Focus on Ethics Can Curb Cheating, Colleges Find

Behavior: Academic dishonesty is rampant, but
students will respond to higher standards of integrity, a
study shows.

By KENNETH R. WEISS, Times Education Writer


DAVIS, Calif.--Grappling for ways to halt the
spread of plagiarism and other cheating in college,
professors often get stuck on the idea that it's too late
to change students' behavior by the time they reach
But a growing number of campuses, backed by new
research, are out to prove otherwise.
"Student behavior is affected by the communities we
build," said Gary Pavela, the University of Maryland's
director of judicial programs and student ethical
Students cheat in high school in part because they
think everyone else does. But students can change their
ways if colleges clearly demand honesty, engage
students in ethical issues and put them in charge of
enforcement, said Pavela and his colleagues at such
schools as UC Davis and Kansas State University,
which are in the vanguard of a new movement to
change the academic culture.
A new large-scale study suggests they may be right.
Although a startling 68% of college students
admitted in an anonymous survey last fall that they
engaged in some form of serious cheating, self-reported
cheating was 10 percentage points lower on campuses
that simply make a big fuss about academic integrity.
The rates dipped even lower at colleges with formal
honor codes.
The survey results, which are to be released this
week, are the first indication that anti-cheating
campaigns are making inroads at the large public
universities where many professors fear a spreading
epidemic of academic dishonesty.
"The results directly challenge the broad view that a
kid's ethical views at age 17 or 18 are set by their
parents for good or ill," Pavela said.
Administrators and student leaders have cribbed
ideas from smaller colleges with traditional honor codes
and modified them to work on large campuses.
At UC Davis, the topic of academic integrity is
everywhere, brought up by the students themselves. As
final exams approach each term, students give their
peers free cards stamped, "Honesty is the only policy,"
and free No. 2 pencils with the inscription: "Fill in your
own bubble or be in trouble."
Older students do skits to show incoming freshmen
what can happen if they violate the code of academic
conduct. Professors and their teaching assistants
regularly turn in undergraduates for the smallest of
In case students somehow miss the point, every
Wednesday the campus newspaper's judicial report
reveals all the embarrassing details--except for
names--of what one sophomore calls "a parade of
unbelievably stupid acts" of plagiarism, improper
collaboration and wandering eyes.
All this attention on cheating seems to make a
"I would never want to cheat here--it's just too
scary," said Tina Valenzuela, a UC Davis senior who
wants to go to veterinary school. "Just the fact that if
you get caught, you'd read about it in the paper."
At UC Davis, only 31% of students reported that
they got the questions or answers from someone else
who had already taken a test before they did--one of
the most common forms of cheating.
By comparison, on campuses that place less
emphasis on academic integrity or ignore the issue
altogether, 54% of students reported getting questions
or answers.
A skeptic might ask if students at schools with honor
codes are simply less likely to admit--even
anonymously--that they have violated the rules. Donald
L. McCabe, the Rutgers University management
professor who conducted the newest study, part of a
decade of research on the subject of cheating, thinks
Lower cheating rates at honor code schools are
validated by surveys of faculty and by students who
have attended both kinds of institutions, McCabe said.
McCabe's latest survey, which last fall collected the
responses of 2,100 students and 1,000 faculty
members at 21 campuses across the country, showed
* Nationwide, most forms of cheating remain at or
near record levels.
* Men admit to more cheating than women,
fraternity and sorority members more than
nonmembers; students with lower grade-point averages
say they cheat more than those with high GPAs.
* Students pursuing degrees in journalism and
communications, business and engineering reported
cheating more than those in the sciences, social sciences
or humanities.
* Only 9.7% of students reported "plagiarizing a
paper in any way using the Internet," suggesting that
such cheating is not as rampant as some fear.
* Nearly 88% of faculty reported that they
observed some form of serious cheating, yet 32% never
did anything about it.
When asked why they ignored the problem,
professors routinely told McCabe that they feared they
wouldn't be backed by administrators and could end up
facing legal liability.
A typical fear, he said, is expressed this way: "I
accuse someone of cheating and the next thing I know
I'm sitting in the administration building with the student,
the student's parents and the family lawyer."
Robert Redinbo, professor of electrical and
computer engineering at UC Davis, said that such
hassles often dissuade professors at other campuses
from turning in students. "It's a lot of paperwork and
