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A degree in Cheating

In the past ten years the percentages of academic dishonesty in superior education have escalated to an alarming level. Has the Facebook generation discarded moral values, in favor of fast results or has the academic system driven them to an ethically grey behavior?  Researches blame the students’ questionable ethics on a busier life schedule and a thrive for success.

Words by Iris Barbulescu
Illustration by Anne Ravnholt Sørensen

Cheating? Who? Us? Recent studies demonstrate an interesting level of moral flexibility among students, as they often are motivated to cheat simply by seeing their peers doing it.
There is a higher probability of cheating on tests or assignments that students see as unfair, having little learning value, or being too difficult. In 2009, extensive studies have revealed that some of the causes of cheating while studying include extrinsic motivation, neutralizing attitudes and perceptions of others cheating.  If a student does not define an act as cheating, he or she is more likely to engage in that activity. Statistics show that in the last years academic dishonesty climbed its way up on the academic threats scale. There might be several explanations to this. The pressure of good grades is much bigger than it was 20 or 30 years ago. The competition is fierce and there is less time to reach achievement. Extra-curricular activities leave the students with little space for social life and proper in-depth studying.  Still, a student who is motivated by performance is more likely to cheat than a learning-motivated student.  In some cases, the exhibitionist desire to show off to others is what leads to cheating. According to psychologist Amy Brunell, Ohio State University

“College enrollees who exhibit narcissistic tendencies are more likely, than fellow students to cheat on exams and assignments. Narcissists are motivated to cheat because their academic performance functions as an opportunity to show off to others. They also tend to feel less guilt, and aside ethical concerns, without minding to cheat their way to the top.”
In a study performed on 50,000 American undergraduate students in 2005 by the Center for Academic Integrity more than 70 percent reported cheating, while 85 percent reported witnessing acts of cheating. Rates of cheating on exams and collaboration on individual work increased. Incidents of students copying from another students’ exams had doubled while plagiarism and turning in work done by someone else experienced a slight decrease. The American Students, however, do well in comparison with Japanese students.

“Japanese students report a higher incidence rate of cheating on exams, greater tendency to justify cheating and a greater passivity in reaction to the observed cheating”, researcher G. Diekhoff states.

Studies on academic dishonesty in the former Soviet Bloc show another problem besides from academic cheating: corruption. Illegal bribes for admission are common. About 80 percent of the university students in the former Soviet Block have experienced the phenomenon. In Moldova almost half of the students admitted using some form of illegal method to gain admission to the university.

Cheating student, useless employee
The academic cheating creates problems various places in society. Across workplaces and universities worldwide the general average of the grades is much higher than it was 10 to 20 years ago, while the competencies of the students have decreased at an alarming rate. Employers report that many college graduates lack the basic skills of critical thinking, writing and problem-solving.

“We want to make sure people have authentic credentials. For example, if someone has a degree in chemical engineering and is running a chemical plant, we want to make sure they really know what they’re doing”, says Don McCabe who is an academic dishonesty expert.

Sending unprepared professionals on the job market is a time bomb, where lack of expertise can have serious consequences. A morally “flexible” behavior might also open the door to the next level of cheating: scientific misconduct. And in this case, the stakes and the risks are higher, because they reverberate to more than one person.

The attitudes regarding “punishment” for academic dishonesty vary from country to country. In Japan the government asked the country’s universities to ban mobile phones from the entrance exams rooms from March the 1st. Two weeks later they arrested a young man who was caught cheating at the admission exam using his phone.  The Universities in America are starting to make use of very advanced surveillance cameras and microphones, in the exam room. The problem is not limited to the act of cheating per se, but to the admission methodology and type of exam as well. Japan is famous for its enormous multiple-choice exams, which rely mostly on mnemonics. Critical thinking or in-depth analysis is not required. That alone drives students towards cheating. Many countries prefer long exams which require an accurate reproduction of information rather than originality and creativeness. Specialists, however, recommend diverse types of examination, which make use of student’s imagination and actual skills. Exams, which require the application of, studied theory in unexpected practical situations. And make it harder to cheat.