Teaching Ethics to College Students
Why Do Colleges and Universities Report False Data About Their Programs?

What Can Be Done About Student Cheating?

Lessons From the Front Lines

Perhaps you read last week that David Berkovitz, a Professor at Chapman University in Orange, California, is suing his own students after he discovered that his midterm and final exams had been uploaded to a popular website.

Berkovitz, who teaches business law at Chapman University, filed a lawsuit against an unnamed group of his students — identified only as “Does” — after he discovered in January that the midterm and final exams he had given in the spring of 2021 had been uploaded to a popular website that students use to share lecture notes, sample quizzes, syllabuses and other documents.

According to a NY Times article, in filing the suit, which accuses the students of copyright infringement, Berkovitz hopes to force the website, Course Hero, to identify those who uploaded the exams along with sample answers that were also on the website.

If successful, Berkovitz plans to turn over the names to Chapman’s honor board. It seems that Chapman’s business school requires grading on a curve so that Berkovitz is worried that students who cheated may have unfairly caused their classmates who played by the rules to receive grades lower down on the curve.

There is no doubt that the actions of the students are unethical. They should be taking all their exams honestly based on their own knowledge. Any action to gain a competitive advantage by purchasing exams or facilitating the same should be punished, but that leaves open the question what can be done, if anything, about websites like Course Hero that post exam questions and answers. Probably nothing, unfortunately.

Back in 2010 a cheating scandal was uncovered at the University of Central Florida (UCF). Administrators said one or more students in a senior-level business class purchased a test bank for the textbook "Strategic Management: A Dynamic Perspective Concept and Cases." Then it was shared with some 200 classmates in the strategic management class. The course instructor used that same 300-question test bank — which he thought secure — to create his midterm exam.

The grades on the midterm were unusually high, and UCF soon had a cheating scandal that made national news. Test bank

The incident sparked debates about academic integrity and questions about whether test banks are legitimate study guides or unethical glimpses at potential exams. To me, this is a no-brainer. It’s cheating because the goal (intention for one’s action) is to gain an unfair advantage over other students who play by the rules. It creates an unlevel playing field.

Donald McCabe, a business professor at Rutgers University who studies cheating on college campuses, said the UCF case is one of the biggest in recent years but also not clear cut. Students studying the test bank might not have known the exact questions would be on their midterm.

"If they thought they were using it as a study guide, it's hard to argue they were blatantly cheating," McCabe said. McCabe is wrong because our ethical behavior (or unethical behavior) is determined based on our intentions.

I wrote a blog about this incident and called out Professor McCabe. Saying the students might not have known the exact questions so they weren’t “blatantly” cheating is a rationalization for an unethical action. Cheating is cheating; there is no “materiality” test to it. A student cheats whether they copy one answer from a fellow student or 100. A student cheats when they knowingly acquire a test bank, which many professors use for exam questions. In other words, why are they doing it. To get ahead, for sure, but unless a professor suggests buying the test bank to learn the material, it’s cheating, nonetheless.

Today's students seem to feel "less guilty about taking short cuts" to get good grades, and test banks are one of the newest ways students try to get ahead. They rationalize it by saying things like the teacher doesn’t teach so they need to acquire testing materials to close the gap. From an ethical perspective, students are using the utilitarian method of reasoning that holds “the end justifies the means.” That is, the goals of getting good grades, graduate with a higher GPA, and get a good job are more important than the way a student goes about achieving those goals.

I’ve done my own investigation of Websites that offer plenty of ways to buy textbook instructors' manuals that include "test banks" — questions and answers provided by textbook publishers to professors. Professors sometimes use these test banks to devise their own tests. Shame on them for not adjusting their style of testing given the ready availability of test banks. Book cover

I have an accounting ethics textbook that I recently revised for its 6th edition, Ethical Obligations and Decision Making in Accounting: Text and Cases. One website sells the answers to the questions and cases in my book —Chegg. Here is some information from their website about my book.

CHEGG Website

Ethical Obligations and Decision-Making in Accounting: Text and Cases 5th edition

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There are other sites as well that even sell the answers to one question at a time. Some students might say purchasing it, or all the textbook solutions, is a way to learn material and study for exams. I don’t dispute that. However, my position once again is if the teacher wants students to acquire such materials, then it should be mentioned in the course syllabus. That almost never happens.

I can’t conclude without placing some of the blame on teachers. They shouldn’t use test bank questions repeatedly. At a minimum, they should change some of the test questions so the answers are different. For example, if you have an asset costing $10,000 with an estimated useful life of 5 years, the annual straight-line depreciation is $2,000. Why not change it to 8 years so the correct answer is $1,250?

In the end, it is up to the teacher to monitor unethical behavior by students. That is why Berkovitz is taking the unusual step to identify the cheaters and force them to suffer the consequences of their actions.

Blog posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, The Ethics Sage, on March 21, 2022. You can sign up for his newsletter and learn more about his media activities at: https://www.stevenmintzethics.com/. Follow him on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/StevenMintzEthics and on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/ethicssage.