Posted by: Gregory Linton | 07/15/2009

The Prevalence of Academic Dishonesty

Recently some of my colleagues carried on a conversation by email concerning plagiarism and how to prevent it. I was shocked that one of my colleagues said that in the last few years he has had to confront up to 30 students for cheating on assignments. That made me wonder whether I am too naive and trusting of students, especially since we teach in a Christian setting.

Student cheating is an aspect of college teaching that we professors don’t like to deal with. We view the professor-student relationship as a contract or covenant based on mutual respect and trust. We want to believe the best about our students rather than being suspicious and mistrustful of them. Unfortunately, a minority of students (and we must always remember that it is a minority) view the relationship in utilitarian rather than interpersonal terms. For them, a class is just a hoop to jump through, a step on the path to get to where they want to go. They view cheating as beating the game rather than offending and violating the trust of a caring professor.

Studies of cheating may suggest that it is more common than we might think. Bill Bowers (1964) published the first large-scale study of cheating in institutions of higher learning. His study of 5,000 students in 99 US colleges and universities found that three-fourths had engaged in one or more incidents of academic dishonesty. Thirty years later, Donald McCabe and Linda Trevino (1997) replicated the study in 9 of the schools and found a significant increase in test or exam cheating, from 39% to 64%. The percentage of students who self-reported on all types of serious cheating increased from 75% to 82%.

A more recent study by McCabe (2005) surveyed 71,071 students on 83 different campuses in the US and Canada. He found that 21% of students in the previous year had copied from another student on an exam, helped someone else cheat on a test, or using unauthorized crib notes. He also found that cheating on written assignments was even more common. Various types of plagiarism and unauthorized collaboration was reported by one-quarter to one-half of undergraduates.

I have earned four degrees, and it took me a total of 17 years to do so. I can honestly say that not once did I ever cheat on any of the hundreds (?) of assignments that I completed during that time. So it is difficult for me to understand what would motivate a student to cheat. If I use my imagination, however, I can speculate about some of the rationalizations they might use to ease their conscience (see McCabe [1992] for research on student excuses for cheating):

  • The professor is too demanding and unreasonable; therefore, it is okay for me to make things easier on myself.
  • I have too many competing competing demands on myself, so I have to cut some corners in order to survive.
  • Everyone else is doing it, and I cannot let someone else gain advantage over me by having stricter standards of honesty.
  • No one would ever know, so what does it matter?

McCabe and Trevino (1993) found that the variable that had the most significant relation to cheating was peer behavior. If students feel that other students are getting away with cheating, they feel validated in cheating in order to keep up.

Whatever motivates these students, the fact that some do it forces professors to anticipate possible ways of cheating in their class in order to prevent them. They have to adopt a criminal mind and imagine how a morally disturbed person might find loopholes and gaps in their assignments and policies in order to gain an advantage by dishonest means. This process can become a never-ending game of the professor and the student trying to outfox each other. The possible result for the professor is that he or she becomes suspicious, cynical, and resentful of students, many of whom would never consider cheating.

On the other hand, professors cannot be so lax that they provide the opportunity for widespread cheating in their class. McCabe (2005) found that 41% of professors admitted ignoring incidents of suspected academic dishonesty in their courses. This laissez-faire attitude is not fair to students who are restricted by their internalized ethical standards from cheating but are disadvantaged because an irresponsible instructor lets unethical students get away with cheating: “Students who claim they normally do not cheat feel they have no choice when a faculty member makes little or no effort to prevent or respond to cheating” (McCabe, 2005). Such an approach would undermine the integrity of the entire educational system. McCabe, Trevino, and Butterfield (2001)  warn that faculty who are perceived by students as lax on enforcing academic honesty become targets for cheating.

So how do we professors discourage cheating without surrendering to paranoia and fascism? In the next post I will explain the key to deterring academic hishonesty.

Bowers, W. J. (1964). Student dishonesty and its control in college. New York: Bureau of Applied Social Research, Columbia University.

McCabe, D. L. (1992). The influence of situational ethics on cheating among college students. Sociological Inquiry, 62, 365-374.

McCabe, D. L. (2005). Cheating among college and university students: A North American perspective. International Journal for Educational Integrity, 1(1).

McCabe, D. L., & Trevino, L. K. (1993). Academic dishonesty: Honor codes and other contextual influences. Journal of Higher Education, 64, 522-538.

McCabe, D. L., & Trevino, L. K. (1997) Individual and contextual influences on academic dishonesty: A multicampus investigation. Research in Higher Education, 38, 379-96.

McCabe, D. L., Trevino, L. K., & Butterfield, K. D. (2001). Cheating in academic institutions: A decade of research. Ethics & Behavior, 11(3), 219-232.

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