Ethics at Work: The Importance of Academic Honesty in our Schools, Part II

by Wendy Fischman

In the previous blog, I discussed the recent admissions scandal in higher education. I drew on our research conducted in the late 1990s: we described how easily young people justified cutting corners in order to get ahead and/or satisfy pressures to be “successful.” In this blog, I relate this work to our current study of higher education.

Higher Education for the 21st Century

In our large, national study of higher education, in which we conducted approximately 2000 semi-structured interviews of students and on-campus and off-campus adults across 10 disparate campuses, considerations of ethics rarely arise on their own.

But because as researchers we have long been concerned with ethical behavior, we specifically asked participants about the kinds of ethical dilemmas students face on campus, and the ways in which college prepares students to handle these ethical dilemmas. Many participants seem to agree that colleges aren’t always effective in preparing students to handle ethical dilemmas; and when asked directly, participants seem to have trouble coming up with a person or group on campus to whom they might turn in such cases. In fact, some student participants respond that the mental health center is helpful when something “goes wrong” on campus.

Based on our earlier findings about how so many young people justify unethical work in order to get ahead, we were especially interested in perceptions of academic dishonesty on college campuses. Therefore, in addition to the aforementioned open-ended questions on ethics, we also asked participants to rank order the relative importance of “academic dishonesty” as a problem on campus, as compared to four explicitly cited problems: safety, mental health, alcohol and drugs, friendships and romantic relationships.

Across the entire study on ten campuses, one finding is consistent among students and on-campus adults (faculty and administrators): those individuals who consider academic dishonesty as the most important problem are outliers. Academic dishonesty is almost always ranked as the least important problem on campus.

This “non-finding” is important.

From a variety of studies, we know that cheating is pervasive; indeed, a majority number of our on-campus participants acknowledge that academic dishonesty occurs on campus. At the same time, participants rarely indicate that academic dishonesty is a major issue of concern (both when compared to the other problems and when directly asked to explain views about it). Though incidents of cheating reach the news headlines, our participants seldom elaborate on issues of academic dishonesty on their own. However, when specifically prompted, the majority of students and faculty describe various ways in which academic dishonesty occurs online and offline, in class and out of class.

The apparent lack of concern for academic dishonesty is distressing. College is about learning and mastering content—the major purpose should be academic, and everything else, though important, should be secondary. A perpetuating cheating culture ultimately lowers the standards and expectations for college, and makes it harder for students to achieve the primary educational goals. Furthermore, if dishonest work becomes the norm for students in educational settings, we can’t expect that when students transition to the “real world,” their behaviors or attitudes will miraculously change. Though most people would agree that we want to graduate students who know the difference between honest and dishonest work—and who care to spend the time carrying out work of integrity—there is a major disconnect between the acknowledgement of widespread dishonesty and the relatively low importance of this issue to our participants.

Why is this the case? Our data show four possibilities:

1) Perception that academic dishonesty occurs more (or less) as a result of professors’ attentiveness (or inattentiveness) to the issue

Both students and faculty make a direct link between academic dishonesty and the extent to which professors’ seem to care about it—on the one hand, those who demand “strict” adherence to the rules, and on the other hand, those who turn a “blind eye” to academic wrongdoings.

Many students describe ways in which faculty play an important role in curtailing academic dishonesty—especially explicit reminders in class about the standards for academic conduct and potential consequences for misconduct. One student explains, “…A lot of our professors keep on reminding us constantly about plagiarism and cheating and how important it is not to do it.” Another student reiterates that these faculty reminders signal significance of the issue to students: “The teachers, they…stress…about plagiarism. And what can happen if you plagiarize. So I don’t really see that a lot at [this school].”

At the same time however, students also explain that faculty members’ apparent lack of concern for academic dishonesty may actually contribute to cheating and plagiarism: “I would say that a lot of professors pretend they don’t see you when you are cheating…or they promote [it]…They kind of know you’re cheating, they just don’t point it out.”

Interestingly, some faculty seem to agree with the students. Though few faculty members, if any, admit that academic dishonesty occurs in their own classes (similar to the students who report others cheating, but not themselves), they believe that on the whole, faculty members’ attention or lack of attention contributes to the likelihood of academic dishonesty among students. One faculty member asserts: “I think that’s as much a problem for faculty as it is for students. And by that I mean faculty who…don’t follow our academic integrity policy.” Another faculty member points out the importance of the kind of assignments faculty give to students: “I think faculty need to stop giving examinations that are, that lend themselves to…dishonesty. You need sort of iterative assignments and stuff that’s better and requires way more effort to cheat.”

