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Why do students cheat?

And what universities can do about it

April 18, 2016 — 

When Alex sat down with 200 other linear algebra students in class he saw his name projected onto the overhead screen with in­structions to meet with the professor after class.

“My stomach just dropped,” Alex says. “It’s the worst feeling.”

A week earlier he cheated on a quiz, and now he was caught and he knew it. The quiz was worth one per cent of the final grade and students were required to take 10 of them. Alex, not his real name, says he forgot about the quiz and when he arrived to school he asked to copy a friend’s sheet.

The two students got all the same answers wrong, in the same fashion. This caught the professor’s attention.

“The [disciplinary] process began when the professor told us we were out. He said, ‘This is what you get kicked out of university for’,” recalls Alex, now 16 years removed from the ordeal. “He didn’t care the quiz was worth only one per cent, we broke the ethical code and you don’t do that.”

Alex met with a student disciplinary counsellor, a fellow student who would advocate on his behalf. Alex explained the context of his actions—his grandpa had just died and his “first real girlfriend” had broke up with him—and the advocate said she would try to help keep him from getting expelled.

“She told me to be open and honest and tell the tribunal I was under duress from all these other things going on in my life. That it was a weak moment but in general I’m a good student.”

Alex went in front of a committee and read from a two-page statement he wrote. The committee put him on probation and left the incident off his record.

“I came away from all of this somewhat unscathed other than really realizing the magnitude of academic dishonesty. It gave me a new appreciation, which I definitely didn’t have before,” he says. “I didn’t see the negative side of academic dishonesty, that you could get expelled and banished from all universities forever. Maybe it was told to me in my orientation package, but never did the gravity of something as simple as that hit me. It clearly didn’t get to me in that medium, but had the university had someone tell me, face to face, that such minor things can end my academic career, maybe that would have resonated.”

Universities strive—and struggle—to make sure students under­stand what seems obvious: dishonesty is not only wrong, but punishable. In surveys, 66 per cent of post-secondary students report cheating at least once during their schooling, according to the 2010 study Identifying and Profiling Scholastic Cheaters: Their Personality, Cognitive Ability and Motivation.

To help curb these numbers, the University of Manitoba’s Centre for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning equips instructors with tools to both engage students so they are less likely to cheat, and to inform them of the importance of academic integrity.

Academic integrity is, in short, the moral code of universities—one founded on honesty and the commitment to truth: do not plagiarise, do not cheat, and undertake research with rigour.

“There is a misconception,” the Centre website reads, “that academic dishonesty is largely a student re­sponsibility…. Cheating and other dishonest behaviours are serious problems, but when we focus more on the activities and assessments that encourage deep learning, we will find that students will have fewer reasons to cheat and will cheat less often. Moreover, students are less likely to cheat if they are invested in the course material and if they feel that they will be successful.”

To help spread these messages the Centre hired Brenda Stoesz, an aca­demic integrity/copyright specialist, in July of last year. She develops and provides supports for faculty and instructors on academic integrity—resources that promote learning and encourage integrity.

“It’s more of a proactive approach,” Stoesz says. “We focus less on what not to do, and switch that around to be much more positive and engage students more.”

Methods include inviting students to discuss academic integrity in classes or seminars so they can understand why it’s important and how their efforts fit into the wider academic community; defining cheating and plagiarism on the syllabus and explicitly stating the punishments; providing access to course materials on UM Learn or other online forums; ensuring assessments are reasonable since, as the Centre website notes, “students may also rationalize cheating if their understanding is that the instructor’s intention is to fail as many students as possible”; and using various assessment strategies to allow students to showcase what they learned.

“Essentially, there is no reason to cheat if you’re learning what you’re supposed to be learning,” Stoesz says.

Yet, Stoesz and many others admit there will always be cheaters. Finding exploitable opportunities, after all, is part of what makes us human. Writing in Scientific America, microbiologists Arturo Casadevall and Ferric Fang note that cheating evolved as “a way for organisms to gain advantage over others without incurring the cost of effort.”

Cheaters abound in nature.

Bacteria cheat: to survive in harsh environments bacteria co­operate by releasing a molecule that others detect to coordinate behaviour, Asher Mullard writes in Nature. But, “sneakily, some bacteria don’t produce these molecules but can still detect their presence and gain the benefits of cooperation without paying any of the costs.”

