Shades of Gray on Student Cheating

With students disagreeing on how acceptable some actions are, colleges must carefully handle cheating reports and manage accusations fairly.

December 7, 2021
 
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How acceptable is it to use study websites, or Google, to find answers to test or homework questions? What about using unapproved technology or tools to assist in an online exam? And would it be OK to give credit to another team member on a group project even if that person did not participate?

These are a few ways the latest Student Voice survey, conducted in mid- to late October by Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse with support from Kaplan, explored the nuances of academic integrity and what students view as unethical.

Kathy Baron, an education journalist and host of The Score, a podcast about cheating in higher education that launched in October, recalls an Obama-era Department of Education leader remarking that one either has academic integrity or doesn’t, with no middle ground. But when she interviews students, she finds, “It’s not that clear to them. They do see gradations.”

For example, more than half of the Student Voice respondents see googling during homework as at least somewhat acceptable. And nearly half say it’s at least somewhat acceptable to use study websites. “People will talk about chegging like they do about googling,” says Karen Symms Gallagher, who spent 20 years as dean of the University of Southern California Rossier School of Education and is now a senior research faculty member there.

When David Rettinger, president emeritus of the International Center for Academic Integrity (ICAI), looked over the Student Voice data, he was drawn to the numbers that showed how much students realize certain actions would be considered cheating. “Some of [the unacceptable responses] are a little lighter for sure, but students generally would describe these behaviors as unacceptable,” says Rettinger, a professor of psychological science and director of academic integrity programs at the University of Mary Washington. “Their institutions talk about these things, and students know what they’re supposed to do, yet students cheat a fair bit.”

He can imagine a stressed-out student saying, “I know it’s unacceptable, mostly I don’t do it, but in this situation I’m going to do something I generally don’t believe in.”

“That poses a problem for us as administrators,” he adds.

What’s acceptable to students may be seen differently by professors and administrators. When Warren Frisina, dean of the Rabinowitz Honors College at Hofstra University, was working on development of the institution’s Academic Honor Code (affirmed by faculty, student government and the president in 2012 and announced the following year), students and faculty members were asked similar questions as in the Student Voice survey.

“We found that students and faculty lined up on just about everything except for students helping one another do homework,” he says. “That was an interesting divergence. In students’ minds, if you’re in your dorm working on homework and your roommate is, too, it seemed not only appropriate but a good idea to allow the other person to help you or to help the person. It’s not about sending in the same work, but faculty tended to assume that students knew they weren’t allowed to consult with anybody.”

Student Voice explores higher education from the perspective of students, providing unique insights on their attitudes and opinions. Kaplan provides funding and insights to support Inside Higher Ed’s coverage of student polling data from College Pulse. Inside Higher Ed maintains editorial independence and full discretion over its coverage.

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One Oregon public university respondent to the Student Voice survey noted that professors’ expectations aren’t always clear or fair. “On the homework, I feel like it doesn’t matter as much. If you don’t know how to do it, and knowing the answer helps you figure out the process and learn, then I think you should be able to [look it up]. It’s not like we spend time in class going over the homework, and the tutoring centers aren’t always helpful,” the student wrote.

Besides specifics about what constitutes cheating, the survey asked about how fairly students believe their institutions handle cheating, with more than eight in 10 of the full sample agreeing at least somewhat that it’s fair. With this student perspective on academic integrity, campus leaders can be better equipped to develop policy and practice around reporting suspected cheating, managing those accusations and determining consequences.

Searching for Answers

Student perceptions of the most basic online tool, the search engine, are split pretty evenly by those who think it’s ethically acceptable to use to get answers and those who don’t. Filtered to include only students who say their college officials often or very often communicate about academic integrity and cheating in some way (n=600), only 10 percent more students think googling on homework is unacceptable. When looking only at students who say their institution has very clear policies around academic integrity and cheating (n=1,100), the percentage finding it unacceptable is just slightly higher.

Both these findings suggest that perhaps messaging should include expectations about the use of search engines. Or, maybe education helps, but it does not move the needle on ethical behaviors very much.

One respondent, from a private college in New York, wrote that “learning should not be about memorization, so it should be okay on … assignments to discuss with others, use notes and use the internet. Rarely does one need to know information in a vacuum.” (The student goes on to note that “cheating is only considered cheating because it is explicitly not allowed, not because it is actually an unethical behavior.”)

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Renee Pfeifer-Luckett, director of learning technology development for the University of Wisconsin system’s Office of Learning and Information Technology Services, points out that googling is an important workplace soft skill, particularly because of the need to confirm the accuracy of information. Pfeifer-Luckett, who has presented on learning tech tools used to ensure academic honesty, adds, “That’s a skill I use thousands of times a week.”

Students are also split on the use of study websites to find answers for homework or test questions—although such websites have gotten a lot of criticism from higher ed professionals. The responses about whether they are OK to use don’t vary much by those whose colleges address academic integrity frequently or by those who say their institution’s policies around cheating are very clear.

Baron recently interviewed a journalism student struggling with calculus who used study websites but also went to the tutoring center almost daily. “She just wanted to do well and understand it,” Baron says.

“Chegg has become really popular recently for problem solving,” says Pamela Vallejos, a biochemistry major at Hofstra who serves with six other undergraduates (plus faculty and staff) on the institution’s Honor Board. “I have friends who use it if they don’t understand something and need help. But it’s really up to the student how they use it. A lot of students don’t even realize it’s an easy way to catch a student cheating.”

Online exams appear to be seen as more sacred by students, with the majority of survey respondents saying that using unapproved technology or tools in exams is very unacceptable and only 17 percent seeing it as somewhat or very acceptable. “I think what you’re seeing is that the vast majority of students don’t cheat on exams most of the time,” says Rettinger.