Indeed, faculty also describe strategies they believe prevents academic dishonesty, such as using the software program “Turn It In”; giving students different colored and ordered tests; and creating assignments which require written responses rather than multiple choice questions.  It is noteworthy that students rarely discuss these deterrents.

A small number of faculty discuss the dilemma of ignoring academic dishonesty, or turning a “blind eye,” in cases when they empathize with a putative reason for the academic misconduct. In one such case, a faculty member explains that after observing a student use his Apple watch to cheat on a test, she learned that this student juggled three jobs, and began to view him differently. She wonders: “Should I fail this young man? I cannot. It [comes] from my heart. You know why? Because he comes to class…right after his Taco Bell. Works all night. He comes to class…And sometimes [other students] make fun of him, because he’s, he’s sleeping…But we can work things out.” One student claims: “Sometimes professors just pass you just because they feel bad…they’re not as strict as they probably should be.”

2) Perception that academic dishonesty occurs more (or less) as a result of institutional policies

While some students credit institutional policies, such as honor codes and/or severe punishments as effective deterrents of academic dishonesty, some faculty members believe that their respective institutions may actually contribute to the problem of academic dishonesty—identifying lack of clear policies, unfair punishments, and unhelpful “conduct codes” for students.

Some faculty members lament that their institutions do not take a firm stand on academic dishonesty; as a result, the responsibility falls on individual faculty members to handle situations as they see fit (and as described above,  faculty attentiveness may waver, for different reasons). As just one example, a faculty member explains how too much flexibility around reporting procedures can actually be damaging to developing habits of honesty among students:

I think the university gives us way too much leeway. It doesn’t insist that you report…you’re allowed to resolve this issue anyway you wish….but that means that a lot of my colleagues um, don’t report it. They just fail the student on that particular assignment. A sort of a slap on the wrist…I did initially do that, but then…I realized that the students that are cheating or almost never just doing it in one class, it’s almost never the first time. Everybody, every single person that I’ve caught cheating has said to me, this is the first time I’m doing it. So by the 10th time that happened, I knew that that can’t be true. And I realized that these students have probably been doing it for years, probably multiple classes, and therefore I’m going to throw the book at them, every time I catch somebody doing it.

Other faculty members feel that the institutional policies for academic dishonesty are too strict and don’t address the core issue. One faculty member, for example, suggests that simply expelling students punishes them in the short term, but does not teach them about the importance of ethical work over the long term. Instead of supporting firm punishments, this faculty member would rather the institution help to develop alternative programs and systems, such as “peer interventions” as a way students can actually help teach each other (rather than just punish).  Furthermore, this faculty member goes on to say that often, in cases of academic dishonesty at his institution, the “crime” is not equal to the “punishment” and that students might learn from a different consequence:

… This is one of my radical ideas that probably is, won’t work. But since it’s never gonna happen I can feel free to say it. I think we need a much less rigorous academic policy thing so where the punishment is much more sort of swift and certain, but smaller…there’s places you can put pressure that … I mean, registration dates, I’ll tell you, you mess with grades all you want students will grumble a little bit. You make their registration date a day later…they will freak…out.

3) Misconceptions among students about what constitutes “academic dishonesty”

Closely tied to institutional policies, both students and faculty share concern that many students just don’t understand the rules and expectations for shared work, both in terms of giving credit and collaborating with others.

For example, students report that because the boundaries of honest and dishonest “collaborative” work can be confusing or blurry, academic dishonesty may be more likely in group work. One student explains:

So I have a couple of friends that have collaborated in the past in comp sci [sic] classes when they were new to those. And there are some pretty strict rules about how, like who you collaborate on work, and it’s just kids not understanding. Because I think our generation is taught, again and again, that collaboration is okay and it’s important. So kind of making those divisions clear, this is a moment where collaborating is not okay…I can see that being really confusing, especially on homework assignments, if you’re thinking that you’re helping each other, but really you’re supposed to do it independently and, yeah that can get complicated.

