A scandal at Harvard University has many educators talking about cheating and whether anything can be done about it. Experts say that many students arrive in college already skilled at and not morally troubled by cheating, and scandals at top high schools back up this point of view. What, if anything, can professors and colleges? These issues are explored in a new book, Cheating at College: Why Students Do It and What Educators Can Do About It (Johns Hopkins University Press). The authors are Donald L. McCabe, professor of management and global business at the Rutgers University Business School; Kenneth D. Butterfield, associate professor of management, information systems and entrepreneurship at Washington State University; and Linda K. Treviño, professor of organizational behavior at Pennsylvania State University. They responded via e-mail to questions about the book.
Q: Is cheating getting worse? Or do those who say that only imagine a golden age when academic honesty prevailed?
A: The role of the Internet raises some fascinating questions. Many students have a difficult time understanding why they can’t use information they find on the Internet to a greater degree in doing assignments. Many reason that if they were smart enough to be able to find this information, they should be able to take advantage of their superior search skills. Some note that when they are in the "real" world they will be asked to do this all the time – i.e., to put together reports that are as factual as possible, not necessarily original. In fact, they probably won’t be given enough time by their employers to do in-depth original searches. They are only acquiring skills now that will serve them well as they enter the real world. As educators, we need to do a better job of teaching students that they can use this information, but they must quote it and reference it as they would if the source material were in print.
Of course, there are also students who use the Internet to complete assignments simply because they are too lazy to do the work themselves and/or because they want to ensure they get a good grade on the assignment. This is especially true of students who may have time management problems and neglect assignments until the last minute. More than one student has suggested to us that they have used the Internet to copy information because it’s the only way they can get a particular assignment done when it is due the next day.
Q: Compared to previous generations, are today's college students less aware of the moral issues associated with cheating? Are they aware that they are cheating?
A: Today’s students do not appear to be any less aware of the moral implications associated with "cheating," but many have convinced themselves that what they are doing is not cheating. They have rationalized their choices, leaving no moral implications left to consider. While they have a sense that some of the activities they are engaging in are morally questionable in the abstract, for any number of reasons (parental pressure, others are doing it and they are being unfairly disadvantaged, etc.) they have convinced themselves that they have no choice.
Another issue that may be more pertinent to today's college students than previous generations is collaborative cheating (cheating on written assignments when the instructor explicitly asked for individual work). This is one type of cheating that appears to be on the rise. Some students believe that what many professors consider cheating more accurately falls into an ethical "gray area." They reason that if professors teach the virtues of collaboration and collaboration will be expected in the workplace, it should be acceptable for students to collaborate on assignments even when the professor requires individual work. By appealing to gray areas, students can justify or deny wrongdoing.
Q: How can colleges better educate new students so they won't cheat?
A: This, of course, is the big question. In our book, our final chapter advances a model that we believe is the only approach that is likely to succeed. Rooted in a model originally designed by Linda Treviño and Kate Nelson (in their book Managing Business Ethics, 2011, Wiley) to address creating ethical cultures in business organizations, the model we propose relies on the principles of ethical culture and ethical community building – an effort similar to the honor code approach used on a number of campuses. Although the honor code tradition has waned on some campuses, we know of several where it remains the backbone of the campus community and governs major aspects of a student’s campus life – e.g., Washington and Lee University. We know of some where the honor code is relatively young – e.g., Georgetown University -- and others where a modified honor code (tailored to the needs of a larger campus) – e.g., the University of Maryland – has been introduced.
Although we have been asked many times how many campuses actually have honor codes we have had to answer that we don’t know. We have often estimated 100 or so but that is really an educated guess since we find "new" codes (at least new to us) on a fairly regular basis. In addition, getting an accurate count is hindered by the lack of clarity about what constitutes an honor code. When we first started our project in the fall of 1990, we used the principles espoused by Brian Melendez in a study he did at that time for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard in 1985. Although Harvard elected not to adopt a code at that time, Melendez identified four characteristic that are often associated with codes – (1) unproctored exams, (2) a student controlled judiciary that would hear allegations of cheating, (3) a pledge which students would have to sign either indicating they will not cheat (often signed annually) or that they had not cheated (typically signed on each piece of work submitted), and (4) by far the most controversial element, a "requirement" or expectation that students will report cheating they observe involving others.
Honor codes that have been proposed to different student bodies in recent years have often failed to gain support if they contain a reporting clause as students are unwilling to accept such an obligation. We rely on a broader approach that does not require the term “honor code” to be used at all. In fact, some of the strongest ethical communities have been built on campuses that don’t use the term at all. We’re interested in developing cultures of integrity that involve an aspirational ethical culture that strongly encourages students to be honest. This aspirational side is then accompanied by an accountability component that holds community members accountable for their actions. We do not offer a cookie cutter approach. Each institution must work to analyze its own existing culture and develop approaches that fit it such as developing unique campus traditions.
