When I hear the Carrie Underwood song "Before He Cheats," I both laugh and cringe. Part of me is saying "you go, girl" while another part cringes at the vivid description of the damage she wreaks on a two-timing guy's vehicle. I have a similar reaction to many stories of academic dishonesty. Many do have a humorous side. (For example, I once heard of some students who had managed to access a gradebook and change some of their assignment grades. Not only were they caught, but the changes they made weren't enough to get them a passing grade in the class.) Humor aside, few things bother an instructor as much as dealing with a cheating scenario; our feelings might be akin to Underwood's as she sings of slashing tires.
Cheating is an increasingly prevalent issue in higher education—a slew of sources attest to this. Why? There are a number of possible explanations. Students are influenced by both an ethical relativism and a sense of entitlement that helps rationalize cheating. They also have grown up in an age when information is shared freely, easily and collaboratively-meaning many instances of cheating are the result of ignorance rather than intent. There are also cross-cultural considerations; Western standards in such things as plagiarism are not universal. (For a good article on the issue, see Sarah Glazer's "Plagiarism and Cheating," The CQ Quarterly, 23:1 4 Jan. 2013.)
It'd be nice to think that we'd never have to deal with cheating, but that simply defies logic. We have to be prepared for such an eventuality. What follows are some practical tips for doing so.
A good starting point concerns policy. In days gone by, professors had a certain leeway in dealing with cheating. Those days are indeed "gone." Faced with a growing problem, institutions have or are developing measures to address it. These appear as "honor codes" or "integrity policies." This trend is a good thing for instructors. In the current context of student/parent expectations and rampant litigation, these policies are welcome protection. Of course, this requires that we do a few things.
- Familiarize yourself with your institution's policies regarding cheating. What are the general standards? What are the specific definitions and benchmarks for cheating? What are your general responsibilities for upholding the standards? If there is an incident, what will the process be for dealing with it? Who do you report to, and what will be expected of you?
- What discretion are you allowed? Can you adopt more stringent policies on the basis of personal or professional expectations? What if you suspect a violation might not be due to malfeasance?
Next, planning is in order. You have to consider how you will implement the necessary measures. While you should be able to rely on institutional guidelines, these are only as effective as you make them in practice. Planning ahead insures that should you have to deal with such a situation, you are "covered."
- Embed the pertinent institutional measures in the appropriate course materials (e.g. syllabi). A syllabus is, in effect, a legal document. Thus, putting these measures in a syllabus obligates the student to abide by them. Institutions often have these in "boilerplate" form; use this. If you go over your syllabus at the beginning of the semester, be sure to address them specifically.
- Support these standards in practice. In part, this means that if you have an incident of cheating, be prepared to enforce policy. Yet this also means practicing prevention. If students can observe that you actively deter cheating, it lends credence to the policy. This often is achieved with simple practices; for example, if you have students taking exams on computers, sit behind them where you can see the screens at all times.
- Set clear yet realistic expectations. When students have an assignment, be sure that they are clear on what they can and cannot do. If they are taking a test in class, they already should know that they cannot "peek." However, if they have an assignment to complete outside of class, explicitly tell them whether they can work in groups or not. Carefully consider what you can realistically expect. If students are taking a quiz online, it likely is unrealistic to expect it not to be "open book." In essence, for a policy to be effective, it must be enforceable.
- Develop "cheat resistant" assignments. While assignments cannot be completely "cheat proof," they can be resistant to cheating with some careful thought and planning. For example, to deter cheating on a research paper, avoid generic content requirements; these make it easy for a student to plagiarize or make use of online paper mills. A student will find it much harder to do either with an assignment that has specific or tailored content requirements.
Finally, give this some forethought. I distinguish this from planning in that being clear about your policies or practices is not the same as being intellectually and emotionally ready to deal with cheating.
- Think about how you will address a student you suspect of cheating. Have a standard email response composed. If possible, collaborate with colleagues to develop a common response. Be sure that this broaches the issue in an appropriate and effective manner, is consistent with institutional and course guidelines, and avoids potential (e.g. legal) pitfalls.
- Think about how you will respond to student responses, either written or face-to-face. These will run the gamut, from emotionally contrite to downright combative. Keep in mind that you are trying to resolve an incident of cheating; avoid jeopardizing the process with your own reactions. While it is OK to be human, avoid being drawn in emotionally or being overly empathetic. Also, be ready for those who "own up" to cheating; thank them for being honest enough to admit what they did and don't lash out at them in anger, but also avoid "soft-pedaling" on the issue. Finally, keep an open mind; there will be instances where students are not guilty, so don't let cynicism or self-certainty blind you.
- Be ready to explain to student why cheating is not acceptable. This gets at issues of justice, respect for the (intellectual) property of others, and insuring that everyone has a "fair shake" in terms of outcomes. Be able to explain why this benefits them as individuals and as a whole.
I've had to deal with cheating a number of times in my career. It's no less troubling now than it was when I first started. I have found that it is "easier" to handle with good policy, planning, and forethought. (At least I haven't found myself slashing any tires.)