It’s no secret that college and university students are cheating, but some seem surprised it’s happening on Adventist campuses. And not only are Adventist students cheating—they don’t necessarily think what they’re doing is wrong.
College students justify cheating for various reasons. Some think that teachers give too much “busywork.” Others blame the “system” for making it impossible to succeed without cheating. Some people, like Pacific Union College professors Jim Roy and Nancy Tucker, think that society is partly to blame. Tucker thinks society has caused students to believe that “it doesn’t matter how you do it—just get the grade. The end justifies the means.” Students have even told her, “It’s not cheating if you don’t get caught.”
So how bad is the situation? During my four years at PUC I saw very few students cheat. I must have been blind. My ears sure worked, though, because I heard countless students brag about how they had passed their midterm or final because of the generosity—and knowledge—of a fellow student. I heard one student admit to not doing a single assignment in his accounting class, but instead copying the answers from someone else each day. I wanted to know what was really happening, so I asked questions. This is what I found.
“I think the cheating comes out of pressure,” suggests Tucker, chair of the Nursing Department at PUC. “If there’s no pressure to get a grade, then there’s no pressure to cheat.” Academic Dean Nancy Lecourt echoes Tucker’s assessment. “When pressure goes up, cheating goes up, or at least temptation to cheat goes up,” Lecourt says.
So where does this pressure come from? To start with, it comes from parents, proposes Roy, chair of the Education Department. “Parents’ need for success” makes them push their children to succeed, Roy says. Some students feel they can’t meet their parents’ expectations without cheating.
Teachers are also to blame, Roy adds. He believes many teachers are too focused on grades and lose focus on students’ comprehension of class material. Some teachers are too concerned with “academic rigor” and don’t want to give “too many A’s,” but that’s not education, Roy says. Focusing on grades leads to “artificial rigor” instead of creating understanding.
Teachers agree that it’s more often the above-average student that resorts to cheating. Biology professor Robin Vance believes preprofessional students (prelaw, predentistry, and premed) are most susceptible to cheating because they feel they need “that additional edge” to get into professional school. “They’re not in danger of failing. It’s less common for failing students to cheat,” he says.
Some academic departments have more problems with cheating than others. According to Lecourt, the problem departments are those with objective tests, which, unfortunately, are most departments. The business and science-related departments are the most difficult to monitor for cheating, partly because of their large class sizes. It’s hard to prevent cheating when there are more than one hundred students crowded into a classroom.
The Business Department “is an easy department to cheat in,” says one 2006 Business Department graduate, “because of the quantitative answers required on the tests.” Since many business classes use mathematical problems on tests, it’s easy to look at your neighbor’s test and copy his or her answers.
Business professor Keith Neergaard has dealt with plenty of cheating during his eighteen years at PUC, but he doesn’t believe business majors are “more or less prone to cheating” than others. However, according to an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “undergraduate business students are…more likely to cheat than are their nonbusiness classmates.”
Roy has not dealt with much cheating in the Education Department. “In my six or seven years here, I have had one student who wrote to me about six months after the class was done” to admit that he cheated. “He asked for my forgiveness,” says Roy, and the student rectified the wrong he had committed.
Professor Lynne Thew of the Communication Department says “cheating hasn’t been as much of a problem in my classes as plagiarism, and plagiarism is fairly easy for me to detect.” Thew recognizes plagiarism by “the difference in quality and tone of writing from one assignment to the next.” She spends time searching for material on the Internet that students have turned in as their own.
Lecourt credits turnitin.com, the Web site used to detect plagiarism, for reducing and catching plagiarism, especially in the English Department. The site makes it easy for professors to spot plagiarism and provides evidence with which professors can confront students.
What the whole issue of cheating really comes down to, according to Lecourt, is “Who do you want to be?” Do students want to be ethical? Do they want to be held accountable for the knowledge they are supposed to gain? Do students regret cheating? The evidence isn’t so clear.
At PUC, there is concern about how those who cheat their way through college will survive once they graduate. This is especially a concern, says Thew, among those who will enter the medical and legal professions, where honesty and ethics are vital.
“We stress the importance of honesty in nursing, because eventually students will go out there and take care of people,” Tucker says. “If they make mistakes, they need to acknowledge those mistakes because they can damage people if they don’t. Integrity is very important in nursing,” Tucker emphasizes.
