Students find cheating issues hard to sort out

This simulated report shows a plagiarized paper., which measures how much of a paper is not original, can act as a deterrent (see story, p. 3), but it’s not perfect. For example, in #4 at left, a quote from Othello is identified as originating from a student paper.
This simulated report shows a plagiarized paper., which measures how much of a paper is not original, can act as a deterrent (see story, p. 3), but it’s not perfect. For example, in #4 at left, a quote from Othello is identified as originating from a student paper.

By Allie Ward

A senior accounting major often helped a struggling classmate in her astronomy class with answers to quizzes. She didn’t think she was out of line, even though the student handbook specifically prohibits “unauthorized assistance during examinations.”

“A few questions here and there did not seem wrong since they were only quizzes and not major exams,” she said.

In the minds of Rider students, definitions of cheating are far from clear-cut. They also feel that faculty has conflicting standards with regard to what constitutes academic dishonesty.

Indeed, this confusion may be growing on a national level, according to an expert on cheating in college. Throw into the mix the way technology has opened the cyber door to more and more forms of cheating, and students are increasingly hazy about what’s right.

This confusion may help explain discrepancies between an administration-administered poll and a recent Rider News poll. In friendly conversations, almost all students will reveal that they themselves have either done something that could count as cheating or know someone who has.

Administrators emphasize that cheating only hurts students.

“Cheating is not just about academics, although that’s important,” said Dean of Students Anthony Campbell. “When people cheat on tests and they get degrees, if they leave and don’t perform well in their job because they didn’t get the right training, it hurts all Rider students; it really is a crime against the community. How comfortable would you feel if you were driving over the Verrazano Bridge and you found out that the engineers got their degrees by cheating?”

At Rider

Rider’s student handbook, The Source, outlines the university’s policy on academic dishonesty. The process begins, and often ends, with the professor, who can fail the student for the course or the assignment, require the student to redo the assignment, etc. A letter can be filed in both the student’s academic dean’s office and in the Dean of Students’ office so professors can look to see if a student has any prior instances of cheating, and penalize the student accordingly.

If the student appeals a professor’s decision, the case goes to the Academic Integrity Committee for review.

“We have very few repeat offenders,” Campbell said. “Most of the time, the professors will handle it according to the procedures.”

Because so few cases go to formal hearings, there are almost no statistics available on academic dishonesty at Rider.

In 2008, Rider polled 885 undergraduates about their views on cheating and their own behavior and experience with it. The questions, modeled on Rutgers professor Dr. Don McCabe’s 2007-2008 study, which polled 6,042 undergraduates from 11 schools nationwide, drew results that almost exactly matched McCabe’s national numbers.

“I don’t think Rider’s any worse than anywhere else,” said Keith Kemo, director of the Office of Community Standards, who spearheaded the 2008 Rider survey as part of his doctoral dissertation at Rowan University. “If anything, we might be a little better. I think my research will reaffirm what all the literature says and what Dr. McCabe has been writing about for years: Students cheat when they know they can get away with it.”

According to the official Rider survey, the most common form of cheating is working with others when asked for individual work, with 19 percent of students admitting they had done this more than once. McCabe reported the same result, with 20 percent of students. Only 13 percent of Rider students polled think that cheating is a serious problem on campus, a figure that is identical to McCabe’s results.

However, a nonscientific Rider News poll of 129 undergraduates on the Lawrenceville campus offers a different perspective. The poll, not university-sanctioned, was handed out on paper to students by students.

When asked if they ever cheated at Rider, 45 percent of students said yes. The most common form of cheating, admitted by 43 percent, was getting test answers from friends, followed by copying and pasting from the Internet, texting answers and making up sources for papers.

The most unexpected result of the News’ poll was how students define cheating. Of the 71 students who said they never cheated, 42 percent of them went on to answer yes to either copying and pasting from the Internet, getting test answers from a friend, texting or receiving a text message with answers or making up sources for papers. Collectively, over two-thirds of Rider students polled either said yes to cheating or marked yes for one of the forms of cheating.

Though these numbers may seem higher than national ones, it is impossible to tell because both McCabe’s and Rider’s official polls did not ask the umbrella question, “Have you ever cheated?” Instead, the responses are divided into specific forms of cheating, and instances (once, more than once, etc.), making it impossible to truly compare the three.

The big picture

McCabe, a professor of management and global business, has studied college cheating for 17 years, surveying more than 150,000 students.

“If I look at the numbers I’ve had over the years, [cheating] seems to be declining,” McCabe said.

In his research, however, McCabe observed something evident in the Rider News’ poll as well — students don’t know what constitutes cheating.

