Academic dishonesty is a growing problem

I had a lot of exams last week. I had a feeling that professors might have worked together to gang up on students. While exams are a necessary evil, it’s possible that departments purposely inflict the most pain on students by having tests all on the same day. The most disturbing part of my endless stream of lengthy exams was the student next to me in one class who I am sure was cheating.

Cheating on tests certainly isn’t a new phenomenon. In 1963, Bill Bowers did the first survey on cheating on college campuses and found that 63 percent of the more than 5,000 students at 99 campuses surveyed admitting to cheating at least once. Repeating his survey in 1993 at some of the same institutions, the amount was 70 percent – and that’s just the percentage who admitted it.

Of course, with grade inflation rampant and intense competitive pressure for higher education programs, it’s often argued students are somehow compelled to cheat to get ahead. This conclusion seems shortsighted because it minimizes the seriousness of a student’s role in cheating while attempting to place the blame on higher education itself.

Certainly students may see cheating as being a way to gain a measure of benefit with little downside risk. Sure, most syllabi point to a student code or academic regulation that will be invoked if cheaters are caught, but how often is any threatened punishment invoked?

Here’s an idea that I’m sure would have an impact – print the names, cheating offenses and punishments in the student newspaper. This way, the entire academic community will know the culprits of cheating. It would certainly cause embarrassment, and it could potentially deter other students from cheating.

It may seem Draconian, but technological advances have fueled the ability to cheat. Camera phones, the Internet and calculators that “do it all” make writing the answers on your palm and on the inside of your baseball hat so “last year.” This has increasingly put a burden on college professors to catch the lowest of the low.

As the New York Times reported in May, professors are resorting to “cutting off Internet access from laptops, demanding the surrender of cell phones before tests or simply requiring that exams be taken the old-fashioned way, with pens and paper” to catch the cheaters.

All that being said, professors are not without their share of the blame. Ignorance of students’ cheating ability and outright complicity are far too common. Take the case of a student who is obviously unprepared for a test but still tries to quiz the professor about the format and specific material on the exam. Professors should guide the student to readings and lecture notes covering the subject matter but not provide “hints” about the test. Similarly, professors should refrain from answering questions during a test that do more than clarify the instructions of the exam.

More can be done at the university level to combat the cheating virus that is rampant at academic institutions everywhere. A clear sign that not enough is being done is a recent finding reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education, which found that 56 percent of the 5,331 graduate business students surveyed had cheated in the last year. This could be due, in large part, to ineffective undergraduate programs to explain and warn against plagiarism and a host of other cheating mechanisms.

More could be done to equip professors with the tools to catch cheaters. At one end of the spectrum, cameras could be installed in special examination classrooms as a deterrent. More immediately and with no financial cost, “do it all” calculator memories could be erased, and bags could be prohibited near the testing area.

Some professors already use the latter methods for proctoring exams, and they should be applauded. Orderly testing can be difficult, especially in large lecture halls, but small actions can make a difference.

Campuses should consider establishing programs to use undergraduate students as proctors. Nobody would deny the powerful force of peer pressure on college campuses, and by energizing students to understand how cheaters undermine their own education and effort, they may be more willing to assist in minimizing cheating.

All this is not meant to indicate that cheating will be forever eradicated. Lack of time-management skills and a desire to get ahead at any cost will lead people to find new and more effective means to cheat on exams and papers.

A more concerted effort on the part of the campus administration, professors and other students may not eliminate the problem, but it could cause the penalties to be more transparent to others in higher education.

Aaron Hill is a senior majroing in economics.