committees and headaches, so they don't do it."
By contrast, at UC Davis, where the administration
makes it easy to report cheating, faculty members turn
in three times more students for cheating than at any
other UC campus, said Jeanne Wilson, director of
student judicial affairs.
Unlike traditional honor code schools that
automatically expel students for cheating, UC Davis
offers milder forms of punishment for students who own
up to their mistakes in counseling session with judicial
offers. Punishment can be suspension or probation with
chores such as writing a paper on why students
shouldn't cheat and performing community service to
spread the word to their peers.
The escalating problem of cheating isn't unique to
college. In fact, it's one of the few things that most
students seem to master in high school, if not earlier.
A record 80% of the nation's brightest high school
seniors admitted cheating, according to Who's Who
Among American High School Students.
For many it's a measure of high school bravado, a
game of us-against-them: What can thrill-seeking
teenagers get away with under the noses of teachers
who are either too clueless or battle-weary to care?
The psychology shifts in college--or at least it can,
McCabe said. Although McCabe believes every school
has a contingent of hard-core cheaters and strict
non-cheaters on the margins, the vast majority of
students, he said, make up their minds after they get to
If they see widespread cheating, students feel
compelled to join in to make sure their grades do not
suffer from an inflated curve, he said. If they sense that
cheating is rare and socially unacceptable and that they
are competing on a level playing field, they are less
likely to do it.
"That's where honor codes can make a big
difference," McCabe said.
Schools with traditional honor codes, such as
Princeton, Rice and the University of Virginia, have
some of the lowest rates of cheating, surveys show.
Under traditional honor codes, students sign a
pledge that they will not cheat and, in return, professors
do not monitor exams. A violation of this trust often
means expulsion.
Students say they appreciate the trust and freedom
of unproctored or take-home exams and are thus more
willing to meet higher expectations.
Yet only about 100 of the nation's 3,500 colleges
and universities have such traditional honor codes.
Many others were casualties of the student movement
in the 1960s.
Suddenly, though, a resurgence seems to be
underway. The University of Miami, as well as
Georgetown, George Washington and Colgate
universities have adopted honor codes in recent years,
and the University of Mississippi and the University of
San Diego are headed that way too.
"You can only get so far with better faculty
enforcement," said Pat Drinan, dean of the college of
arts and sciences at the University of San Diego. "If you
want to make a significant difference in cheating rates,
you have to change the culture and move toward an
honor code."
The Center for Academic Integrity at Duke
University, founded by McCabe in 1992, now has
more than 200 member colleges and universities. Its
annual meetings swell every year with more students,
faculty and administrators pursuing honor codes.
Cheating generally runs higher on larger campuses,
making exams without proctors impractical for classes
that enroll 100 students or more.
So places like UC Davis, which has 25,000
students, continue to monitor exams but also embrace
aspects of an honor code that seem to work: putting
students in charge of inspiring their peers not to cheat
and disciplining those who do.
Under UC Davis' modified honor code, the
student-run Campus Judicial Board decides the fate of
students in the thorniest cheating cases. The board
members--and often the students who come before
them--also become campus cheerleaders for academic
"The university takes pride in catching people early
on and turning them around," said John McCann, an
engineering student. "I know because I was one of
those cases."
McCann was caught two years ago lifting another
student's homework because he couldn't figure out
some problems.
"I knew I made a mistake and I admitted it," he said.
"I had to take my punches." Initially threatened with
suspension for one academic quarter, McCann ended
up on probation with public service.
McCann, now a graduate student and teaching
assistant, has found himself turning in undergraduates
for copying each other's homework.
"In my classes," McCann said, "I make an
announcement: 'You do not cheat. Even if I don't catch
you, you won't be able to pretend you know the
material. In industry, you cannot pretend. If you don't
know what you are doing, you will get fired.' "
Beginning Monday, Judicial Board members will
hold seminars and hand out T-shirts and other freebies
during the campus' Integrity Week. "De-Stress Day"
comes closer to finals, with free ice cream and a chance
to dunk an administrator into a tank of water.
"People say, 'I'm not normally the kind of person
who cheats, but I was so stressed out,' " said P.J.
Haley, a sophomore on the Campus Judicial Board.
"We say, the point is not to stress out so much . . . and
do the right thing."

L.A. Times article, front page, 2/15/00