Slice of life: Do you know where your cheaters are?

Slice of life: Do you know where your cheaters are? McGill University

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McGill Reporter
March 23, 2000 - Volume 32 Number 13
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Home > McGill Reporter > Volume 32: 1999-2000 > March 23, 2000 > Slice of life: Do you know where your cheaters are?

Do you know where your cheaters are?

| The next time you attend a class, take a good look around.


Notice the high strung honours student to your right? The bleary-eyed procrastinator, reeling from another all-nighter, to your left? The leather-clad James Dean wannabe, oozing attitude dead ahead? The affable jock in the next row, gazing longingly at that highly strung honours student?

Chances are one of them is a cheater.

Donald McCabe, a management professor at Rutgers University, has been surveying students about cheating for 10 years. He pegs cheaters as comprising about one fourth of the student population at most large universities.

McCabe suspects his numbers are, if anything, conservative. He is reluctant, for instance, to officially label a student as a cheater if he has cheated only once.

Another cheating expert, Emporia State University psychology professor Steve Davis, agrees that cheating is widespread.

"Seventeen thousand survey respondents later, I can tell you quite confidently that, for the majority of colleges, between 40 and 60 percent of the students have cheated on at least one exam."

"There is no reason to believe that McGill is any different from any other university," says Associate Dean of Science Morton Mendelson. He chairs a workgroup on academic integrity that reports to Senate's Committee on Student Affairs.

He says McGill has the same characteristics as universities that tend to be especially prone to cheating: large classes and a big heterogeneous student body.

"Anything that contributes to student anonymity or reduces a student's affiliation with the school where he is studying, contributes to higher rates of cheating," says Mendelson.

In the Faculty of Engineering, a largely student-driven initiative recently resulted in the Blueprint, a declaration of shared values that both students and faculty commit themselves to.

In coming years, first-year students will sign their names to pledges to follow the Blueprint's 'commandments,' one of which is: "I will strive to achieve academic excellence through honest effort and continuous evaluation of my goals."

Science students are seriously considering creating a Blueprint-type document of their own.

Mendelson is pleased with these efforts.

"It demonstrates that students believe integrity is important enough that they'll make a commitment to it. But the students who started [the Blueprint] won't be here in five years. The process has to be constantly renewed if it's going to remain effective."

Mendelson says it's vital that students support the notion that preserving academic integrity is important.

"If I tell students that cheating is wrong, a lot of them will tune me out. If a student stands up and says 'cheating is an affront to me,' that carries some weight."

McCabe says students and faculty don't always see eye to eye about what constitutes cheating. "In a situation where students have an assignment and are explicitly told that collaboration is not allowed, only one in four thinks it's a case of serious cheating if students collaborate anyway. Over half the professors regard that as serious cheating."

Dean of Students Rosalie Jukier says she's discussed this with students.

"Students tell me that we regularly encourage them to work together on projects and to share information. Then, all of a sudden, the message is you have to work on this alone. Students say this causes confusion."

Chemistry professor David Harpp is a prominent figure in the area of cheat-busting.

Together with departmental colleague Jim Hogan, the Computing Centre's Debra Simpson and others, Harpp devised a computer program that spots cheating in multiple choice exams with terrific precision.

The program has been used to monitor the incidence of cheating at McGill in recent years and, in some cases, as evidence against students accused of cheating. Now the use of Harpp and Hogan's program will become more widespread in investigating and corroborating charges of cheating.

The Harpp/Hogan program works by comparing the answers students provide on multiple choice exams. What the program highlights is instances where students provide the same wrong answers consistently. With a multiple choice exam, there are generally four ways to err on any given query. If students provide matching wrong replies over and over, especially if they were seated close together during the exam, their test results "light up like a neon sign," says Harpp.

"Some say this is like 'Big Brother,' acknowledges Harpp, but he makes no apologies. "We want our students to operate on a level playing field."

When Harpp first employed the program over a decade ago, he was initially thrown by the results: several students, some of them among his best, were caught red-handed.

"For a year, I wouldn't write letters of recommendation," relates Harpp. "How did I know they didn't get their grades by riding on somebody else's coattails?"

It's now official McGill policy to use multiple versions of exams and randomized seating arrangements for finals. According to Harpp's program, the measures have had a tremendous impact on cutting down on the rate of cheating during finals.

"Essentially, we've reduced it to nearly zero."

As students find out that they've got the Harpp/Hogan program to contend with now as well, Harpp thinks McGill could have the best preventive program against cheating during multiple choice finals anywhere in North America.

