As the uplifting strains of “Pomp and Circumstance” echo through the quads of colleges and universities during graduation season, teary parents and ecstatic students celebrate a job well done.
You know the story line: hard work triumphs. We dutifully pass knowledge from one generation to the next. The phrase etched into the red sandstone of a soaring building at my alma mater, Colorado College, sets out our ideals: “Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.”
But look more closely at the professors and administrators in those quads and on those stages. Some may seem a little nervous, crossing their fingers behind those flowing gowns, hoping that every student truly earned a diploma. Unfortunately, stories of cheating are rife. One well-respected university unwittingly gave a master’s degree — with honors, no less — to a student who paid thousands of dollars for the piece of paper.
That student secretly confessed to a colleague of mine, Evangeline Litsa Mourelatos, an English professor at the American College of Greece in Athens. Through her work on academic integrity, Mourelatos tells this student’s story so we will all know that cheating can happen even with apparent honor students and even in our own backyards.
Around the world, many of us are caught in a perpetual game of cat and mouse. The reality is that cheating is out of hand. Paper mills have become ubiquitous. Do a simple Google search and dozens of sites will pop up.
Their ads are brazen and alluring. They show cartoon drawings mocking the process and urging young people to fool their professors. Students sit lazily on couches surrounded by empty beer bottles while papers get written for them.
The quality of the work ranges from comically poor to highly professional. You get what you pay for. Then there is the more subtle cheating. Students raised on computers have learned to “write” papers by getting a little information here and a little there.
That’s not so different from the dark ages when we copied straight from Encyclopedia Britannica. But by the time students are in high school, college and beyond, we want them to think for themselves, to be able to make coherent, original arguments.
Good students will find — and properly credit — multiple sources to come up with a salient point of view of their own. Others stay one step ahead of the software that we use to catch plagiarism by changing a few words here and a phrase or two there.
They will open five sites at a time on their computer and take one sentence from Wikipedia, altering it just a bit, then one from the next site, and so on and so on. Some students think this is legitimate. We must teach them that it’s not.
Nearly 25 years ago, when I was in college, we took unproctored exams anywhere on or off campus. I signed my name with the phrase “Honor Code Upheld” on all assignments, tests and papers. I did this because those words mattered. We had a culture of trust on campus. I’m sure some students still cheated, but the overwhelming majority did not because every professor educated us about the school’s honor code. We respected our obligations and felt like adults when we were given the responsibility to uphold the code whether we took an exam under a tree or in our dorm rooms.
Today, I teach environmental science, geology and geography classes at the University of Denver. If our students are like thousands of others across the United States, as many as 50 percent of them would admit in informal surveys to cheating at some point in college.
Donald McCabe is a professor of management and global business at Rutgers University and the founding president of the International Center for Academic Integrity, the group that’s leading the fight against cheating in higher education. McCabe recently surveyed more than 82,000 undergraduate and graduate students in the US and Canada. He reports that more than 40 percent of students admit to working with others on a project when instructed to work alone and more than 33 percent admit to copying information from internet sources without proper citations.
These findings are depressing for those of us who believe that part of our job as professors is to teach integrity. When the cheating machine overwhelms institutions of higher learning, it’s no surprise that some students go on to take corrupted values straight to the professional world, where the stakes are even higher.
Stockbrokers, lawyers and bankers who cheat can bring our economy to its knees. Around the world, hacking is far faster than innovating. Want to see what your competitors are doing? Just steal their proprietary business plans, military secrets or software.
Given such overwhelming forces, how do we fight back?
Meaningful honor codes
I contend that we must strengthen honor codes and make them meaningful. Secondly, professors cannot be lazy. We must stay one step ahead of students and give them ever more inventive assignments so we can teach them to think for themselves. And we can take a very pragmatic approach. Students like to be happy. So, let’s show them that living honestly is a remarkably direct path to happiness.
At the University of Denver, we have had an honor code since 2000. I was part of a committee in 2010 that evaluated how it was working. We found that it was toothless, that few students knew it existed, and that professors enforced it unevenly.
