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Cheating and the Generational Divide

November 17, 2010

The revelation that hundreds of University of Central Florida students in a senior-level business class received an advance version of a mid-term exam has exposed the widening chasm in what different generations expect of each other -- and what they perceive cheating to be.

“To say I’m disappointed is beyond comprehension,” Richard Quinn, instructor in the management department at UCF, told his students last week as he announced that all 600 of them would have to retake their midterm exam in his strategic management course. The discovery that at least 200 of his students received a version of the test prior to the exam shook Quinn deeply, leaving him “physically ill, absolutely disgusted, completely disillusioned, trying to figure out what was the last 20 years for,” he said in a widely distributed Web broadcast of his lecture, which a student posted on YouTube, after appending his or her own captioned commentary (a more complete version of Quinn's remarks is here).

Quinn told his class that any students who came to him before the make-up midterm and admitted to having received the first exam beforehand could take an ethics seminar, remain in the class, and have the allegations of cheating scrubbed from their records. About 200 students came forward, said UCF spokesman Grant Heston. Those who remain quiet and are later found to have participated -- a number the university believes to be about 15 -- will face sanctions ranging from failing the class to expulsion.

The incident has sparked debate and soul-searching far beyond Florida, with some seeing the case as a classic example of the philosophical divide between many students and faculty members about just what constitutes cheating -- and how it can be prevented. Further, it shows just how difficult it can be to stamp out and respond to large-scale incidents of academic dishonesty.

In designing his response, Quinn consulted with the leaders of the College of Business Administration. They thought the path they chose represented the fairest way to allow students to come forward, admit their guilt, and learn from the experience, said Heston. Experts in testing security hailed the measure for being fair and well-calibrated. Teddi Fishman, director of the International Center for Academic Integrity at Clemson University, noted that faculty members must cope with confidentiality rules, which would have made it difficult for Quinn to punish some students but not others before the matter had been adjudicated. "The only practical choice he could make was to retest everyone," she said.

But Was It Cheating?

The perception of exactly what happened leading up to the midterm has become a point of contention. What is clear is that some students gained access to a bank of tests that was maintained by the publisher of the textbook that Quinn used. They distributed the test to hundreds of their fellow students, some of whom say they thought they were receiving a study guide like any other -- not a copy of the actual test.

Several students have protested that they had no intention to cheat. These students say that they only became aware that they had more information than they should have when they took the actual test, realized they had seen the questions before, and knew the answers. Leading up to the exam, some said they were simply making use of available resources to study, as the editors of the Central Florida Future, the student newspaper at UCF, wrote in a recent editorial. "These students studied pertinent material and earned high grades,” the editors wrote, marking the paper's more muted stance on the issue after initially condemning the students. “This same information could have most likely been found in their textbook or course material. At this point, we're not sure whether this constitutes cheating.”

Some students have blamed Quinn, accusing him of misleading them and being lazy. They posted clips from the first class's lecture, in which Quinn can be seen telling his students that he is responsible for creating the test. The students have tried to use this statement to justify their acts; since Quinn told them he would be writing the exam, they did not think the prefab version they were using to study would be used. "After seeing that, it was safe for us to assume that having it online, having it e-mailed to you, whatever it was, wasn't the test,” one student told the Associated Press. “No student knew that was the test, and that's what we continue to say over and over." The university has rejected that argument. "Let's be sure to keep the focus where it belongs," Heston told the Orlando Sentinel. "Not on the instructor who administered the test but on those students who chose to acquire the test beforehand and use it inappropriately."

Some testing experts were highly skeptical of the entire defense. "That’s a crock. These are not grammar school kids. These are college kids in a business school," said John Fremer, president of Caveon, a Utah-based testing security company. "The idea that there’s any validity to their argument is a stretch."

Fishman said it was difficult to imagine that the students did not think something was amiss when they received practice test questions from other students, and not from the professor. "If the professor neither sent nor mentioned it, and it went to only some of the students -- not to the whole class list (and not from the professor or a teaching assistant) -- I would think they should have questioned its legitimacy," she wrote in an e-mail.

'Uneducated Snots'

Cheating is as old as test-taking, of course. In July, Centenary College in Hackettstown, N.J. closed business programs in Beijing, Shanghai and Taiwan after finding rampant cheating among students there. Earlier this year, the San Jose Mercury News reported that the number of cheating cases put before Stanford University's judicial board more than doubled, from 52 to 123, during the previous decade. And Syracuse University limited bathroom breaks for law students taking final exams when students were reportedly found to be taking the opportunity during trips to the toilet to use their cell phones to send and receive text messages.

Experts in cheating and testing security have said the UCF incident is generally no worse than what takes place in many universities. During the spring semester, UCF handled 111 cases of academic misconduct, including cheating and plagiarism, said Heston. This current case occurred in a ballyhooed computer lab designed to stop cheating, and it has proven largely successful: cheating incidents occurred last semester in just 0.02 percent of business exams taken, said Heston. But the latest incident has captured national attention for two notable reasons: the number of students accused of cheating in one class, and the university's forthrightness in acknowledging it.

