By Jeffrey Selingo
CHEATING IS ON THE RISE, BUT MANY
PROFESSORS ARE RELUCTANT TO CONFRONT DISHONEST STUDENTS BECAUSE
IT'S TOO DIFFICULT TO PROSECUTE THEM.
Last spring, John K. Schueller, professor of mechanical and
aerospace engineering at the University of Florida, learned
from some seniors in his control-theory class that a few of
their classmates had cheated on an exam by whispering answers
and showing their papers to one another.
Schueller was surprised. After all, he had proctored the
exam along with a teaching assistant and thought his presence
in the room would have discouraged cheating. Now he wondered
what to do about the next exam. The class had 104 students
crammed into a small lecture hall, so prohibiting students
from sitting next to one another was impossible.
His solution? The next test would have two versions. When
Schueller graded that exam, though, he discovered that one
student had answers from the other version. To Schueller,
it was a clear-cut example of cheating and he decided to pursue
charges through the university's judicial system, his
first case in 18 years of teaching at the university. "I
was told by older faculty not to waste my time," Schueller
Now he knows why. The student denied the charges, claiming
he was a poor student who had simply arrived at the wrong
answers. After a formal hearing, the student was acquitted.
"Instead of getting the ‘F' I wanted to
give him, he got a ‘D,' " Schueller says.
"It was discouraging."
Cheating in college is nothing new, of course. For generations,
students have scrawled crib notes on the inside of baseball
caps or copied passages out of books for term papers. Now,
however, surveys show that cheating among college students—including
engineering majors—is getting worse. In 1964, 58 percent
of engineering students said they had cheated at least once.
By 1996, that number had jumped to 82 percent, according to
research by Donald L. McCabe, a management professor at Rutgers
University who conducts occasional surveys of students and
faculty members on the issue. "Students now look at
cheating differently," McCabe says. "Students
are no longer embarrassed by it."
Schools of engineering on many campuses often rank near the
top in the number of cases referred to university judicial
panels. At Ohio State, for instance, the college of engineering
had 19 percent of the academic misconduct cases on campus
in the 2002-03 academic year, the most of any school on campus.
The engineering school at George Washington University had
21 percent of the academic misconduct cases on campus over
the same period—the most of any school on campus after
arts and sciences, the university's largest. At Georgia
Tech, 37 percent of the academic misconduct cases resolved
in 2002-03 were from the college of engineering, the most
of any school at the university.
It's also easier to cheat today, thanks to technology
like the Internet and wireless messaging devices such as cell
phones. Professors who turn their back on the problem also
help. Unlike Schueller, many faculty members simply ignore
or are unaware of the cheating that goes on in their classrooms.
More often than not, they choose to handle cases quickly and
quietly to avoid the laborious campus judicial process that
usually ends in disappointment for them.
In a 2000 survey, McCabe found that one third of professors
who said they were aware of a cheating incident in their classroom
in the last two years did nothing about it. "An awful
lot of faculty [members] don't take cheating as seriously
as they should," says Kris Pister, professor of electrical
engineering and computer sciences at the University of California-Berkeley.
"I don't believe the people who say there is no
cheating in their class. I think they are all being naïve."
Pister himself realized the pervasiveness of the problem
when he found out several years ago that certain teams of
students working on a final project in digital circuit design
had shared information with each other. "These were
not minor infractions," he says. "There was wholesale
copying." He ended up failing 13 students in the class
for cheating and referred them to the university's judicial-affairs
The situation Pister encountered is a common one. Engineering
professors say that sharing homework assignments is probably
the most popular form of cheating they encounter these days.
One reason, they believe, is that engineers are expected to
collaborate in their professional careers, but engineering
students are often discouraged from working together on assignments
in college. And while some professors clearly spell out in
their syllabus that sharing work is prohibited, others are
not as clear or actively encourage students to work together.
Often, the result is confused students.
That's what Douglas Jones, electrical and computer
engineering professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign,
ran into last fall when he discovered that a quarter of the
130 students in his computer engineering course had worked
in groups and copied from other people on programming assignments.