“The numbers say it’s decreasing, but I think the numbers are misleading and that cheating might be increasing,” he said. “I went to school in the 1960s and my definition is very different from what students think constitutes cheating now. The interesting thing is students know that something’s wrong to do, but yet they find it very easy to justify participating in it — the teacher is tough, the work is too hard, they want to get into a good graduate school, etc.”

McCabe, who previously used paper-based surveys, switched to Web-based polling in 2001 and noticed a tremendous decline in the number of students admitting to cheating.

“Students worry about me picking up an IP address, which I don’t do,” he said. “They were much more reluctant about answering [Web] surveys in general.”

Whom do students trust?

Are student-based surveys more accurate, then, over university-sanctioned ones? One could argue that, said Kemo, whose Rider poll was Web-delivered.

“If [a student] got an e-mail from the university and was asked if they trust that kind of a survey, they’d probably say no,” Kemo said. “It could be that maybe they are being a little less honest in [my survey] and a little more honest in [The Rider News’].”

Yet both McCabe and Kemo agree that sometimes students are more likely to skew their answers based on what they think they should say.

“If you look at the literature on how to do this kind of research and things to watch out for, it’s that students tend to give you the answers they think you want,” Kemo said.

Campbell believes the 2008 Rider survey best represents behavior at the university.

“It’s anonymous, so you’ve got to trust it because it’s self-reported behavior,” he said. “The fact that the numbers are comparable to the average, you’ve got to trust the results because they are so close to everything that’s happening nationally. If [students] did answer inappropriately, they did it at the same rate as everybody else.”

Clear boundaries

Because the process for penalizing students for cheating begins with professors, it is up to them to establish policies for their own classes. [See Editorial, p. 8]

Dr. Timothy McGee, associate director for faculty development and an adjunct in the Department of Communication and Journalism, tailors the assignments in his classes to deter students from even having the opportunity to be academically dishonest.

“When students are given manageable tasks that give them the opportunity to work on things they know about and care about, they are less inclined to take illegal short cuts,” he said. “When I assign a paper or a large project, I request drafts and/or small portions of the larger project first.”

Dr. Pamela Brown, professor of journalism and director of the Law and Justice Program, believes a good policy laid out in the class syllabus is a sufficient deterrent.

“I would not say that I have had a lot of academic dishonesty incidents over my 30 years at Rider, but I have certainly had some,” Brown said. “I have a stated policy on my syllabus — any act of academic dishonesty results in an F in the course. I believe that cheating is always the lazy response to a problem.”

However, with up to six different professors a semester, all with different definitions of cheating and different policies, students sometimes find themselves in gray areas. For example, some teachers discourage students from working together, while others encourage collaboration as a useful real-world problem-solving tool.

“Make sure it is clear and the definitions are clear,” Campbell said, as advice to faculty. “How you want them to operate, what your instructions are, etc.”

The role of technology

The latest technological gadgets and Internet opportunities have opened the gateway for students looking to get that A. Cheating isn’t just limited to copying off a neighbor anymore. Now, with a few clicks, students can buy term papers from paper mills or copy and paste information from Web sites.

They can text answers to one another or e-mail test questions ahead of time.

Though not the sole source of today’s academic dishonesty, technology may have some effect on the number of students cheating, Kemo said.

“It can play a part when the faculty member doesn’t explain clearly what constitutes cheating,” he said.
Campbell, however, doesn’t see technology as a threat to academic integrity.

“Technology has been around in various forms, so using different technologies for cheating has always been around,” Campbell said. “What we need to keep reinforcing as a cultural thing is [that] getting sources from the Internet is just like getting sources from books. They’re not your original ideas and, yes, you have to cite them. We have some technological ways of combating this now, with”

Many professors whose classes require writing utilize, a Web site targeted at eliminating Internet plagiarism (see Story, p. 3).

What do we think?

The campus opinion of cheating is mixed, with some students admitting to violating academic integrity policies.

Two junior communication majors, speaking on the condition of anonymity, admitted to working on computerized tests together.

“We discussed our answers together before we submitted [the online test] to the professor,” said one of the students. “It wasn’t like we were devious about it; it’s a take-home test. How can [the professor] expect us not to work together?”

A senior accounting and finance major even confessed to hiding definitions and formulas in her calculator during exams.

But to some students, cheating is cheating. It’s creating an unfair advantage, no matter the circumstances.

A senior elementary education and special education dual major is a student teacher in Hamilton. Because of her teaching aspirations, she thinks it would be hypocritical to cheat on her schoolwork.

“I don’t like the thought of cheating because I am going to be a teacher,” she said. “I have to teach my kids at an early age that cheating is wrong. If I cheat myself, how am I supposed to preach unto others?”

Based on all the poll results, Campbell isn’t worried about cheating at Rider.

“I don’t think cheating is a big problem, but I do think that whatever we can do to increase the level of academic integrity is better for our students and for our university.”

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