Also critical to our approach is attention to the informal cultural systems (e.g., informal norms on a campus, the people who are held out as heroes, etc.) and formal cultural systems (e.g., the authority structure, the reward systems in place – especially what is rewarded – and the orientation and training that is offered to both students and faculty concerning issues of integrity. Obviously, our approach requires significant attention and ongoing effort and definitely adds cost to the campus budget. But, we view this as an important and worthwhile investment because we believe one of our major objectives is to "create" and educate ethical citizens who will assume key roles in our society in the future.
Q: Many experts say that it is easier to prevent cheating at small institutions where everyone knows everyone. Are there steps you recommend for large universities?
A: Although no campus, large or small, has been able to eliminate cheating, we generally agree that it is easier to "prevent" cheating on smaller campuses that are likely to have a singular or at least simpler culture. So, the level of cheating does seem to correspond to size, with larger schools experiencing more cheating as students take advantage of the anonymity they experience in larger classes and administrators find it more difficult to create a strong ethical culture in a large and diverse university.
Nevertheless, we do know of some larger campuses that do a reasonably good job in this regard. For example, take Brigham Young University, a large school. Although it has an honor code, it "backs" this up with a system that requires students to take most of their exams in a testing center where they are carefully separated from students taking the same exam – eliminating one common form of cheating on tests (copying from another). While one might expect students to complain about this lack of trust or "opportunity," work we have done on the BYU campus suggests this is not the case. In contrast, a much more common comment talks about why a student at BYU would not cheat because of his/her religious convictions. BYU might be unique in this regard. We tend to hear more often of an honor code preventing cheating because of a reciprocal relationship of trust where students sense some obligation not to cheat because of the many privileges they may obtain under their code – e.g., self-scheduled exams, the ability to take their exam wherever they choose on campus, etc. Both to preserve these privileges and to respond to the sense of trust placed in them, students at code schools seem to refrain from cheating to a greater degree almost independent of size.
Q: Some colleges with honor codes have very strict (single sanction, typically dismissal) punishments for cheating. Do such punishments prevent cheating?
A: We remain ambivalent about the use of strict sanctions to prevent cheating. Discipline for cheating must be part of any academic integrity culture (that’s the accountability part). But, we believe that rehabilitation should also be in the mix (to affirm the aspirational message). From a practical perspective, we have yet to find a school, no matter how strong the punishments they use to sanction students (including expulsion), that has no cheating. But, from a more philosophical perspective, as educators, we are not "law and order" supporters. We believe that if we have admitted a student into our campus community we owe that student at least once chance to be rehabilitated after a cheating incident.
A number of codes allow for expulsion, and some even call for expulsion for a first offense. But, we believe the circumstances of the incident must be taken into account. For example, if a first-year student cheats as much through ignorance as intention, we believe a school has an obligation to try to rehabilitate that student rather than expel him or her. In contrast, if a senior who clearly knows the rules cheats, we would evaluate that case more harshly and wonder what impact a failure to punish strongly in that case would have on other students on campus.
So making a blanket statement that we support strong penalties such as expulsion, as a matter of policy, is just not compatible with our views. While strong penalties, up to and including expulsion, are necessary at times, they are not always so. In our opinion, it is better to focus on encouraging honesty than on discouraging cheating. Although accountability is essential, emphasizing punishment is likely to be ineffective and may even prove to be counterproductive (e.g., encouraging cynicism or a backlash from students). We believe that over the long run, fostering a culture of trust, honesty, and integrity helps students internalize values of honesty and integrity and will do more to reduce cheating than creating a climate of fear and retribution.
We should note, however, that the one true single sanction school with which we have worked more than casually – Washington and Lee – may be an exception to this thinking and there may be others. At W&L, incoming and current students are so schooled in the specifics of the honor system on campus that "accidental" or minor violations are not really possible. Indeed, one only needs to spend a few minutes on campus before someone utters the phrase, "Honor knows no measure." Attributed to General Lee, W&L students understand even before they arrive on campus, that honor is such a serious matter at W&L that any violation will lead to an "invitation" for the student to sever his/her relationship with the university. Indeed, the policy is so strongly implemented and discussed on campus that it is almost impossible for a student to claim, "I didn’t know." This underscores our stance that the culture of the institution must be taken into account in designing an approach to academic integrity. What works in a military college is unlikely to work somewhere else. That is why we emphasize so strongly the importance of tailoring a comprehensive approach that fits your organization and its broader culture.