"I think 90 per cent of the students who tend to cheat will [look at all the obstacles] and say, 'Nah.'"

Winston Maricar, president-elect of the Science Undergraduate Society, recently wrote a mid-term exam in a class where "the cheating going on was terrible."

Randomized seating doesn't work especially well when you have 500 students writing a test in a classroom designed for 400, notes Maricar.

Maricar says cheating is often spurred by the intense competition for marks among some students in his faculty. "They don't just want good grades, they want med-school grades."

Says Davis of some students, "They're not in college to get an education. They're there to get the degree that will help them land a job. Any way they can get that piece of paper is fine."

Associate Dean (Student Affairs and Records) of Engineering Frank Mucciardi, the disciplinary officer for his faculty, dealt with one case of cheating last spring involving several students who fudged lab results.

He says what they did was plainly wrong, but he has some sympathy for their circumstances.

"They knew what the results were supposed to look like, but it wasn't working out. Why not just do the experiment over? They couldn't. They only had one crack at it because we didn't have the manpower to keep the lab open an extra day. And many of these students were set to graduate in a month."

He isn't comfortable with the "string them up" stance some of his colleagues exhibit to instances of cheating. "Every case is unique. You can't just have a knee-jerk reaction."

According to McGill regulations, says Jukier, "professors are obliged to act" when they strongly suspect a student in one of their courses has cheated. "But we know professors don't always do it. Some want to deal with it by themselves and talk to the student privately. Some professors fear that the sanctions the student will receive will be too severe."

But the strictest punishments, including suspension or expulsion, aren't often handed out. And, as Jukier notes, students are able to contest accusations of cheating and win.

"Some professors worry that they will be subject to legal recourse" if they get embroiled in a plagiarism or cheating case. Jukier stresses, "That has never, ever happened."

She encourages professors to report incidences of suspected cheating.

"Your student might be telling you, 'I'm really sorry, it'll never happen again.' But what you don't know is that he has been doing this over and over."

Jukier's office oversees the enforcement of the Student Code of Conduct which includes sections that strictly prohibit cheating and plagiarism.

Most cases are handled at the faculty level. But if a student contests a disciplinary officer's decision or if the disciplinary officer "feels she can't get at the facts of the case without a full hearing," cases move to another level.

About four cases a year go on to "a trial- like process" involving the Committee on Student Discipline, where a suspected offender faces a jury of three faculty and two students.

The suspected cheater is defended by a law student from the Legal Information Clinic.

Accusations don't always lead to punishments. In its latest annual report, the Committee on Student Discipline indicates that in 25 cases of alleged plagiarism that came up last year, six students were exonerated. For cheating, nine of 18 students accused were exonerated.

When students are found guilty, punishments range from getting an F for the paper or exam (the most common consequence) to being placed on conduct probation to official reprimands.

Some of the sterner punishments, like an official reprimand, make their way onto a student's record and that can create problems later in life. The information isn't made readily available, but some organizations doing background checks, like bar associations or graduate schools, might come calling. "Occasionally we have to divulge that information," says Jukier.

And don't be so sure that you've gotten away with it once you graduate. Jukier says McGill has revoked degrees when it discovered that theses were plagiarized.

Plagiarism, in the age of the web, has never been easier. Several web sites that sell papers offer their services openly.

Still, Mendelson says there are things you can do.

"If you notice a sudden change of tone or a sophistication in the language that wasn't there for the first 10 pages of the essay, you know something might be up."

He suggests picking a couple of phrases from such a paper and running them through some Internet search engines to see what crops up.

"Another thing professors can do is ask for drafts. You get the first draft, then the bibliography, so you see the process evolve.

"Vary your topics from year to year," so students can't get their hands on a paper from a previous year.

"Students are very situational about cheating," states McCabe. "If a professor isn't seen to be putting much effort into a course, or if exams include questions dealing with material that hasn't been covered in class, cheating is much more likely to be viewed as acceptable."

"It's a two-way street," agrees Mucciardi. Students who believe their professors are treating them fairly are less likely to cheat.

"Students deserve to be treated with respect. That means they should receive proper course outlines, they should have a clear sense of how they'll be graded, and their professors should keep regular office hours."

Adds Mendelson, "A three-credit course shouldn't require a five-credit workload."

Jukier argues it's in the interests of students to stamp out cheating.

"Once they leave here, their degree is only as good as it's thought to be. If cheating ever became widespread, the value of that degree would plummet."

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