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Research examines cheating

Katie Perry | Thursday, October 27, 2005

Rutgers University business professor Don McCabe illuminated the causal factors of academic dishonesty – both institutional and personal – as he shared his own extensive research on the topic with Notre Dame faculty members at the Mendoza College of Business Wednesday.

In a lecture titled “Academic Integrity at Notre Dame: What role for faculty?” the founder of the Center for Academic Integrity (CAI) shared information collected from thousands of surveys that reveal trends in academic dishonesty on college campuses.

For 15 years, McCabe has delved deep into an issue that indiscriminately permeates colleges around the world. In conducting research at more than 150 universities, McCabe said he has uncovered some of the fundamental factors that contribute to academic dishonesty among college students.

McCabe said he has surveyed more than 100,000 students at more than 140 schools, more than 14,000 faculty members at more than 90 schools and more than 2,000 teaching assistants (TA) at 17 schools. Additionally, McCabe has also incorporated high school students in his study.

“I became curious as to which habits students pick up in high school and which habits they pick up in college,” he said.

Notre Dame participated in McCabe’s 2004-2005 academic year survey along with 66 other schools. In the web-based survey of undergraduate students from varied colleges, 20 percent reported test cheating – copying another’s work, using cheat notes or helping others – and 42 percent reported written cheating – plagiarizing or fabricating a bibliography.

McCabe said the problem was probably underreported.

“It’s self-report data, so you’re asking students to be honest about their dishonesty,” he said.

McCabe also said because the study was completed via the Internet, students feared their answers were being monitored and questioned the anonymity of the survey.

In addition to numerical data collected and tabulated in the study, McCabe said he discovered contributing institutional and personal factors that contribute to the problem of academic dishonesty at the collegiate level.

McCabe said the main influence in the propensity of students to cheat was what he called the “cheating culture” of a school.

“I was a great believer that honor codes would explain cheating on all campuses, but I was wrong,” he said.

The cheating culture encompasses how academic dishonesty is perceived by students on campus, how frequently it occurs and to what extent it is “accepted,” McCabe said.

McCabe said both the presence as well as the potency of a school’s honor code also contributes to students’ tendency to commit academic dishonesty.

“Having a code doesn’t do any good unless you explain to students its importance in the life of the campus,” he said. “If students sense faculty don’t support the honor code, a student under academic pressure could make the decision that it’s okay to cheat.”

McCabe said students are more likely to cheat if they feel faculty members don’t support academic policies, and thus foresee little chance of getting caught or facing stringent penalties.

“Students might see other students cheating and then see faculty turning their heads,” he said.

In the overall survey, approximately 80 percent of all faculty members said they had either seen or suspected acts of cheating, but 57 percent said they had never reported academic dishonesty, McCabe said.

McCabe said the “straight line” increase in cheating from freshman through senior year at college occurs because as students spend more time at an institution, they learn more about the cheating culture of the school.

Personal factors unique to only some students also increase the likeliness of college students to cheat, McCabe said. According to the study, business majors reported the highest instances of cheating out of all majors and concentrations.

“Many [business] students said they expect cheating in the corporate world and are only preparing for future careers,” he said.

McCabe said engineers are also likely to cheat as academic dishonesty becomes “an issue of time management.”

Males, students with extreme GPAs – very low or very high – and students involved in Greek life or athletics are also more likely to commit academic dishonesty, McCabe said.

Specific to Notre Dame, McCabe discovered telling trends about the University’s own “cheating culture.”

McCabe said “many” students who participated in last year’s survey felt the honor code was effective and saw little or no need for change.

“Students at Notre Dame don’t see [cheating] as much of a problem here,” he said. “They don’t think it’s a consistent issue.”

One aspect of the honor code with which students were not in agreement was regarding the practice of “student reporting.” In Notre Dame’s honor code, students are advised to report possible acts of dishonesty “directly to the instructor of the course.”

McCabe said although some students felt it was the “right thing to do,” many were concerned they might become a “rat” or “narc.” Others said it is simply not the students’ responsibility to police the academic dishonesty of their peers.

“Students are simply unwilling to report their peers, and it’s a mistake to harp on reporting,” McCabe said. “Students should be provided a set of options – maybe not necessarily naming names but perhaps making suggestions to faculty about [dishonesty] problems in the class.”

Students also said punishments are too severe in some situations.

“Many students at Notre Dame support the honor code, but some think the penalties are too severe, especially in regards to offenses due to ignorance, [for example] accidentally plagiarizing two sentences because of improper citation,” McCabe said. “For more trivial situations, I think sometimes [punishment] has been over-the-top.”

McCabe said emphasis should be placed on education – not punishment – and a student’s first ignorant offense should be a “teachable moment.”

“It’s absolutely critical we help students understand plagiarism,” he said.

Others in the survey said more education regarding the honor code and faculty expectations would be beneficial. McCabe agreed with the increase in communication and collaboration between students and faculty members.

“I think students need to have a sense of ownership and feel [the honor code] is really their own,” he said. “The fact that students should play a role – I certainly feel that way, but I’m not sure Notre Dame faculty members do as well.”

McCabe said he couldn’t prescribe a specific solution for Notre Dame because as an outsider, it was not possible to fully grasp the University’s specific “cheating culture.” However, he did urge faculty members to be proactive with the issue.

“It would be presumptuous of me to come in here and tell you what to do – you need to decide for yourselves,” he said.