There is a real sense of concern about cheating students becoming medical personnel. Although Lecourt believes that some premed students may feel “the world will be better if I’m a doctor, so it’s okay to cheat,” the world may, in fact, be worse off having doctors who cut corners to get their diplomas and medical licenses.
Some argue that those who cheat are only hurting themselves, but one student has seen cheaters prosper. After observing two students share answers during a religion test, she turned the students in to the professor. She doesn’t know what punishment they received, or if they were punished at all, but one of those students is now a PUC employee. “Cheating hasn’t hurt him,” she says bitterly.
Another problem on top of cheating is the growing creativity among those who cheat. What began as simply copying answers from your neighbor’s test has now grown into a game of who can cheat most creatively.
“I sat next to a guy in general psychology who would write answers to test questions on the inside of the bill of his baseball cap,” says a 2007 PUC graduate. “Everyone knows the trick of writing answers on your water bottle and on the side of your pencil,” she continues. “And when you’re wearing a hat or a hood, the teacher can’t see where your eyes are looking.”
Professors occasionally give out test or quiz questions ahead of time and it’s easy for students to write the answers before the quiz or test and then come to class and turn them in. A student can also place notes inside a calculator cover during a test and can either keep the answers or pass them to a friend. Another use for calculators is typing notes on those that have typing capabilities and then “sharing” the calculator, and the answers.
A more creative way of cheating, adds a PUC junior, is shoving a piece of paper with answers inside a pencil and then letting your friend borrow the pencil. Students even leave notes in bathroom trashcans and in toilet paper dispensers and quietly excuse themselves from exams when they need “help.”
The biggest concern seems to be cheating on tests, which occurs most frequently in large classes. Science classes like Biological Foundations often have more than one hundred, which requires professors to be especially vigilant, something that many students and some faculty members are concerned is not happening. Professors occasionally leave classrooms during tests, giving students the perfect opportunity to share answers.
The good news is that, at least at PUC, they’re doing something about the cheating. Lecourt began her second year as academic dean with an ally at her side—SACAI, or Student Advisory Council for Academic Integrity. This committee was created by student senators with Lecourt’s support and assistance. The group consists of four students and two professors who meet with Lecourt to discuss cheating and think up creative ways of educating students about the benefits of being honest in academics.
In 2000 the college developed a policy on “academic dishonesty.” Called the Code of Academic Integrity, it identifies eight areas of academic dishonesty: cheating, fabrication, facilitating academic dishonesty, plagiarism, multiple submissions, abuse of academic materials, misrepresentation, and electronic dishonesty. The code states, “Students shall not violate the Code of Academic Integrity and shall avoid situations likely to compromise academic integrity…Failure of faculty to prevent academic dishonesty does not excuse students from compliance with the Code.”
The Code of Academic Integrity lists the “procedures for addressing academic dishonesty.” According to the code, a teacher should approach a student he or she believes has been academically dishonest. The teacher should inform the department chair of the incident and, if the teacher is not fully satisfied with the student’s explanation, the teacher should document the incident, giving one copy to the student and another to the academic dean’s office. “Serious first offenses and repeat offenses” are reviewed by the Academic Standards and General Education Committee, which may then propose a “disciplinary action” to the Academic Dean. Students can appeal the decision and are given the opportunity to include a written statement in their file.
Other Adventist schools such as Southern Adventist University, Walla Walla University, and Southwestern Adventist University have similar procedures and consequences.
But a policy does not always dictate behavior. Even Lecourt admits to not having followed policy when a student in her English class cheated on a small assignment. “I wrote [on the assignment] ‘This is not acceptable,’ gave it a zero, but, you know, it was like a ten-point assignment.…The student was pretty much on notice. I don’t even think I turned that into the Dean. Maybe I should have,” she acknowledges.
With national statistics from the Center for Academic Integrity estimating that “almost 80 percent of college students admit to cheating at least once,” Adventist colleges and universities face a dilemma. How will they deal with cheating? They can blame it on society, parents, professors, or students themselves, but that won’t make it go away. They can threaten and punish. They can ignore it, but what does that solve? It seems that they will have to teach students the benefits of honest academics—the answer is education. But isn’t that what they’re supposed to be doing anyway?
Brittany Collins graduated from Pacific Union College in June 2007.