Such openness is commendable, said Fremer. "There’s somewhat of a tendency to handle everything quietly and privately because it’s not something you want to brag about," he said. Getting the word out when it does occur can affirm a college's intolerance of cheating and deter those who would bend the rules in the future, he said. "It’s not so much that you want to catch cheaters," said Fremer. "You want to stop cheating."

In the Florida case, many have noted that the students' initial intent was less troubling than their conduct once they realized they had an advance copy of the test. No one raised his or her hand during the test to acknowledge having had a copy of it, and the incident came to light only after Quinn statically analyzed the scores and saw that they ran a grade-and-a-half higher than in the past. His fears were confirmed when a copy of the test bank test was placed in the bin on his office door.

What has been most disturbing to some -- and perhaps the real engine driving the continuing national interest in the case -- is the response and defense mounted by the students. To some observers, the incident has amplified fears about the moral character of the generation that is now coming of age.

The divide between the generations can be seen in Quinn's lecture to students after the cheating was discovered, and the response posted by a student in the YouTube caption. As Quinn tells the students who cut corners, "don't call me, don’t ask me to do anything for you ever again," the student rebuttal posted on YouTube suggests a sense of violated entitlement more than an acknowledgment of an ethical lapse: "We paid for the class and we aren’t allowed to talk to him anymore?"

More notoriously, UCF student Konstantin Ravvin told ABC News that he thought the incident had been blown out of proportion. “This is college, everyone cheats. Everyone cheats in life in general,” he said. “They’re making a witch hunt out of absolutely nothing, as if they want to teach us some sort of moral lesson.” Another student who was accused of cheating told a Fox affiliate that Quinn and the university owed him and his fellow students an apology.

Such responses have stirred ire verging on apoplexy among some observers. "The society you students are creating for yourselves to live in will be run by ignorant, uneducated snots with degrees they didn't earn," one observer, a self-described former professor, noted in an online forum accompanying one news outlet's coverage of the story. "People who whined and cheated their way through school will run your economy, design your cars and homes, handle your medical care. Have fun with that!"

Shared Responsibility, Shifting Norms

Such finger-pointing back and forth serves no purpose, said Fishman and Donald McCabe, founding president of the International Center for Academic Integrity and a professor of management and global business at Rutgers University at Newark. "I think this really suggests there’s an onus on us to understand that there are these shifting norms," said McCabe. "We need to be more explicit in instructions."

Research on plagiarism suggests that cutting down on cheating depends not only on punishing it when it happens, but also on explicitly staking out expectations about academic conduct. Thomas S. Dee, professor of economics and public policy at Swarthmore College, and Brian A. Jacob, a professor of education policy at the University of Michigan, split more than 500 students, who were completing papers in the humanities and social sciences at an unnamed selective college, into two groups. One group of students was required to take a detailed, interactive online tutorial on understanding and avoiding plagiarism before submitting their papers. The other group was not. The group taking the tutorial plagiarized two-thirds less frequently than the control group. "The decision to plagiarize reflects both a poor understanding of academic integrity and the perception that the probabilities of detection and severe punishment are low,” Dee and Jacob wrote in a working paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research.

In large part, such explicit reminders are necessary because -- as the UCF incident suggests -- cheating doesn't look the same to two different groups of people. “What we called cheating 20 years ago isn’t called cheating now,” said McCabe, who has researched attitudes on the subject and its prevalence on campuses. His surveys have revealed that more than half -- or 55 percent -- of faculty members say they have seen examples of serious exam cheating in their classrooms. Just 22 percent of students reported the same thing.

McCabe said the shifting norms that relate to cheating make it difficult to say whether the problem has grown worse over time. While acknowledging that his empirical data don't support the conclusion that the problem has worsened, he believes that it has. "If I read between the lines and look at the answers, I think it’s gotten worse," he said. He bases this sense on such factors as the students' answers to his open-ended questions, and their tendency to frame doing unapproved group work -- what many would call cribbing off a friend who did their homework -- as a time-management strategy.

Fishman said it was important to see the incident at UCF as a symptom of a larger problem of permissive attitudes toward academics. In part, she said, such attitudes among students can develop from the notion that all of education can be distilled into performance on a test -- which today's college students have absorbed from years of schooling under No Child Left Behind -- and not that education is a process in which one grapples with difficult material.

The even larger problem is the social dynamic put in place by this larger permissiveness, she said. "When people get the idea that everyone cheats, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy," she said. Among individuals, cheating can become habitual. As the attitude that it is common grows more widespread, so does the toll it exacts. "One thing we try to explain is that the cheaters don’t bear the full measure of the cost," said Fishman. "All students at UCF have to deal with the potential that their degree has been diminished."

 

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