Higher Edge: The cheating system—Who’s to Blame?

April 8, 2015

Stanford University is investigating a recent surge in allegations of academic dishonesty reported at the end of its winter quarter. These allegations, including an incident which involved up to 20 percent of students in one of Stanford’s larger introductory courses, are just the most recent of a burgeoning number of incidents of cheating at universities across the country. With issues of academic integrity on the rise, university administrators and the public are left asking is why students cheat.

One of the biggest misconceptions about cheating is that people cheat because they are bad, dishonest people. The problem, however, is that when you blame individuals, you completely overlook the actual root of the problem. The truth is that almost anyone will cheat if put into the right (or wrong) circumstances and as it currently stands, America’s elite universities provide circumstances that not only make cheating easy, but also encourage it.

On one hand, college admissions are more competitive than ever before, setting more demanding expectations for the students who do get into elite colleges to perform at a higher level. Students, however, aren’t conditioned to be able to cope with the high amounts of stress incurred while trying to meet these standards. According to an article published in the Boston Globe last month, the stress of the workload at MIT among other factors contributed to the suicides of four students in the past year.

When professors inundate students with more work than they can handle, they don’t give students the option to focus on learning rather than outcomes. There is no time for students to really engage with material when the workload is too intense to keep up with and yet the assessments of “learning” are constant. Under these conditions, every hundred page reading, meaningless problem set, and arbitrarily difficult exam reinforces the implicit notion that achievement is valued over education.

Since these kinds of norms are constantly being reinforced in classrooms, it’s no wonder that cheating has become as rampant as it is at elite universities. Cheating on an assignment is the ultimate way to perform without actually learning material. So long as students are placed in an environment where they believe learning isn’t valued by their professors, there is one less barrier of resistance placed against academic dishonesty.

Another issue is that there are very few barriers actually preventing students from cheating. Although professors run some papers through Turnitin and include a brief mention of the honor code on the syllabus, most efforts to stop cheating end there. There is a certain trust that students know what it means to have academic integrity and will always try to uphold that standard. After all, at the undergraduate level professors should not have to coddle students, hold their hands through assignments, and make sure that they aren’t violating that trust.

With that being said, however, professors and institutions have the responsibility to create environments that allow for academic honesty to survive and be rewarded. For instance, although it seems as though students should all know their university’s honor code, few students have ever actually taken the time to read it. David McCabe conducted a survey of students around the country, which revealed that most college students do not think of corroboration as an offense and half of students view plagiarism similarly, even when both actions are clearly forbidden in their university’s honor code. If faculty were to explicitly outline the expectations of academic integrity at the beginning of each semester, they could effectively discourage dishonesty among students.

Furthermore, if professors want to discourage students from working together on assignments, the responsibility falls on professors to make sure that there are enough resources available to students for them to work through assignments on their own. If lectures aren’t taught clearly and the professor isn’t available outside of class, then students cannot be expected to complete difficult work without turning to other students or the internet for help.

According to a recent survey published by Inside Higher Ed, the most likely groups of students on campuses to cheat are sororities, fraternities, and athletes. In addition to being able to dedicate less time to school work, these tight-knit group environments are conducive to cheating. They take advantage of the professors who are too lazy to change assignments and exams from year to year by proliferating material to hand down to younger members of the group.

The worst part about cheating is that it runs in a self-perpetuating cycle. The more unbearable the workload is and the more students think their classmates are cheating, the more likely they are to cheat as well just to keep up with everyone else.

If people really want to understand why there have been so many recent cheating scandals, then they need to stop pointing fingers at the “lazy” and “dishonest” students who have been caught. Instead, people need to start looking at the institutions which teach their students to value grades over learning and ask what can be done to turn the focus around. Until there is a change in perspective, our country will continued to be baffled by the “inexplicable” surge in academic dishonesty.

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