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Cheating Across Cultures

May 24, 2007

When Duke University found 34 first-year business school students guilty of collaborating on a take-home test late last month, officials announced a variety of penalties: Pending appeals, nine of the Fuqua School of Business M.B.A. students would be expelled, 15 would receive a one-year suspension and a failing grade in the required course, nine would simply fail the class and one would fail the assignment alone.

Not surprisingly, some of the students are contesting their sentences. This week, a Durham lawyer who’s filed appeals on behalf of 16 of the students cried foul to the Associated Press, arguing that all nine of the expelled students were from Asian countries, and that the students in question failed to fully understand the honor code and the judicial proceedings.

Excuses, excuses? Maybe; maybe not. Regardless, the complaints serve to spotlight some of the particular challenges inherent in addressing issues of academic integrity involving international students, many of whom come to American colleges with different conceptions of cheating. As the number of international students has increased in recent years -- and the number of academic misconduct incidents involving international students has risen accordingly -- educators have increasingly embraced the need to address academic integrity concerns proactively, recognizing in their actions the various cultural influences that can help cause one to cheat.

“These issues come up in unusual ways. It doesn’t mean there isn’t cheating in China [for instance]. There is,” says Sidney L. Greenblatt, senior assistant director of advising and counseling at Syracuse University and an expert on China (he’s currently writing an essay for a collection on cultural aspects of academic integrity, and has co-authored a publication on “U.S. Classroom Culture” highlighting these issues). “People present false credentials to the American embassy and corruption in the system is about what it is here.”

“These things do exist, but very good, very committed students are caught up in plagiarism for cultural reasons, and splitting those up is no easy trick.”

Most of the concerns surrounding international students and cheating center around plagiarism, a form of cheating that's all too common among American undergraduates, some of whom say they were never taught what was legitimate and what wasn't. But while international students certainly are far from alone in cheating, their circumstances are often unique, and international student advisors and experts cite a whole host of specific reasons why international students might knowingly or unknowingly circumvent the system.

Foremost among them is that the Western style of citing sources isn’t universal: Greenblatt points out that many Asian students, for instance, come from educational systems in which the norm is to repeat back a textbook or a professor verbatim (without a citation), as a sign of respect to the source of knowledge. In collectivist cultures, adds Petra Crosby, director of international student programs and a lecturer in the cross-cultural studies concentration at Carleton College, knowledge is often viewed as a shared endeavor, so “copying” doesn’t always encapsulate the same connotation. Not to mention that knowledge itself can be defined differently, at least as far as what’s common and doesn’t need to be cited: What’s common knowledge in Indiana can, after all, be substantially different than what's common knowledge in India.

Language barriers can also prevent students from fully understanding codes of conduct, and students feeling isolated in their classrooms not only by language but also by different teaching and learning styles may not be so inclined to contact faculty or other academic resources with their concerns about proper practices until it’s too late. Plus, of course, desperation can feed into cheating, and the stakes for international students struggling in their courses are often particularly high. “In addition to understanding that international students may be somewhat confused about the norms of scholarship, that international dimension may also play out as the added pressure of doing well so they will not lose their visas,” says Timothy Dodd, executive director of the Center for Academic Integrity, at Duke.

“The concerns seem to have crystallized in probably the last five or six years,” Dodd says of issues surrounding international students and academic integrity. “We have an instinctive sensitivity toward fairness…. Are they being inefficiently or insufficiently instructed?”

Dodd advocates specialized orientations for international students on the norms and practices of Western scholarship. In fact, though it's hard to know how many, it seems an increasing number of universities have begun incorporating sessions on academic integrity in their orientations for international students in recent years, and the topic has become a hot one at annual NAFSA: Association of International Educators conferences. How to orient students to American norms surrounding academic integrity without scaring them has become a major point of interest among international educators, says Crosby of Carleton. “People are shell shocked. For many students it’s the first time they’ve been away from home. You don’t want to hit them with, ‘If you do this, you’re an evil person.’ You just can’t approach it that way.”

Many of the practices being embraced involve reinforcing any messages sent to international students during orientation by pointing students to different resources -- including their professors -- that they can consult throughout their college careers.

The University of Denver, for instance, initiated a multi-faceted program several years ago to better advise international students and faculty members about the issue and develop a stronger network of resources, says Michael Elliott, director of international student and scholar services. “When we’re working with new international students, we have discussions around what expectations they’re coming with, what expectations they had in their own high schools and universities overseas, because some or none of their honor codes and codes of conduct will transfer over to the U.S.,” says Elliott. “They need to understand that they may be learning from ground zero, that sanctions can be delivered and are delivered whether the violation was intentional or not.”

In addition to recruiting international students to advise their peers on academic integrity issues – the University of Denver for instance has a brochure in which international students write about hypothetical scenarios and their solutions for the benefit of their peers – Elliott’s office distributes a tips sheet for faculty. “You can consider it a two-way street,” Elliott says.

One of the sides to this is, after all, “the culture of the receiving country,” adds Syracuse’s Greenblatt. “That’s the whole question of who hears international students when they have concerns about these things. Who listens? Because listening is as important a skill as talking, and in the United States, talking is the preferred educational venture."

Ultimately, though, Elliott says that while educators should do their best to guide international students, orient them to the issue, and alert them to (hopefully more knowledgeable) resources, it's the student's responsibility to seek help before violating any academic codes of conduct -- by catching problems with citations, for instance, by working with faculty while in the draft-writing stage.

“Can it be a false claim,” an excuse of sorts, Dodd of the Center for Academic Integrity asks about cultural misunderstandings causing cheating. “Absolutely, and that’s why cases like [Duke’s] are assessed carefully by an objective counsel or board and the evidence becomes the matter of the ruling – and not one’s educational preparation or background.”

 

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