The battle against cheating

Oct 16, 2003, vol. 28, no. 4

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One of the world's leading experts on academic honesty has praised SFU for tackling the issues of cheating and plagiarism head on.

Don McCabe, a professor of organization management at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey, has done extensive research on college cheating and has now surveyed more than 50,000 students at more than 100 colleges and universities in Canada and the U.S., including SFU.

McCabe, who has studied the problem for more than a decade, told a recent open meeeting on campus that many schools are too embarrassed to talk about the problem.

“There is a small number of schools, and interestingly a much larger percentage in Canada than in the U.S., that is using the results (of the surveys) even though they are embarrassing in some ways. I want to acknowledge that about SFU. I think you deserve a lot of credit.”

In praising SFU, McCabe was referring to the work of the task force on academic honesty and integrity, established by the university's VP-academic.

The task force, which has engaged in wide-ranging consultations, is scheduled to issue its report in November.

McCabe's surveys have unearthed ingenious forms of cheating that include using camcorders, cell phones, calculators and the internet. “It's amazing the technologies that students rely on today,” he says.

His survey of first year Canadian students showed that 58 per cent of respondents reported one or more instances of serious test cheating while at high school; 73 per cent reported one or more instances of serious cheating on written work. Yet only 20 per cent agreed with the statement: “Cheating was a serious problem in my high school.” Also, 68 per cent said they expected less test cheating at university while 19 per cent were not sure.

Among factors associated with university cheating are: a cheating culture; absence of an honour code; a sense of low faculty support for integrity policies; little chance of getting caught; and insignificant penalties. McCabe acknowledged that honour codes work best at small institutions and would likely not be the answer for SFU.

McCabe said students told him universities should stress motivation for learning rather than for grades. Students felt they should be accountable to each other, rather than to professors or administration; students should be given a second chance; students were shocked at the prevalence of cheating; students were glad to see the university was tackling the problem.

McCabe believes some faculty at SFU had missed opportunities to reduce cheating. For example, only 66 per cent had discussed their views on integrity with students and only 38 per cent had included information about cheating in the syllabus.

“There really seems to be an underlying student interest in addressing some of the problems that became obvious in the recent scandal (at SFU) and a reluctance on the part of some faculty to do that because of the greater time required,” says McCabe. “I would hope that the efforts that are going on now might convince faculty that they have a responsibility to students as well as to the institution to address this issue more effectively.”

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