Consensus grows on faculty role in preventing dishonesty

by Sabrina Peric | 4/17/02 5:00am

In February, Christine Pelton, a high school teacher in Piper, Kan., failed 28 students who had copied their botany projects from online sources.

Pelton's decision to enforce her policy of giving any cheating students a failing grade made national headlines when angry students and parents protested her decision, forcing Pelton to devalue the assignment and to eventually resign from teaching.

The incident in Kansas has caused a stir in the national debate over not only online plagiarism, but also the nature of today's cut-and-paste generation who have awarded a permissibility to this kind of school work.

The question of responsibility now remains: who will be held accountable for the cheating? Is it a matter of a student's individual responsibility, or do teachers and entire educational institutions play a role as well?

Experts in cheating are working to answer just that thorny question, often concluding that faculty members indeed have the ability, sometimes even the responsibility, to prevent cheating from occurring in the first place.

"How do we build institutions of integrity so that young people are not inclined to cheat?" Margaret Hogan, president of the Duke University based Center for Academic Integrity, asked in an interview with The Dartmouth. "There are some very big institutional and societal problems that I would like to see addressed."

The CAI has dedicated itself to issues of intellectual property and student integrity. Its concern is not only punishing students who cheating, but also preventing cheating from ever happening.

"We have to ask ourselves how do faculty behave? What does an institution have to do in order to create an air of integrity and honesty?" Hogan said.

Faculty members often play an undervalued role in the prevention of cheating. As leaders in this academic community, "faculty really do have to do a good job teaching, foster a love for learning and develop trust with their students," Hogan elaborated.

Bill Taylor, a professor at Oakton Community College, similarly believes that instructors can play a large role in preventing cheating. He recently wrote an open letter to his students about academic integrity. Taylor stated that "academic integrity basically required the same things of you as a student as it requires of me as a teacher."

"In terms of trying to prevent cheating, I think we have a great responsibility there," Taylor told The Dartmouth. "If we fail to respond to instances where cheating has occurred, we send a message that academic integrity is not important."

Taylor went on to describe several practical implementations of cheating prevention in the classroom, listing different versions of the same exam and constantly rewriting old exams as important strategies. "When designing paper assignments, it is possible to require submissions of various stages of the process," Taylor continued.

One of the most important losses that students incur by plagiarizing texts is that "they miss out on learning useful research skills," Susan Jones, an academic development specialist at Parkland College in Champaign, Ill., said. "Internet search tools have made it possible for students to graduate high school without learning these essential skills."

Professor Julie Ryan of George Washington University has implemented her own way of combating academic dishonesty. Ryan recently compiled a list of traits common to plagiarized papers and has been circulating it so that professors can spot cheating.

But preventing cheating isn't always so straightforward, especially when educators increasingly ignore suspected cases of dishonesty.

Rutgers University professor Donald McCabe reported that less than half of 800 faculty that he surveyed on 16 campuses have ever reported an incident of cheating in their classroom.

Though this places faculty in a different light, it has become more common for teachers and school administrators to ignore cheating because they fear lawsuits, some say.

"I think that faculty always have to worry about the possibility of a lawsuit these days, however, research into court cases shows that ... courts always defer to the professional judgment of the professor and the college," Taylor said, offering a different spin on things. "The universities back up their professors and [lawsuits] are not a good reason for being uninvolved."

Trust is an important ingredient in preventing cheating.

"I think that in terms of living a life of integrity that we have to let [students] see these values that bound us as a faculty ... that this is a joint enterprise as opposed to something we're imposing on them," Taylor explained.

Giving students responsibility in issues of academic integrity appears to reduce incidents of cheating. McCabe, who has done extensive research on academic dishonesty in high schools and colleges, reported that academic honor codes really do work.

In surveys that McCabe conducted in conjunction with the Center for Academic Integrity in 1990 and 1995 of over 5,000 students on campuses with strong academic honor codes, 57 percent of undergraduates reported one or more incidents of cheating.

Last year at the University of Virginia, physics professor Lou Bloomfield triggered the biggest plagiarism investigation in the university's history. Over 120 students or recent graduates were under suspicion of plagiarism in Bloomfield's popular introductory class.

One of the main reasons why the scandal at UVA was so shocking is that the school's honor code, established in 1842, is one of the oldest and strictest in the country. It stipulates a zero-tolerance policy for people accused of cheating. A student must be expelled and is given no alternative punishment.

Hogan explained that honor codes certainly do hold significant influence over students, but only if they are "living" honor codes. "By living I mean they are taken seriously on campus, they are referred to often by students and faculty ... does your faculty member have it on the syllabus? Is it part of the admission process? Does the institution have any kind of orientation for first-year students referring to the honor code?"

Having a living honor code is really what distinguishes a good honor code from a poor one. The honor code provides the necessary trust between administrators, faculty and students in the campus culture. It has also been said to foster a greater sense of community and common intellectual goals on campus.

At Oakton Community College, Taylor is even working on creating an honor code for the faculty itself with the hope of implementing it in the coming fall. "And then students will experience more and more faculty who are committed to integrity," Taylor said. "And this will hopefully create a climate and culture of integrity with more and more faculty signing on,"