PRISM - American Society for Engineering Education - Logo - SEPTEMBER 2004 - VOLUME 14, NUMBER 1
The Cheating Culture - By Jeffrey Selingo

By Jeffrey Selingo


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 says.

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 office.

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 the semester."

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 University.

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 a paper."

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 the university."

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.


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 quality problems.

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 abilities."

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, D.C.


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