Birds cheat: the brown-headed cowbird and cuckoo both dupe other species by laying their eggs in other species’ nests without the host knowing. In the cuckoo’s case, the cuckoo egg hatches first and the chick secretly pushes the other eggs out of the nest when the mother is away. It alone remains and is reared by an unknowing mother.

We cheat. “Manipulation and deceit are part and parcel of being a social species, and indeed, the highest payoff of all comes from a strategy of ‘cheat if you can get away with it’,” says James Hare, associate head and professor of biological sciences at the U of M. “Fortunately, at least to a moralist, [natural] selection has favoured the evolution of mecha­nisms that allow the detection of defectors in most social species.”
Universities are primed to catch cheaters—last year the U of M reported 352 incidences of academic dishonesty. Cheating in university carries a high risk of getting caught and the penalty is potentially disastrous: course failure and suspension is the most common punishment for cheating at the U of M, and expulsion is always a possibility. But the reward may be nothing more than a few more marks. So why are there so many cheaters?

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach often speaks about parenting issues to media and in the CBC documentary Faking the Grade he argued, “kids cheat when they believe only success will get them love. And kids are honest when they believe morality will get them love.”

This may be a welcome message at a parenting workshop but does it apply entirely to the 66 per cent of students who report cheating at least once during university? (Although, to be fair, in the study Unable to resist temptation: How self-control depletion promotes unethical behaviour, Harvard Business School professor Francesca Gino and her colleagues report that people with high moral identities were indeed less likely to be tempted to deviant behaviour.)

One of the better predictors of cheating behavior is personality, U of M psychology professor Katherine Starzyk says.

“There’s a set of personality characteristics that all predict cheating, but the best predictor is psychopathy. One defining feature of psychopathy is that these people are less sensitive to punishment.… You’ll find people on every campus who fit that prototype. And unless they are very intelligent and otherwise doing well, they will be motivated to cheat because they have this tendency to think that they are owed things irrespective of what they put in.”

Did Alex cheat again after being disciplined?

“I probably did for sure,” he admits.

Obviously not every cheater is a psychopath, Starzyk says. Another motivator, she said, is poor academic achievement, combined with opportunity brought on by lax exam policies—virtually any student in the right circumstances could become a cheater.

This is why groups like the Centre try so hard—much of cheating can be avoided.

“I think about cheating a lot when I teach and how to prevent it,” Starzyk says.

She shares her ideas with other U of M professors in online discus­sion threads. One tactic Starzyk likes is having lots of proctors in the room. Other professors distribute two versions of the exam, so it’s the same questions but in different orders.

“The last thing I do is have people sign out of the exam and show their ID,” Starzyk says. “I have had outsiders come and write exams or students from another section write it, I guess so they can get a sense of what will be on their exam.”

Why does Starzyk try so hard to catch or deter cheaters?

“Because it’s unfair that people who worked hard in the course and got a good grade because of that have the same outcome as people who cheated. It’s a fairness thing for me,” Starzyk says.

The university is also, of course, an educational institute. Academic dishonesty rots the university’s core value and purpose. “Academic integrity is the cornerstone of what we do here at the university,” Brandy Usick, director of student advocacy at the U of M, told Doc Zone. “Often times, though, for students, it’s hard for them to make the con­nection between deciding to take a short cut and how that undercuts the reputa­tion of the university.”

Alex didn’t make this connection.

He admits he was apathetic towards the course, which he needed to get into the Faculty of Management (now the Asper School of Business). So, why didn’t he just forgo the assignment he wasn’t prepared for?

“The idea of not turning in a quiz didn’t cross my mind at all,” he says.

As one of dozens of students in the class, the thought of talking to the professor didn’t occur to him either. “Are they going to [care] about the personal lives of each of the 250 students?”

This attitude doesn’t surprise Stoesz.

“I get how you can feel like one little person in this big crowd and that a mistake isn’t going to have an impact. And that comes from how classrooms are structured. We feel anonymous.”

Faculty can combat this, Stoesz says, by doing small, easy things. She informs instructors that simply sending out a weekly email recapping the week, or pointing things out in the syllabus, can build relationships and engage students—and engaged students are more likely to come for help before the temptation to cheat overwhelms them.

Alex did get into the Faculty of Management and has since used his degree to lead development projects both in Manitoba and across the globe.

What does he think about the Centre’s academic integrity strategy?

“This sounds like a great program,” Alex says. “Maybe it would have helped me.”

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