Culture of cheating

Study shows over half of university students have cheated on tests and essays

Studies show that digital devices enable students to receive test answers electronically.
Studies show that digital devices enable students to receive test answers electronically.

Updated on Nov. 24

With the end of fall term in sight, students face accumulating assignments, essays and final exams. The sheer amount of work in the weeks ahead have left many under immense pressure — and searching for shortcuts to the seemingly endless work.

A Kaplan group prep course for the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT) costs $1,400, while individual sessions cost $2,300. Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) prep courses range from $2,100 to $8,000. The cost of writing the MCAT is $240 compared to $144 for the LSAT.

But breaking your bank account for a mark won’t come as a surprise to many students though. Other methods are more extreme.

In a study published by the University of Guelph in 2006, nearly 15,000 undergraduate students were surveyed at 11 Canadian university campuses. Statistics demonstrated that 53 per cent of undergraduates in Canada have admitted to serious cheating on written work. These methods included copying material without adequate paraphrasing or without acknowledging the source, turning in work done by someone else or copying large sections of another’s work and falsifying a bibliography.

Students in the study admitted to plagiarism tactics that ranged from improper citation to the use of smartphones and cheat sheets during midterms.

However, what constitutes cheating is debatable. The University of Guelph study defined serious test cheating as copying from another student’s test, helping another student to cheat on a test, or using crib notes.

Psychology professor Kate Harkness said there aren’t any merits to cheating in the long run.

“Do [students] think that once they get into med or law or grad school they’ll just be able to cheat their way through every test and assignment there too? What about when they graduate and get a job?” she said.

“You can’t cheat your way through open heart surgery, or closing arguments at a murder trial, or the defence of your doctoral thesis.” Stress is a contributing factor to cheating, Harkness said.

The transition away from the safety of home to independent living and a more demanding, self-directed learning environment are catalysts for stress among students, she said.

“University is a very stressful time,” she said.

But this stress can start long before university, Harkness said.

“There is likely too much focus in our society on university and post-graduate training when it is just not appropriate or desirable for everyone,” she said. “There are many rewarding and productive careers that do not require a four-plus year university degree and people should be encouraged to pursue them.” Students might also disregard the ethical implications of cheating.

The 2006 study revealed that many undergraduate students saw acts such as fabricating lab data or using false excuses to obtain extensions as “not cheating” or “trivial cheating.”

According to the study though, faculty members often still viewed these acts as moderate to serious offences.

Some students might question whether the submission of the same essay to different courses is a mode of academic dishonesty.

Ryan Seager, Comm ’13, said because instructors are aware that students often plagiarize older students’ work, the onus is professors to create new assignments annually.

“By definition cheating refers to acting dishonestly or unfairly to gain an advantage, but what if I ask an upper-year student for his own assignments? If, conveniently the current assignment is identical, then am I really the one to blame?” he said.

Seager said students often feel entitled to cheat if they’re struggling.

“Everyone knows [cheating] happens, even the instructors,” he said. “But none of them seem to act accordingly to revise what’s assigned.”

According to sociology professor Vincent Sacco, determining how to deal with academic dishonesty is complicated.

“I’m a big believer in preventing a problem rather than punishment,” he said. “We should aim to create an environment that makes it more difficult to cheat.

“I’d like to believe that we can take greater care in designing assignments that make academic dishonesty less common.” Cheating is so commonplace that it has meant a cultural shift, Sacco said.

“You could say there’s a sense of tolerance for trespassing over limits.”

It’s easier for students to cheat today than it was in the past, Sacco said.

“In the past cheating on a test or assignment involved knowing someone who took the same course,” he said. “Technology and the Internet have changed this, you can connect to people virtually anywhere, you can buy essays of the web.”

While the majority of cheating results from ignorance, Sacco said, there are always those who willfully conspire as well.

“It’s interesting how people are able to justify to themselves why they do things they know they’re not supposed to do,” said Sacco. “I’ve heard students explain themselves by saying the course had nothing to do with their major or that they were unable to drop the course.”

This article has been changed to reflect the following correction:

Rachel Naiman was incorrectly attributed in the above article. In her interview with the Journal she didn't comment on cheating. Incorrect information appeared in the Nov. 18 issue of the Journal. The Journal regrets the error.

Combating cheating

This past September, 19-year-old Emory University student Sam Eshaghoff was arrested after fraudulently writing the SAT for six high school students. Eshaghoff was paid $1,500 to $2,000 per student to write the standardized test required for entry into most American universities. Using fake driver’s licences, he impersonated at least six high school students, one of whom was a woman. The New York Times reported on Nov. 9 that 35 students from five schools are now being investigated for similar offences.

In a Sept. 27 news conference, district attorney Kathleen Rice said the victims of this case were Eshaghoff’s peers, who decided to play by the rules.

And it’s not just at the high school level.

According to New York criminal lawyer Jeremy Saland’s blog, over two dozen investigations throughout the United States and Canada have focused on individuals suspected of either fraudulently taking post-secondary entry exams such as the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) and the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT), or paying another to do so. Investigations have revealed that students enrolled in schools including McGill Univeristy, Columbia University and UCLA have provided administrators with fake passports at exam centers, created fraudulent diplomas, recommendation letters, transcripts and other materials.


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