Again, we are not alone. Even at schools where honor codes have been cornerstones of campus culture for decades, they are not working as well as they once did. Easy access to the Internet and omnipresent digital technology have made it too tempting to cut and paste borrowed ideas and call them your own or to share exam answers.
At DU, we revised our code and launched a campus-wide effort to promote academic integrity. We distilled the original code into clearer language summarizing why honest work is important. We now give specific examples of honor code violations. We require all members of the DU community to report violations, and we made the reporting process easier. And we offer training and technological resources for professors to scan student papers for plagiarism.
More recently, we have focused on educating students on the importance of making honest academic decisions before they commit a violation. We are committed to working with a growing number of international students who may have a different perspective on academic integrity. In this way, campus leaders can demonstrate the importance of ethics and integrity in our system and explain to foreign students the serious consequences for themselves and others if they violate the honor code.
And our work has been noticed: in February, the International Center for Academic Integrity chose DU out of campuses around the world to receive its annual Campus of Integrity Award.
While campus-wide efforts are vital, we as professors also must work harder and smarter.
Here’s an example: say I taught art history. If I assigned my students to write a 10-page paper on the history and significance of Italy’s Sistine Chapel, I would be inviting plagiarism. There are scores of papers online that students could use to cheat on that assignment.
Instead, I can assign my students to read a paper that offers a specific critique of the Sistine. I ask them to analyze that author’s views, then apply those critiques to a local church in Denver. It’s impossible for a student to find something this random and specific online. The assignment challenges them to think for themselves. Sure, there are ways to cheat, but a clever assignment makes it much harder.
Sometimes, instead of assigning research papers outside of class, I force students to do extended, in-class essays with paper and pencil. The assignment is given in advance, and students can come prepared with notes on a single piece of paper. They must leave their laptops, phones and any other digital device at the door.
This set-up forces students to show me what they can do without outside help. I don’t mind sorting through spelling mistakes, messy handwriting and imperfect thoughts when I know I’m getting original ideas instead of borrowed brilliance.
Some professors assign the same papers or give the same exams year after year. We can’t do this. It’s a perpetual struggle, and one I’m still trying to master. But we must recognize our role in encouraging honesty.
We also find that it’s very helpful to give students a great deal of handholding and time to do long assignments. If I’m assigning a big paper, it’s helpful to give intermediate deadlines, ie, their topic would be due this week, the outline the next, etc. Informal, non-scientific studies suggest that 95 percent of students who cheat didn’t plan to plagiarize. Many found themselves panicking the night before a paper was due. They were running out of time and turned to online sources out of desperation.
I have tried to combat this dynamic in one of my classes by giving out my cell phone number and telling students that if it’s midnight on the eve of a due date and they’re about to plagiarize to please contact me instead and we’ll work out a different solution.
In the end, the ultimate weapon against the cheating machine centers on showing students what’s in their best interests. Studies show that people who live honest lives are happier. Secrets can stress us out.
James Lyons, retired dean of student affairs at Stanford University, has become a beacon for academic integrity. At one of his first jobs at a college before he went to Stanford, Lyons wanted to strengthen the school’s honor code. Administrators initially tried to keep him busy handling campus parking infractions.
One day, a student sauntered into Lyons’ office, ticket in hand, and said he hadn’t parked illegally. So Lyons tore up the ticket. The student was stunned. Lyons simply said, “We’re an honor code school, so I believe you’re telling me the truth.”
Years later, Lyons would sometimes get letters from former students with cash inside saying that they had indeed parked illegally, owed a fine, and that Lyons had taught them their most important lesson during college.
Lyons ultimately graduated from parking enforcement to honor codes and said the fundamental lesson he learned was: “The best way to gain trust is to give trust.”
That lofty etching at Colorado College may not be so ethereal after all. Perhaps the truth really can set us free.
Dr Michael W. Kerwin is an associate professor in the Department of Geography and the Environment at the University of Denver. He was recently was selected to join the executive board for the International Center for Academic Integrity. He collaborated on this piece with Katie Kerwin McCrimmon. This article originally appeared in the Denver Post and is republished with permission.