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Fifty years ago, I was sitting in a high school classroom taking an exam. The sun was shining through the windows behind me, and I wasn’t particularly anxious about this test. I looked up from my test paper and something caught my eye, off to my left and slightly behind me. Two of my friends, two lovely teenage girls who always received excellent grades, were consulting each other.
They were cheating on the test. And I was dismayed.
I quickly turned my head back to my test paper and tried to unsee what I had seen.
And did nothing else except finish my own exam.
I’m embarrassed to tell this story today, because I consider myself a person of integrity. I could give plenty of excuses for not telling our teacher, but it’s clear that I colluded with their behavior.
And I was wrong.
* * * *
This memory came back to me as I ruminated about recent reports about cheating. Yes, I’m aware that there have always been students who cheated. But the opportunities to cheat and the tools available to aid them have grown; the societal norms and values about cheating have decayed and been severely compromised. And it suggests an even more dismal future for our values and culture in the U.S.
So, how and why do people cheat?
Some of the usual cheating methods continue. Students have others write their papers. Others use crib notes or silently commiserate with others. But the violations are bolder than I could have believed, especially following the restrictions of Covid-19.
One of the strategies is to work around the rules for midterm online exams:
No one checked IDs to make sure the students enrolled in the class were the same students taking the final. Cheaters in the class paid fellow classmates—the ones who stayed in the proctored exam room—up to $100 to send them the codes so they could log in from outside the room, where they were free to look up information on their phones or brainstorm answers together. In case the Olds got smart and thought to track students’ IP addresses—that is, where they actually were—students reserved study rooms in the same building as the exam room, Huntsman Hall, making it appear as though they were physically there. (It’s unclear whether any proctors thought to check.)
The average on the midterm was around 80 percent. In past years, it was closer to 60 or 70 percent. ‘It’s not that the teachers got miraculously better at teaching the content or that the kids are smarter,’ the University of Pennsylvania sophomore told me.
There are technical tools available as well:
Remote testing combined with an array of tech tools—exam helpers like Chegg, Course Hero, Quizlet, and Coursera; messaging apps like GroupMe and WhatsApp; Dropbox folders containing course material from years past; and most recently, ChatGPT, the AI that can write essays—have permanently transformed the student experience.
For one online exam, students were to allow no more than an hour. Since the exam wasn’t proctored, students violated the time limit, used technical sources to answer questions, and commiserated with each other to answer questions.
You might ask about the role of instructors to stop these behaviors. Many are intimidated by the demands and expectations of their students:
‘Nontenured faculty have no real choice but to compromise their professional standards and the quality of the students’ own education to take a customer’s-always-right approach,’ Gabriel Rossman at UCLA told me.
That’s because lower-level courses, where cheating is more rampant, tend to be taught by nontenured faculty with little job security—the kind of people who fear getting negative student evaluations. ‘Students can be tyrants,’ the CUNY English professor said. ‘It’s like Yelp. The only four people who are going to review the restaurant are the people who are mad.’
* * * *
What is the source of this rampant cheating? It often starts in high school:
It stands to reason that if high school students are allowed to cheat, then these same habits will be repeated in college. A survey of 9,000 high school students shows that 70% have cheated at least once in the past year. Moreover, 50% have cheated more than twice.
Once they enter college, the outcomes are even more bleak:
In March 2020, [International Center for Academic Integrity] ICAI researchers tested an updated version of the McCabe survey with 840 students across multiple college campuses. This work showed the following kinds of key cheating behaviors:
- Cheated in any way on an exam.
- Getting someone else to do your academic work (e.g., essay, exam, assignment) and submitting it as your own.
- Using unauthorized electronic resources (e.g., articles, Wikipedia, YouTube) for a paper, project, homework or other assignments.
- Working together on an assignment with other students when the instructor asked for individual work.
- Paraphrasing or copying a few sentences or more from any source without citing it in a paper or assignment you submitted.
The rationalizations for cheating are legion, but many people do it to get a competitive edge for job procurement.
There are solutions to these issues; you may have identified them yourself: stop online testing; require essay exams in proctored settings; take advantage of technology that aids in detecting cheating. There is no way to stop completely the determination for students to cheat, but we should try to slow down this pervasive deception.
Why, you ask? Unfortunately, many losses are generated by students cheating. First, their performance on the job may be sub-standard. These are the people who will become doctors, nurses, laboratory technicians, engineers of all kinds, airline pilots, and teachers. Many of them will believe that they can cut corners and no one will notice.
Are these the people you want to put in charge of your lives?
These are also people who don’t value integrity, so they are likely compromised in pursuing relationships, not only friendship and marriages, but work relationships, too.
These people can wreak so much damage to our society, but I am struggling to figure out how we can turn things around:
Amy Kind, the Claremont McKenna philosophy professor, is pessimistic. ‘We’re headed for one of these dystopian societies in science fiction where we just outsource all of our writing and projects and thinking to computers, and they do it for us.’ Soon, she added, ‘we’ll be at the mercy of our future computer overlords.’
Do you see a better way forward?Published in