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Faculty must establish clear standards to stop cheating, says expert

by Sherry Fisher - October 11, 2005

One of the first steps to combat plagiarism and other cheating is to create a campus culture of academic integrity, Donald McCabe told students and faculty during a talk at Konover Auditorium on Sept. 28.

McCabe, a professor of management and global business at Rutgers University, has done extensive research on college cheating – surveying more than 100,000 students at more than 140 colleges and universities in the U.S and Canada during a 15-year period.

“What is the campus norm with regard to cheating?” asked McCabe. “What do students perceive when they arrive on campus? What are other students doing? How do faculty react to it?”

McCabe said academic honor codes reduce cheating but they’re not foolproof, particularly if faculty do not support the policies. If the norm on campus is such that students think they’re not likely to get caught and reported, they will continue to cheat, he said.

McCabe focused his talk on surveys he conducted that included 85,000 students and 12,000 faculty.

Business students self-report the highest levels of cheating, with engineering students coming in a close second.

“In the case of business and engineering, there is often one right answer,” McCabe said. “If you’re taking a finance, accounting, or engineering exam, and you’re working out problems, if you glance over to see someone else’s answer, you might be able to work to that answer. For one quick glance, you’ve gotten a lot of valuable information. If you’re taking a history, sociology, or English test and see a fragment of a sentence, there isn’t as much reward for the risk you’ve taken.”

Men admit more cheating than women, according to McCabe, but the difference is narrowing.

“Both students with low GPAs and those with high GPAs cheat a little more than the average,” he added.

McCabe said students often   plagiarize using Internet sources: “It’s more convenient to access a lot of information, and you can do it in the privacy of your dorm room.”

He said students justify cheating because it’s “success at any cost – that’s what society teaches you.” They blame faculty for not teaching well, being inaccessible when help is needed, and giving poor assignments. Students who would prefer not to cheat sometimes feel compelled to do so because they feel they’re being disadvantaged by others who have been “allowed” to cheat, he noted.

When students were asked for possible solutions to the problem of cheating, they said professors should change exams more often, policies should be more strict, and they should be taught more about what is and what isn’t considered cheating. A universally held opinion, McCabe said, is “don’t ask students to rat on other students. Unless someone is stealing my work, I am not going to report them.”

A simple way for faculty to reduce cheating in class is to discuss views on integrity and provide information in syllabi about cheating.

“There’s no question from the comments we heard from students that such actions have an impact,” he said. But less than two-thirds of faculty report that they provide such information.

“Forty percent of faculty acknowledge that they ignore cheating on occasion, primarily because they lack adequate proof,” McCabe said, noting that faculty should, “at least approach the student and let him or her know why you were suspicious.”

Fifty-seven percent of faculty have never reported an incident of cheating to anyone. About 85 percent to 90 percent acknowledge that they’ve observed cheating in their courses, he said.

McCabe suggested strategies to combat cheating, such as using a wider variety of assessment methods, oral presentations, checking backpacks, and not permitting cell phones in class.

He also recommended developing a committee or judicial unit comprising both students and instructors to handle cases of plagiarism. “I strongly believe that students need to be part of the solution,” he said. “It’s critical that they have a primary role.”

McCabe is a founding member of the Center for Academic Integrity based at Duke University, a consortium of more than 350 colleges and universities joined in an effort to promote academic integrity among college and university students.

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