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Who is Responsible for Cheating in College?

Cheating Scandals at Notre Dame and Harvard Raise Questions about Student Responsibilities and Professors’ Ethical Obligations

Academic cheating and fraud is prevalent today. The scandal at Notre Dame that was revealed on August 15, and a scandal at Harvard in 2012, stand out as examples of how even the best universities and those with honors codes are not shielded from dishonest behavior on the part of their students. I discuss academic dishonesty in my ethics class so it is an opportune time to examine such issues as we begin another academic year.

Academic dishonesty includes both academic fraud, plagiarism, and cheating. Academic fraud is representing someone else's work as your own. It can take many forms, including sharing another's work, purchasing a term paper or test questions in advance, and paying another to do the work for you. Cheating, on the other hand, includes copying an assignment, lifting answers from a classmate’s exam, bringing an identical exam or answers to a multiple choice exam to the test, having notes or other resources (calculators, handhelds, note cards) not allowed by the teacher, including any comments or key words written on hat bills, under wristwatches, or entered into smart phone or calculator memories.

On August 15, Notre Dame University removed four likely starters from its football team in the midst of an investigation into academic fraud. The four football players were suspended until the school completes an internal probe into allegations that the athletes had submitted papers and homework that had been written for them by others. If so, this would be a violation of the University’s honor code.

The Notre Dame scandal is surprising to me because professors know that students can pay others to write papers for them and buy papers written by others on line. In today’s technological age, universities can and should use an online plagiarism software to ensure that students aren’t copying others’ work. This is the best way to control for academic fraud. To do anything less is indifference at best and negligence at worst.

The Notre Dame cheating scandal reminded me of a shocking one at Harvard in 2012.

The Harvard cheating scandal included 125 undergraduates who cheated on an exam in May 2012. It occurred in a class considered to be easy with optional attendance and frequent collaboration. The exams became more difficult in spring 2012 with tests hard to comprehend. Half of the students in the class were suspended because they supplied identical answers (right down to typographical errors in some cases), indicating they had written them together or plagiarized them.

Some students claimed that the similarities in their answers were due to sharing notes or sitting in on sessions held by the same teaching assistant who ran discussion groups, graded assignments, and advised them on interpreting exam questions. Nevertheless, the first page of the exam instructed that while it was open book, open note, and open Internet, in all other regards the exam falls under similar guidelines that apply to in-class exams -- students should not discuss the exam with others including resident tutors and writing centers.

The interesting aspect of the Harvard cheating scandal is that some students blamed their action of cheating on the test’s design, rather than students’ conduct, and on teaching assistants who opened the door to collaboration outside of class by their own behavior in helping students to understand the questions better.

Students need to learn to take responsibility for their actions and failings and not blame the system. It’s not surprising to me that students blamed others for their dishonesty. All too often I notice students look for others to blame even when they do not cheat but, instead, they perform poorly on exams.

Some of my students blame me because my test questions are not identical to the homework assignments in the course. However, from my perspective an important goal of learning is to challenge students to apply their knowledge to new material in order to develop the analytical reasoning and critical decision making skills that are essential to success in today’s global business environment.

Academic dishonesty is widespread. Studies indicate that about 75 percent of college students admit to cheating, suggesting that probably even more than three quarters of college students have done something against the rules to improve their grades. With an increasingly competitive atmosphere and a culture that is more accepting of cheating than it was in past generations, cheating has become a somewhat expected phenomenon at universities across the country.

Perhaps most central is the question of how the university and its faculty motivate students to learn. Educational researchers typically distinguish between two broad types of learning motivation: extrinsic and intrinsic. Students who are driven by extrinsic motivation seek external rewards for their learning: They want praise from the teacher, they want good grades and they want recognition. Students driven by intrinsic motivation, by contrast, seek to understand the course material for its own sake; they find it fascinating, or useful, or meaningful, and relevant to their lives.

Students driven purely by extrinsic motivation, it turns out, are more likely to cheat. They care about the reward for learning—the grade, the honors—rather than the learning itself, and are willing to cut corners to get that reward. If they don’t see how the course material is relevant to their lives—or if the instructor cannot help them see it—they never develop the intrinsic motivation that leads to deep learning and makes cheating less likely.

While professors and teaching assistants are not directly at fault for students’ moral failings, they do bear some of the blame because they make it all too easy for students to cheat by using the same exam term after term. Professors know that today exams can be made readily available to other students by taking snap shots on their smart phone and by fraternities that store vast files of past exams. It is up to professors to change their exams each term to ensure that students cannot receive a good grade in a class simply because they studied from past exams that are identical to the current one. In the end, everyone loses out including the professors who cheat those students who prepared honestly. Students lose out on an opportunity to demonstrate how they can apply their knowledge to new and unstructured situations, which is essential for success in today’s interconnected world.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on August 19, 2014. Dr. Mintz is a Professor in the Orfalea College of Business at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. He also blogs at:

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