Who is to Blame for Lax Academic Standards?
It is no surprise to college professors that academic cheating is on the rise even though virtually every university has a policy on academic integrity. The reasons are many as discussed below but lax standards by professors and indifference towards cheating can motivate students to cheat. In other words, many students say, “I cheat because I can.”
Cheating has always been around, but it is now easier and more accessible with the use of technology and online learning. Chegg, a publicly traded technology company that hosts answers to questions and problems in popular textbooks, skyrocketed in value during the pandemic. I Googled the name of my accounting ethics textbook to see what came up and there was Chegg offering answers even to separate questions in my book. That means they gained access to the instructor’s resources.
The lines have also been blurred between collaboration and cheating. For example, study groups have always been a great way to work and study together with peers. But now, instead of meeting at the library like most students did before the pandemic, students can collaborate on group chats and email each other the material.
With the increase in online testing comes additional cheating concerns. There is nothing stopping students from looking up answers on a second computer or on their phones when taking online tests.
How Widespread is Cheating?
It stands to reason that if high school students are allowed to cheat, then these same habits will be repeated in college. A survey of 9,000 high school students shows that 70% have cheated at least once in the past year. Moreover, 50% have cheated more than twice.
Research into cheating at the college and university level began in 1990 by Dr. Donald McCabe, one of the founders of the International Center for Academic Integrity (ICAI). This research continues today, spearheaded by ICAI and its members.
McCabe’s original research and subsequent follow-up studies show that more than 60 percent of university students freely admit to cheating in some form.
In March 2020, ICAI researchers tested an updated version of the McCabe survey with 840 students across multiple college campuses. This work showed the following kinds of key cheating behaviors:
- Cheated in any way on an exam.
- Getting someone else to do your academic work (e.g., essay, exam, assignment) and submitting it as your own.
- Using unauthorized electronic resources (e.g., articles, Wikipedia, YouTube) for a paper, project, homework or other assignments.
- Working together on an assignment with other students when the instructor asked for individual work.
- Paraphrasing or copying a few sentences or more from any source without citing it in a paper or assignment you submitted.
What Can Professors/Colleges Do?
College administrators largely seem to have accepted the notion that the blame for cheating lies either at the feet of morally bankrupt students or within the overall campus climate. As a result, their efforts to reduce cheating have focused on creating first-year orientations or seminars on academic integrity, or on instituting deterrent measures like suspensions or expulsions for cheaters who are caught. Quite frankly, this is a misguided attempt to control cheating. First-year orientations and seminars do no good because it won’t change the culture of cheating in colleges.
Professors running computerized multiple-choice tests make grading easier for themselves but cheating easier for students, too. This practice is both lazy and unhelpful, especially when the questions are reused from year to year. Students are better served by answering long-form questions that ask them to reflect rather than confuse. These questions allow luck, mimicry or dishonesty to be easily distinguished from true understanding.
A well-written evaluation is one of the possible solutions to cheating. An essay, for example, will elicit different responses from people with different levels of understanding that can be readily distinguished. Dishonesty is also recognizable: Remarkably similar answers stand out.
There is no doubt that new forms of detecting cheating using technology is on the rise, and that is a good thing Around the world, major progress has been made in support of academic integrity. For example, Australia’s Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA) has changed laws and developed an Academic Integrity Toolkit based on research conducted by scholars there. Similar work is ongoing in the U.K. The U.S. is in danger of losing our competitive advantages in higher education if we do not act to place academic integrity at the heart of our institutional activities.
Who is to Blame for Cheating?
Who is to blame for the cheating crisis? Some people engage in academic dishonesty because they are dishonest. But recent research into cheating and dishonesty suggests a different conclusion: Most of us are willing to engage in acts of dishonesty under the right circumstances.
As behavioral economist Dan Ariely demonstrated in a fascinating series of experiments and reported in his book “The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty,” the extent to which people are willing to engage in acts of cheating and dishonesty “depends on the structure of their daily environment.” The structure of that environment proves more influential than an individual’s ethical profile or some general cultural milieu.
- Everybody does it.
- Too many homework assignments.
- The exams are too difficult.
- Professors do not monitor exams.
- I need to stay competitive.
- I need to cheat to get good grades; get a better job.
- Everyone cheats in society; this is the expected standard of behavior.
These reasons are largely rationalizations for unethical conduct. The more compelling reasons are the myriad of ways students can cheat today. It ranges from simply writing out the most essential material in the palm of one’s hands to using a smart phone to receive answers from classmates, and a lot in-between.
Changing Ethical Standard in Society
The underlying cause of cheating is a changing ethical standard about right and wrong in society. Today, our actions are viewed through the lens of ethical relativism. Everything is relative to the situation and the person. Cheating occurs because other students cheat and there is a need to keep up. People lie on their resumes to get a better job. Politicians cheat and may even divert funds. Financial executives cheat and even commit fraud with little or no consequences if they get caught.
A glaring example of when cheaters have acted in unfathomable ways is U.S. Representative George Santos, whose name has become synonymous with cheating to get ahead. The freshman legislator from NY -- who's already admitted to lying about his education and work experience -- crossed paths with Navy veteran Richard Osthoff in May 2016 and identified himself by one of his aliases, Anthony Devolder. Santos allegedly scammed a disabled homeless military veteran out of thousands in donations intended to keep his dying service pooch alive.
What can be done to reverse course? Not much, I fear, because most professors do not want to go through the ordeal of bringing cheating charges against their students. They accept cheating because they lack the courage to do what it takes to stop it. Some professors are lazy and use the same exams term after term. They even realize the exam questions are probably already available to students through fraternities and because some students take screen shots on their smart phones. Also, students can buy solutions manuals online.
Can the Downward Spiral of Cheating Be Reversed?
We live in a no consequences society. We live in a time where ethical behavior is an after-thought, if thought of at all. I expect cheating to get worse for all the reasons discussed in my blog. The real losers here are the potential employers who may wind up hiring students who have not earned their grades through hard work. They need to develop good work habits in school by doing homework, handing it in when expected, and studying hard for their exams.
The logical conclusion of cheating gone unchecked is cheating students are more likely to cheat in other areas of their life including in personal relationships and in the workplace. Cheating won’t stop until the downward spiral in ethics in America is reversed.
On a more personal note, I really dislike the mantra that so many people use today when questioned about something they have said or done, which is: “I’m just telling my truth.” Notice, it’s not the truth. They believe there is more than one truth. This has enabled ethical relativism to flourish unabated.
We need to return to living our lives in accordance with basic ethical values like honesty, integrity, and personal responsibility. These values should underlie our actions and behaviors. Will it ever happen? It’s not likely because I fear we have fallen off the honesty cliff and lying is the motivation behind the actions of many, in part to cover up one’s misdeeds.
We need to have an open and honest dialogue about our cheating society. My hope is that this blog contributes to that dialogue.
Blog posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, The Ethics Sage, on January 25, 2023. You can sign up for Steve’s newsletter and learn more about his activities on his website (https://www.stevenmintzethics.com/) and by following him on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/StevenMintzEthics and on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/ethicssage.