Although Jones says his syllabus clearly stated that students
were supposed to do their own work, some thought it was acceptable
to collaborate since they were allowed to do that in other
classes. "It was not an issue that I [had] faced before,"
says Jones, who has been teaching for 16 years. "I never
even stressed that part of my syllabus at the beginning of
Because of this, Jones decided it was only fair to handle
the matter himself. He gave students the option of turning
themselves in for a small penalty—half of what they
would have scored on the assignment. "Pretty much everybody
came forward," he says. "A lot of people admitted
to a lot less than I think they did."
So What's the Problem?
Getting students to understand what they did wrong is often
difficult. Habits are formed well before students come to
college. Professors say many high schools have turned a blind
eye toward cheating. Although many college students still
express regret when accused of academic misconduct—professors
have plenty of stories about students sobbing in their offices—some
are openly defiant.
"I once had a kid tell me, ‘Why are you getting
so upset about these types of things—you are teaching
us to be problem solvers and we're solving the problem,'"
recalls R. Allen Miller, professor and chairman of the industrial,
welding, and systems engineering department at Ohio State
Julie J.C.H. Ryan, assistant professor of engineering management
and systems engineering at George Washington University, chalks
up the indifference to the consumer attitude that many students
have adopted. "My students think that because they pay
tuition that they are customers and that the customer is always
right," Ryan says. "I always tell them: You are
not the customer."
A graduate student Ryan once accused of plagiarism told her
that he was taking the class for the second time because the
previous professor also accused of him of plagiarism. "This
is a generation that grew up with copy and paste," Ryan
says. "And sometimes that's all they do to write
Indeed, technology has changed how students cheat. For research
papers, students can plug a topic into Google and instantly
gather information from hundreds of Web sites worldwide, even
other term papers. For homework, computer files can be attached
to e-mail messages and quickly sent to an entire class. For
tests, students can send instant messages to students across
the room via cell phones and other handheld devices.
Last year, at the University of Maryland-College Park, 12
students were accused of cheating on an accounting exam after
friends text-messaged them the answers from a bogus key that
was posted online in an effort to catch cheaters. Some students
were thought to have directly accessed the key using cell
phones capable of browsing the Web.
At the University of Florida, where students in the school
of engineering are required to have a laptop and the campus's
wireless network extends to classrooms, some professors would
like students to have the ability to use their computers during
exams. But that's not going to happen as long as wireless
networks allow students to send each other instant messages.
"Universities, in putting in their wireless structures,
have not given the capacity to turn off the networking in
certain rooms," Florida's Schueller says. "Universities
should be designing rooms where radio waves can't come
in so that examinations could be held there."
For how much technology has forced faculty members to contemplate
the different ways students might cheat the system, it has
also made it easier to catch them. Recently, Robert Lundquist,
associate professor of industrial, welding, and systems engineering
at Ohio State University, caught 50 engineering students sharing
spreadsheet assignments for an economics class. He nabbed
them by checking the file properties of the suspect spreadsheets
and determining that they were all created by the same computer.
George Washington's Ryan keeps her Web browser open
to Google when reading papers and plugs in two or three phrases
from each page to see if a student plagiarized. "I check
every paper, even the ones that are by very good students,"
Ryan says. She adds, somewhat proudly, that she is responsible
"for 10 percent of the academic integrity charges at
A few professors have even designed homemade computer programs
to detect cheating. The computer science department at Georgia
Tech University accused 187 students of cheating in December
2001 after a homemade program found similarities among their
homework assignments. Students found guilty received punishments
ranging from a zero on the assignment to a failing grade in
the class. One student was suspended.
A SLAP ON THE HAND
Although the Georgia Tech and Ohio State cases reached scandalous
proportions, many cheating cases are handled in the privacy
of faculty offices, resulting in nothing more than a stern
warning, or at worse, a failing grade on the assignment. Some
professors prefer to avoid the attention that comes with lodging
formal charges. "Cheating has associated with it a stigma,"
says one engineering professor at a southern private university
who has cracked down on cheating in his classes, but refused
to be identified because "there is nothing positive
to be gained."
