Jeremy Morton, Ph.D., CEO and Founder, The Expert TA
David Pritchard, Ph.D., Professor of Physics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Although many people claim that cheating on college campuses has drastically increased, a report by the Boston Globe shows that the rate of students who admit to cheating has actually remained steady since the first study was done in 1963. We believe that most students today, like those in the 1960s, want to walk away from a class having learned the material and knowing they earned their grade.
In a twelve-year study done by Dr. Donald McCabe with the International Center for Academic Integrity, 68 percent of undergraduate students admit to cheating either on an exam or a written assignment. However, what students define as cheating has changed over time. With the onslaught of new technology, it’s not surprising that student attitudes have shifted. As Jeffrey R. Young highlights in The Chronicle of Higher Education, there is a growing “technological detachment” whereby the presence of technology decreases the likelihood that students perceive certain behaviors (like plagiarism or answer sharing) as cheating. In addition, well known and heavily used “cheating” websites make it easy for students to find full solutions (not just answers) to questions in popular textbooks and online homework systems. The fact that these sites exist and are widely used, together with the perception that many students share answers, creates an atmosphere where students feel they have to cheat to avoid giving others an unfair advantage. While most students don’t feel the need to get an A in every class, it is much harder to stay honest and get the grade you deserve if so many others are excelling by cheating.
In fact, cheating is not as helpful as students hope. MIT Professor David Pritchard conducted research on his own students’ cheating habits. Interestingly, he found that on average, habitual cheaters scored two letter grades lower on exams and were three times as likely to fail the class. We believe students know this reality—that ultimately homework cheating doesn’t work in their favor. Nevertheless, the documented increased pressure for grades that today’s students feel often leads to short-term grade enhancers like cheating.
The bottom line is these (and other) studies show that the current level of cheating is not just a moral problem – it is a serious pedagogical problem that reduces both learning and grades. Many large publishers do not defend their homework problems against internet companies that provide solutions. It is unreasonable to expect individual professors to monitor the many answer-sharing websites, and copying from other students, both of which are amplified now that students are so connected through social media. Many believe that the problem has become too big to stop; answers are simply too readily available, and the temptation is too great.
But teachers can defend against cheating. As Pritchard points out, the presence of cheating is just as much of a red flag about teaching practices as it is about student integrity. According to the study, “Changes in course format and instructional practices … [were] accompanied by more than a factor of 4 reduction of copying. … As expected (since repetitive copiers have approximately three times the chance of failing), this was accompanied by a reduction in the overall course failure rate.” Additionally, teachers can write their own questions, use a homework system that proactively guards its answer bank, and structure their classes in such a way that homework can have value once again. But teachers must stop turning a blind eye to this serious problem and take steps to defeat it.
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