transcript. The student was asked to write an apology letter to the school he misrepresented, to delay graduation, and to take the coursework he had fabricated. After two years of makeup work, the student told Landward that "this was the hardest thing I have ever done, but I got it right."
The U encourages informal resolution of problems, and students are urged to discuss their concerns with the involved faculty member, according to the policy. Hence, most cases of cheating at the U are handled quickly and quietly. Cheaters are neither evaluated nor required to do extra coursework. In his experience, Landward says that cheaters are usually pretty good students who are under significant academic stress. They choose a shortcut to alleviate the stress, then feel horrible for compromising their own integrity.
In fact, when U students are asked whether they believe cheating occurs frequently in their classes, most respond that they don't know or aren't aware of any instances of cheating. Says Josh Terry, a senior in communication, "I've never been in a class where cheating happens. Sure, it's an issue, but it's not an epidemic."
Donald McCabe, associate professor of business ethics at the Rutgers Graduate School of Management, believes otherwise. According to his 1990, 1992, and 1995 studies of 6,087 students from 31 schools, 67 percent of students admitted to cheating at least once in college. Forty-one percent admitted to cheating on exams, and 19 percent indicated that they had cheated on four or more tests, thereby qualifying as "regular" cheaters by McCabe's definition. He maintains that cheating in universities today is common.
The results of McCabe's study are certainly shocking; however, when compared to a similar study conducted by William Bowers, a doctoral candidate at Columbia University in the 1960s, the number of students who admit to cheating has not risen. Says McCabe, "The widespread assumption that there has been an increase in cheating by undergraduates is not supported by the data." Hester Henderson MS'82, associate professor of exercise and sport science, points out that in her 28 years of experience "the number of cases of cheating has decreased."
So why has there been such media interest in the phenomenon of cheating? John McCullough, associate vice president for academic affairs, suggests that "perhaps our obsession with the occurrence of cheating is actually the result of a cynical societyrather than trusting, we tend to think the worst of everyone." In addition, Ann Darling, associate professor of communication, believes that "cheating goes against everything about academia." She adds, "Cheating is to academic life like betrayal is to intimacy." And betrayal always piques our interest. Our interest may also be related to a new era of openness. As McCabe states in his 1993 interview with Synthesis magazine, "Even though it appears students cheated as much in the early '60s as they do now, students were more aware in the '60s that they were doing something wrong. Therefore, it was kept more hidden."
The student who accidentally cheated on an exam when she used the test as a study guide and the student who wrote a paper using uncited sources seem to support McCabe's contention. Students today may have fewer qualms about cheating because of the pressure to compete in the great GPA race. Moreover, both of these cases were left undetected. The message to the students: do whatever is necessary to succeed.
Should professors, then, spend more time policing students? As McCullough points out, "Tracking cheaters is definitely not in a professor's best interest." Professors are rewarded for research, not for teaching. And even when a professor has the desire to apprehend cheaters, time may prohibit it. Finding a plagiarist's sources can take days, even weeks-time that a professor can ill afford at the end of a semester, when the term papers and tests are pouring in and grade deadlines are quickly approaching.
Rather than set up a system of "cops-and-robbers," which faculty members inevitably resent and students test in order to discover how much they can get away with, professors are trying to create classroom climates more conducive to academic integrity. The difficult question is how to do that.
Fred Montague, a coordinator of advising and adjunct professor in the biology department, has established his own method to combat cheating. He believes that students are less likely to cheat in a program they respect, so he first informs his students that the University of Utah biology department ranked twenty-second out of 680 biology programs in the Gorman Report. "Students need to know that they are involved in something worthwhile," he states. Next, he includes a statement in the class syllabus informing students that cheating will not be tolerated. But there's a twist. The statement also warns that due to the difficulty of prosecuting cheaters, all proof of cheating will be held until the end of the semester, when the cases are established. Says Montague, "If you're a conscientious student, the idea that you have cheated and you may have been caught will be a long punishment. If you're not conscientious, nothing will reform youyou're bound to cheat all of your life." Most students want a quick resolution. You steal the cookie and you're either caught or you get away, then you move on. Montague believes that his system discourages many students from cheating. Of course, he also uses other preventive measures, such as multiple variations of the same test, and staggered seating. "I don't want to bait students," he says. "Treat students as honest and they will respond honestly."
When testing doesn't pose a problem and multiple answers are acceptable, professors can't depend on seating arrangements to prevent cheating. In the English department, students are taught the correct method of citing sources in their research. Each course is intended to reinforce a student's understanding of what constitutes plagiarism. The biggest deterrent from cheating in an English course, however, is a professor's creativity. Culver explains that with innumerable sources available for students to copy, professors are challenged to produce "uncheatable" assignments, i.e., "assignments which are so specific to the course that the student can't go elsewhere," even to the Internet. One student of the English department, however, feels that these "uncheatable" assignments have gone too far. In one class, she was asked to answer questions only in a particular order with roman numerals and single paragraph answers. "Our writing suffered as a result of the assignments," she laments. "He didn't trust us."
Most U professors are not as diligent about ferreting out cheaters as this one, however. As Darling points outand many other faculty members concede"the U of U campus is not one that supports cheating. In my experience, other campuses have more cheating." Overall, faculty members believe that U students are multi-focused. "Our students are adults," says Slava Lubomudrov, associate dean of undergraduate studies and director of the LEAP program, the University's cohort-based, yearlong seminar for undergraduates. "We have an unusually large number of students who are supporting themselves, who are married, who are supporting a family," he adds. As a result, most faculty members believe U students are more mature. "They are here to get an education, not just good grades," observes Henderson.
As for the students who cheated unintentionally on the exam and on the Chaucer paper, the preventive measures are simple: one needed an attentive professor; and the other needed more information. As Culver points out, "Informed students will avoid cheating; canny professors will prevent it."
"Most importantly," Lubomudrov concludes about the crusade to eliminate cheating, "a university should teach students that it is not only safer to think for yourself, it's more interesting."
Kathryn Austin, a senior majoring in English and Russian, is Continuum editorial intern.
Copyright 1999 by The University of Utah Alumni Association