Another student explains how sharing or “collaborating,” even if you are not supposed to be doing so, is not a matter of concern: “We try our best, people still cheat. It’s not like it’s super profound here. I don’t think we’ve been in the news for that…You might collaborate on a homework assignment that you’re not supposed to collaborate on…”

Similarly, both students and faculty—those at the most selective as well as the least selective campuses—claim that students have not been appropriately taught the rules and standards of plagiarism and citation.

One faculty member says:

I have to constantly, constantly say this, and I have, you know, this is what plagiarism is. But sometimes it’s just ignorance. They just don’t know how to use their own words. And we have a stupid conduct code that stays plagiarism is when you knowingly copy. Well people don’t knowingly copy, they just copy.

In the end of the discussion, this faculty member concludes, “They’re a cut and paste generation anyway…”

Some faculty members explain that students from different backgrounds have an especially hard time with concepts of plagiarism and citation:

But [plagiarism is] a big issue that students just don’t recognize…Especially if they’re coming from countries…where they’re expected to memorize what the teacher has said, or memorize what the book has said, they don’t understand why that is a problem. Obviously, I’m, I’m [n]ot the expert here, but they’re not realizing I wanted [work] either in their own opinion or their own words.

Even more troubling, some students also differentiate among forms of academic dishonesty, claiming a qualitative difference between sharing homework (which they do not consider to be “academic dishonesty”) and cheating on an exam. These distinctions help students to justify their wrongdoings. One such student explains: “…I’ve, like, copied homework, but not like…but never on test or anything and I guess that’s not really the problem, but, uh, yeah, I guess like [I] copy homework…” Another student devalues the importance of cheating on homework: “Maybe I’m totally naïve [about academic dishonesty]. A couple of times I have seen like academic dishonesty in very mild, mild forms like on a very small assignment. But it doesn’t strike me as a bigger problem.”

4) Perception that academic dishonesty occurs more among certain students or groups of students:

The majority of students and faculty identify “typical” types of students who carry out academic misconduct—those who are particularly stressed, preoccupied with other non-academic responsibilities, as well as those students who might be “lazy.” Regardless, participants tend to rationalize that students do not intend to engage in wrongdoings, they just can’t help it!

For example, one student says that academic pressure and stress can lead to unintentional academic dishonesty: “There’s definitely a pressure to do well and I think sometimes people get caught up in that and lose…integrity in the process.” Another student suggests: “…A lot of people don’t intend to do it, but they are just so stressed out and they just don’t have the time to actually work…they find that that’s their only option left [is] to like plagiarize and…copy and paste, like, their assignments and stuff.” At least one student recognizes the irrational behavior: “It’s funny because…the plagiarism and the cheating isn’t necessarily to get from a C to an A, it’s to get from like an A minus to an A, which is crazy to me that that’s the kind of pressure that the school or that this mindset is putting on kids, is that it’s not just that they are cheating because they are failing…it’s like they are cheating to be perfect.”

One student defends a student that she might consider “lazy”: “…I feel like, kids can be lazy about their work, so I don’t think they’re actually going in there, trying to plagiarize, it’s just that they end up doing it because they’re not trying hard enough to be original.”

To a lesser extent, some students and faculty describe particular groups of students that cut corners, including (but not always limited to): athletes, students involved with Greek life, students of low or high socioeconomic status (ironically), and some international students. Ironically, taken collectively, these students make-up a large portion of the student body!

These perceptions (or misperceptions) emanating from our data—about what constitutes academic dishonesty, the internal attitudes and types of students that might be more likely to engage in dishonest work, and the role that professors and/or institutional policies play in contributing mixed messages—should be concerning to educators as well as citizens. Dishonest work not only mocks the purpose of college, but also perpetuates a society without ethical norms or integrity. In the next blog, I offer some suggestions for how we might address academic dishonesty and larger issues of ethics on the college campus.

Acknowledgement: I am grateful to Jeffrey Robinson, who helped to carry out the in-depth analysis of participants’ comments pertaining to this topic.

© 2019 Wendy Fischman and Howard Gardner

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  1. Ethics at Work: The Importance of Academic Honesty in Our Schools, Part III | Howard Gardner - June 18, 2019

    […] the previous two blogs (Part I and Part II), I reflected on the recent admissions cheating scandal in light of our earlier research of young […]

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