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Ethical Relativism and College Cheaters

Cheating in college has reached epidemic proportions. Even though the rate of students who admit to cheating at least once in their college careers has held steadily around 75 percent since the first major survey on cheating in higher education in 1963, the ways in which cheating occurs have ballooned.

Students give many reasons for cheating, all of which blame others/other factors for their ethical lapses:

  • Increasingly competitive atmosphere

  • Culture that is accepting of cheating

  • Everyone does it

  • Institutional indifference

  • Lack of understanding what cheating is

  • Pursuit of self-interest.

A survey of college students reported in Campus Technology on February 23, 2017 indicates there are a variety of ways students use to cheat including:

  • Plagiarism from internet sources (79%)

  • Copied text from somebody else's assignment (76%)

  • Used mobile devices to cheat during class (72%)

  • Purchased custom term papers or essays online (42%)

  • Had a "service" take their online classes for them (28%).

Interestingly, only 12 percent of students said they'd never cheat because of ethics. Does that mean 88 percent would cheat even if they see themselves as ethical? And, if so, how can we explain the relativistic approach to ethics that says it’s OK to cheat when virtually everyone knows (or should know) cheating violates academic integrity, negatively effects honest students, skews the grade distribution, and is disrespectful of the professor and the institution.

Cheaters have all sorts of rationalizations for their actions. Arizona State University conducted a survey of 2,000 students and found the following circumstances were most likely to lead to cheating.

  • A scholarship was at risk (38%)

  • Facing disqualification from the university or program of study (35%)

  • Ran out of time on an assignment (30%)

  • To maintain a grade point average (28%)

Students were less inclined to cheat just because other students are doing it (15%) or the professor ignores it (20%).

The results of the study indicate that Arizona State faculty were not entirely blameless for the existence of cheating. The institution was concerned that 16 percent of instructors didn't discuss academic integrity even once in class. Another concern is the difficulty of reporting violations and determining penalties and many faculty's reluctance to formally document a breach because of the time investment it requires. These issues were being addressed by the administration.

There have been a number of well-publicized cheating scandals at colleges and universities these past few years including in 2012 at Harvard University where more than half of the 125 students in a government class were forced to withdraw from the university after a cheating scandal in a take-home exam.

In previous years, students thought of Government 1310 as an easy class with optional attendance and frequent collaboration. But students who took it in spring 2012 said that it had suddenly become quite difficult, with tests that were hard to comprehend, so they sought help from the graduate teaching assistants who ran the class discussion groups, graded assignments, and advised them on interpreting exam questions. No ethics violation here, just good thinking.

But, it didn’t stop there. Students collaborated with other students by sharing notes or sitting in on sessions with the same teaching assistants. The university called them out for violating its academic policy against discussing the exam with others. The students blamed the professor for a lack of clear directions while others lauded students for their collaboration.

Harvard adopted an honor code on May 6, 2014. In May 2017, Harvard announced that more than 60 students enrolled in Computer Science 50 (CS50): Introduction to Computer Science I appeared before the College's Honor Council investigating cases of academic dishonesty. While the facts have been kept confidential so far, a statement on the course website establishes standards for behavior:

"The course recognizes that interactions with classmates and others can facilitate mastery of the course's material, [but] there remains a line between enlisting the help of another and submitting the work of another."

The site provides some guidance: Acts of collaboration that are reasonable include sharing a few lines of code. Acts not reasonable include soliciting solutions to homework problems online. CS50 introduced a "regret clause," allowing students who commit "unreasonable" acts to face only course-specific penalties [not institutional] if they report the violation within 72 hours.

I’ve never heard of a regret clause and I’m not a fan of one student turning in another to get off with more lenient punishment, which is part of the process at Harvard. Still, it may just be a sign of the times where the monitoring of cheating has become more difficult because of the myriad of ways cheaters find to cheat.

Cheaters are likely to learn less from a course than if they studied on their own since they rely on others for assignments, answers to exam, plagiarized papers, and so on. Just imagine if they take a job, are expected to do work they learned in class, and can’t do it. It’s harder to cheat in the workplace and co-workers are not likely to help because of the competitive environment and, hopefully, ethical standards set by top management and an ethical tone at the top.

In the end, cheaters cheat themselves. Now all we have to do as ethics professors is convince them of their errant ways.

Guest blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on December 6, 2017. Dr. Mintz is a Professor Emeritus from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Visit his website to find out more about his services and sign up for his newsletter.

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