March 6, 2013

Cheating and Plagiarizing: What Can Educators Do?

by Lindsay Samuel, PharmD PGY-1 Pharmacy Practice Resident, Sibley Memorial Hospital

In early February 2013, I was stunned to learn that nearly 70 Harvard University students were required to withdraw from the university due to cheating on a take-home exam.1  Events such as this remind me that cheating and plagiarizing are an ongoing issue which hurts students, educators, and the integrity of the educational process.  I continue to wonder what prompts students to cheat and what can be done to prevent it?  In searching for the answers to this question, I discovered an insightful 2011 study completed by Dorothy Jones which explored academic dishonesty through student surveys.2  The results were then used to provide educators instructional strategies that address academic integrity.  The Jones study also caused me to reflect on my views on the topic. I have come to recognize that the instructional strategies have the potential to empower educators to promote academic integrity so that the learning process is not hindered by dishonorable work.

Why do students cheat?
To gain insight into why students cheat and plagiarize, Jones surveyed forty-eight undergraduate students about academic dishonesty.  When the students were posed the question “Why do students engage in academic dishonesty-cheating and internet plagiarism?,” the top reason was grades (92%). Other reasons cited in the study were: procrastination (83%), too busy (75%), lack of understanding (58%), no interest in the subject or assignment (50%), workload/schedule (33%), everyone does it and get away with it (25%), no big deal (17%), and peer pressure (17%).2  It is probably no surprise that students primarily cheat to get better grades but what’s perhaps most disturbing: once students receive better grades through cheating, they began to feel that they have earned these grades through their own academic merit.  Thus a cycle of cheating and self-deception can develop.3

What can educators do?
I once participated in a plagiarism workshop at a college preparatory conference.  The goal of the workshop was to provide students with the tools to recognize the various types of plagiarism and to openly discuss the consequences of dishonest academic work.  During the workshop, the instructor gave real-life examples of plagiarism and asked for participants’ ideas regarding ways that students can avoid putting themselves in these situations.  According to the Jones study, this type of direct instructional is a strategy that may lead to a reduction in academic dishonesty.  She noted that about seventy-five percent of the students surveyed in the study received information about academic dishonesty, cheating and plagiarism through informal mechanisms.  In addition to direct instruction about academic integrity, other instructional strategies that could reduce academic dishonesty including: including a written academic integrity policy or honor code as part of the course syllabus, a review of academic integrity policy during course orientation, providing a quiz on the academic integrity policy, including a learning activity or game, incorporating hyperlinks to internet tutorials on cheating or plagiarism, using plagiarism detection software, requiring students to cite sources in presentations, using the internet to teach about plagiarism, teaching students how to use citation tools, and encouraging ethical behavior and a “Do the Right Thing” attitude. Even though some of Jones’ instructional strategies cannot be implemented in every course, following one or two of these strategies can heighten awareness about the importance of this issue.

The workshop on plagiarism that I participated is a great example of what instructors can do to promote academic integrity.  Each participant read about a situation involving academic dishonesty and came up with a prevention strategy that promoted ethical behavior.  By the end of the workshop, students felt more empowered to recognize different types of academic dishonesty and how to avoid them.

Here are some additional ways to promote academic integrity:
  • Require instructors to know the institution’s policies and procedures when cheating/plagiarizing is suspected and the potential punitive actions that can be taken.
  • Require students to sign the institution’s academic integrity policy before entering the institution.
  • Provide students with information and concrete examples of cheating/plagiarism including links to helpful internet sites such as:

  • Review how to cite other’s work. Proper citation is a learned behavior, and given the tools, empowers students to properly cite other’s work. This instruction will prevent plagiarism from unknowingly occurring.
  • Analyze your campuses culture by having an open discussion on cheating and plagiarism with students.  Formally evaluate why and how students cheat on your campus. This awareness may help faculty adopt preventative measures when administering assessments. 

Cheating and plagiarism does not have to be an inevitable student behavior.  While addressing academic dishonesty, educators should not focus on the negative disciplinary actions that may occur when it is discovered, but should focus on prevention.  Discussions about cheating and plagiarism can be ongoing and dynamic conversations that empowers students and instructors to recognize the ethical issues that make this behavior so destructive.  Moreover, students can work with faculty to develop strategies to prevent it.  Given that grades are the primary reason for cheating and plagiarism, changes in grading practices may help to reduce academic dishonesty.  But without more research, it’s hard to know what grading practices would work best. One thing is for certain.  Academic integrity is an important issue that we all need to pay attention.

1.   Perez-Pena R. “Students Disciplined in Havard ScandalThe New York Times. The New York Times, 02 Feb. 2013. Web. Accessed February 16, 2013
2.   Jones DR. Academic Dishonesty: Are More Students Cheating? Business Communication Quarterly 2011; 74: 141-150.
3.  Sparks, Sarah D. "Studies Shed Light On How Cheating Impedes Learning" Education Week 2011; 30: 1-16. 

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