On the Campus

Emerging Adulthood and Adolescent Life

Academic Dishonesty: Prevalent but Preventable

Beyond deterrence, schools should help students internalize values of integrity

Universities around the country are taking various measures to promote academic integrity, amidst studies reporting high rates of self-reported cheating among high school and college students (academic integrity in faculty members' research is also an important issue, as evidenced by scandals over falsified data, but that topic is beyond the scope of the present piece). Several estimates of the student cheating rate are available:

  • 76% of students reported cheating in one high school study.
  • USA Today reports on what may be the largest study of academic cheating: "The Josephson Institute, a Los Angeles-based ethics institute, surveyed 29,760 students at 100 randomly selected high schools nationwide, both public and private. All students in the selected schools were given the survey in class; their anonymity was assured... Sixty-four percent of students cheated on a test in the past year and 38% did so two or more times... Thirty-six percent said they used the Internet to plagiarize an assignment..."
  • According to the Washington Post, "The Center for Academic Integrity at Clemson University has reported that more than 75 percent of college students cheat in some way on school work or exams at least once during their undergraduate careers."
  • A study at one university, which assessed 20 possible forms of cheating during college, found that, "Only 17% of the students indicated that they had never engaged in any of the forms of cheating measured," thus yielding a cheating prevalence of 83%.
  • Finally, this article claims that the rate of cheating among college students is somewhere from 75 to 98 percent.

I wish I could say that I was one of those rare students who never cheated in their lives, but I can't. I can remember two instances somewhere between 7th-10th grade in which I tried to get other students' answers during exams. To my knowledge, I never cheated again. I am fortunate that I encountered a newspaper article while in high school that helped me internalize a reason for not cheating. The article made the point that one would not want to be treated by a doctor who had cheated his or her way through medical school and was incompetent. For whatever reason, that article really stuck with me.

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Teachers and professors' efforts to combat student cheating are heavily based on deterrence. Deterrence, through proctoring and other means, should be supplemented, in my view, with attempts to convey reasons to students why they should not cheat. My concern with a heavy deterrence focus is that some students may feel that if they can avoid getting caught, then there is nothing more to think about.

One anti-cheating device that appears to be gaining in popularity is the software package turnitin.com. Faculty can use this program by uploading student papers, which are then checked against an enormous database of existing papers and articles for possible plagiarism. The website for "Turn it in" claims that the company also offers feedback and tutorials for students on citation and proper writing practices. I've never used such a program as a professor, so I can't comment on the value of its feedback. The fact that there is some degree of educative function is encouraging from my perspective, however.

More intriguing to me is a policy at UC San Diego, in which students found to have violated the school's academic code may be sent to workshops to alleviate underlying academic deficiencies (presumably in addition to any penalties that are meted out to the student).

Texas Tech University, where I'm on the faculty, has placed a great deal of emphasis on academic integrity in recent years, including maintaining an Ethics Center. In the Fall 2008 semester, the university brought in a couple of prominent experts on the subject to speak on campus. One was David Callahan, author of The Cheating Culture, who presented theories of why people cheat. Another was Melora Sundt, who in her role as a University of Southern California administrator, met with students there involved in academic-misconduct cases. In her presentation, Sundt shared anecdotes about students (and their parents) she encountered, some of whom did, but others who didn't, seem to take responsibility for their actions and grow and learn from their experiences.

I served on one of the task forces around the time of Texas Tech's big ethics/academic integrity push in 2008. One of our aims was to frame ethical conduct as being part of cooperative working relationships -- between students and their instructors, and between fellow students -- based on trust and respect. A 2011 progress report on Texas Tech's ethics initiative is available here.

What some would consider a fairly radical approach to student academic conduct is an honor-code system (the most famous of which is probably the University of Virginia's), in which students pledge themselves to academic honesty and there is little or no proctoring of students' work. In researching honor codes, I came across Vermont's Middlebury College, which has maintained a general policy of unproctored exams, but which periodically reviews its honor code and reports on the findings. The report reviews some of the arguments, pro and con, about proctoring.

Given the statistics cited at the top of this article, complete eradication of academic cheating seems fanciful. However, greater dialogue on campuses (including workshops) may reduce the level of cheating somewhat, and make honest performance not just a matter of avoiding deterrence but also of internalized values.

Alan Reifman, Ph.D., is a Professor of Human Development and Family Studies at Texas Tech University.

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