Pulling Their Weight

As Vallejos says she has experienced firsthand, some students will get away with doing less or even no work on a group project.

There are certainly those “free riders,” says Alexander Matros, a professor of economics at the University of South Carolina who conducted research on cheating in the early part of the pandemic. And then there are those “who try to be perfect so they have finished the task and don’t care about contributions from everybody.”

When Pfeifer-Luckett used to teach marketing, figuring out how to design group work was challenging. One strategy involved splitting up all the marketing majors and dividing others by major, keeping general business, accounting and human resources program students in different groups. “I’d put one of each of those flavored students together,” she says. Other strategies included lots of check-ins and having the group members rate each other at the end. “But I never found a real effective way to make groups run efficiently,” she admits.

Getting Accused

The percentage of Student Voice respondents who say they have turned in a fellow student for cheating can be shown on one hand, and just a few others say they’ve been accused of either cheating or plagiarism. (A September survey by Online Plagiarism Checker, representing English-speaking students worldwide, showed similar findings in how many students have ever reported cheating.)

Vallejos found herself on the receiving end of an informal accusation early in the pandemic when she was back home in South America—trying to continue her studies while in quarantine in a farm area without Wi-Fi. “The only connection I had was through my phone,” she says, and that became a big problem when she was asked to take a quiz over Zoom. “The cellular only lasted five to 10 minutes, and it wasn’t strong enough to not look choppy. In my professor’s eyes, it was an intention of trying to cheat. He didn’t understand, and I ended up dropping the class.”

Experts focused on academic integrity cite a number of reasons for the low numbers of those reported for cheating. Professors may underreport because they don’t trust the systems the institution has in place to manage an accusation, or they may worry the institution will be too hard on students, Rettinger explains. Others feel that nothing will be done and they don’t want to be undermined, or waste their time.

Professors may also not want to admit students are cheating in their classes because “they see it as a reflection on them,” says Symms Gallagher.

Sitting on the Hofstra Honor Board, Vallejos has seen just how much goes into making an accusation and has come to believe some professors are afraid to report. Then there are professors who are “tired of students cheating” and will seemingly “do anything to find something to report,” she says.

When Hofstra put its Honor Code in place, one goal was to increase the number of reports, Frisina says, adding that the goal was realized early on. Still, many professors want to manage the situation themselves. “They just want to do the right thing for the kid in front of them,” he explains.

What’s the most common reason for reluctance to report? In Rettinger’s experience, it’s simply not having enough evidence.

Eren Bilen, a professor in the department of data analytics at Dickinson College who worked with Matros on the study about cheating in the pandemic, says it must be “undeniable that a student cheated. And the only way to get such evidence when an exam is given online is to be there with the student. If using a Zoom call and something is fishy, that’s not clear evidence.” Without proof, students can’t be issued consequences.

Yet not reporting creates inequities. “If faculty handle cheating in their own way, it’s not fair to students,” says Rettinger. “An institutional system protects students’ rights if done well.”

When Christopher Small, an academic resources and technology operations specialist at Southern New Hampshire University, used to teach at another institution, plagiarism was particularly challenging because an institutionwide system did not exist. “I just had to deal with it all and write a letter to the dean, explaining the severity level,” he says. “It was on the instructor to decide punitive measures.”

Being Heard

At Hofstra, the Honor Board’s job is “the care and feeding of the Honor Code,” says Frisina. That includes forming a committee of board members to hear incidents.

“I’ve attended one, and it was an interesting experience,” says Vallejos. “It was good to hear both sides, the professor and the student. It opens your eyes.”

Flowcharts posted on Hofstra’s Honor Code website visualize the academic dishonesty procedures for undergraduate and graduate students, which Frisina says helps both students and professors to have a clear understanding of the steps.

Rettinger, who sits in on many of the student-run hearings at Mary Washington, says “emotions run the gamut.” Some students feel disappointed in themselves, and “some students are defiant—it’s the everybody-else’s-fault-but-mine approach,” he adds. Rettinger sees a lot of students who fear for the future, too. “Those of us who run these processes want to take that part out, building a process that’s not punitive but educational.”

Students are still held accountable, though, Rettinger adds. “It’s important to think of the student that didn’t cheat on an assignment. When a student cheats, their actions have implications for everyone in the class.”

Systems where students run the entire process, including appeals, are very rare, to his knowledge. “No one knows the answer to this question, but there are probably fewer than 100 student-run systems in the U.S.—probably far fewer, but I’m being safe,” he says. Students have a substantive voice at additional colleges. But in terms of institutions like that outside the United States, Rettinger says, “there are probably close to zero, or a handful at most.”

At Mary Washington, the council includes five representatives from each of the four undergraduate classes, plus graduate school members and a president elected by the entire student body.

Facing the Consequences

At most colleges and universities, accusations of cheating either get ignored or result in punitive consequences, says Tricia Bertram Gallant, director of the academic integrity office at the University of California, San Diego, and a former board member of ICAI.

Some have implemented restorative justice approaches to formally get the accused and the accuser talking, and healing. Others, like SNHU, says Small, “try to turn the language and culture away from punitive charges to what academic integrity does for you.”

More coverage on the Student Voice academic integrity survey: How Students See Cheating, and How Colleges Can Contain It

At UCSD, it’s all about that teachable moment. “The reaction to cheating doesn’t need to be punitive, especially the first time,” says Bertram Gallant.

Students must reflect on the experience, talking about contributing factors. Then most complete an academic integrity seminar and learn how to make better ethical decisions.

Those facing suspension for cheating get an additional quarter during which an integrity peer mentor helps them work on whatever might be causing issues. Provided no more violations come up, the suspension gets canceled. The idea for students, says Bertram Gallant, is “to prove you want to be a member of this community that upholds academic integrity.”

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