Other instructors complain that campus judicial systems are
ineffective. Among their objections: The burden of proof falls
squarely on the professor. Students usually deny the charges,
and when punishments are handed out, they rarely equal the
crimes. "My faculty [members] generally do not take
cases to the university system," Florida's Schueller
says. "In cases where my colleagues have demonstrated
cheating, we have not been able to get a conviction from the
student honors court."
But when professors fail to follow university procedures
for academic misconduct, they may allow cheaters to slip through
the cracks, Ohio State's Lundquist says. If instructors
handle cases themselves, then habitual cheaters might never
get the punishment they deserve. "A student could pull
it off on 10 professors in different departments without anyone
knowing it's a pattern," he says.
Lundquist has a unique way of discouraging cheating in his
classes: On the first day he holds up a copy of the student
newspaper with the article on the cheating he uncovered. "I
tell them the article was about me, so if they think of cheating,
I'm going to catch them."
At Berkeley, Pister spells out his tough message in his syllabus
and Web site. "Some faculty members will work with students
who have cheated to understand the problem and the motivation
and try to find an accommodation," he writes. "I
am not one of them."
Not all professors have such a tough reputation, of course.
But there are strategies professors can use to reduce cheating
in their classes, argues Joe Kerkvliet, associate professor
of economics at Oregon State University. He co-authored an
article in 1999 in The Journal of Economic Education entitled
"Can We Control Cheating in the Classroom?" The
tactics he discovered that worked can be applied to almost
any discipline, he says, including engineering.
Kerkvliet asked more than 500 students in 12 courses with
an average class size of 48 on two campuses about cheating.
In some classes, as few as .002 percent of the class said
they had cheated, while in others that number rose to 35 percent.
The difference? The more professors paid attention to the
possibility of cheating, the less it happened. Multiple versions
of the same exam reduced cheating by 25 percent, for instance.
Stern warnings before each test cut cheating by 12 percent.
Methods commonly believed to stymie cheating, like getting
rid of multiple-choice exams or putting space between students
while they take tests, are not as effective as many believe,
Kerkvliet says. "No matter how creative the instructor
is," he says, "the student will be more creative."
And engineering students, with their knowledge of technology,
are particularly creative.
Although it doesn't excuse the practice, some instructors
do think engineering students are worked too hard compared
with other students in other majors. And that might explain
why engineering students cheat more than students in some
other majors. They labor under the pressures of getting good
grades and securing high-paying jobs after graduation while
still wanting the life of a typical college student. "The
pressure is pretty bad on students," says the University
of Illinois's Jones. "Some of the blame goes on
the faculty. We have tried to squeeze so much into the curriculum
without taking anything out."
The rate of cheating among engineering students worries some,
like Trevor S. Harding, associate professor of manufacturing
engineering at Kettering University. Along with other researchers,
he has investigated whether there is any relationship between
cheating in high school and college and misconduct on the
job later in life. The short answer: Yes.
The researchers—including Donald S. Carpenter, of the
Lawrence Technological University and Cynthia J. Finelli and
Honor J. Passow of the University of Michigan—surveyed
130 engineering students at two technically oriented private
universities who had both workplace and academic experiences.
They found that 6 in 10 students who said they frequently
cheated in high school also cheated in college and later violated
workplace policies against falsifying records and ignoring
What concerns Harding and others about the findings is that
the consequences of cutting corners on the job are so much
greater than cheating on a test in college. "Engineering,
unlike most other disciplines, involves the safety and welfare
of the public," he says. If faculty fail to take a hard
line against cheating, Harding adds, they are "sending
students to companies who have a false sense of that student's
Even so, many instructors believe that no matter how much
they try to prevent cheating, there will always be at least
one student who tries to game the system. Perhaps the only
action that can eliminate cheating is also the one that is
impossible, says Michael Loui, a professor of electrical and
computer engineering at the University of Illinois: casting
Harry Potter's "anti-cheating spell" on
quills used for tests.
Jeffrey Selingo is a freelance writer based in Washington,