Wednesday, November 12, 2008

53% of RWU students cheat

One student recalls seeing cheat sheets pasted on the back of a Dasani water bottle; another admits to programming chemistry formulas into his calculator; a third says he has actually heard a student listening to tape recorded notes in the back of an exam.

“We could all hear him playing it,” says Joe, who asked that his full name not be used. “He spent the entire exam fast forwarding and rewinding the tape.”

Though these methods may be somewhat extreme, they are evidence of a pervasive cheating problem at Roger Williams University. A survey of 330 students, conducted by the Hawk’s Herald in early December, found that 53 percent admitted to cheating while at RWU.

The survey, which defined cheating as “anything your professors wouldn’t condone,” found that of those 53 percent, 67 percent said they cheat rarely, 25 percent said they “sometimes” cheat, and 8 percent admitted to cheating frequently.

“There’s a lot of pressure to do well in school,” said Marian Extejt, Associate Dean of the School of Business. “I think much of what happens is desperation: ‘I chose to go out with my friends instead of studying and now I’m up against the fence and I got to do something, I can’t flunk this class’.

RWU’s student handbook calls academic dishonesty “the most serious academic crime there is,” and lays out the conceivable penalties for cheating: “A first offense may result in failure of the course involved; the ultimate sanction is suspension or dismissal from the university.”

Although the student handbook states that instances of cheating are to be reported to the Office of Academic Affairs, students are rarely caught, and when they are, many professors often choose to deal with the matter internally, handing out light punishments that entice students to cheat over and over again.

“I allow for a certain amount of weakness in the face of temptation,” said philosophy professor Michael Wright, who prefers to keep instances of cheating between the student and himself. “It’s got to be mighty severe for me to take it to the point where the student runs the risk of expulsion.”

Wright said that when he was a college student, administrators relied on the honor system to keep students from cheating, something he still believes in today.

“I’ve left my philosophy classes to take exams by themselves and I’ve never had any trouble with them,” said Wright.

“When you ask a given professor ‘do the students cheat in you class?’ they will tell you no, but when you ask them ‘do they cheat in the university?’ they will tell you yes,” said Professor Robert Engvall, who received a presidential fellowship to examine cheating at RWU in 2004. “It’s a kind of moral myopia… It allows me the comfort of saying ‘I know there’s a problem out there but I’m not a part of it.’”

Engvall said it became obvious to him that cheating was a problem at RWU after he caught a few students doing it during his first five years here. And it wasn’t just at RWU; everything he read told him that the cheating problem in the US was widespread. According to a national survey conducted by The Center for Academic Integrity, 50 percent of students were sure that another student had cheated in the past year. The survey he conducted in conjunction with the CAI found that RWU’s numbers were higher than the national average, with 65 percent of students saying they knew a peer had cheated in the past year.

“What I found is that we’re a little better at cheating than the typical university, but only marginally,” said Engvall, who wasn’t surprised by the results.

There are a number of reasons why cheating occurs so often at RWU, including light punishments and the ease of getting away with it.

“I’ve gotten through an entire semester cheating,” said Joe. “You take a risk and if you get away with it you keep going with it.”

Like many students, Joe, a senior, didn’t cheat when he first came to RWU, expecting that the school cracked down hard on those who attempted it.

“My freshman year I was a saint when it came to that thing, but by sophomore year you kind of get a feel about who’s paying attention and who’s not paying attention.”

The Hawks Herald survey found that only 49 percent of freshman cheated compared to 58 percent of sophomores and 67 percent of juniors.

Many faculty members say they do what they can to stop perennial cheaters like Joe. Robert Potter, the Dean of the School of Engineering, Computing & Construction Management, said the professors in his departments make students spread out for exams, frequently write fresh tests, stay with their students while they take the exam, and tend to devise questions that require problem solving so as to reduce a copy and paste mentality.

“Our examinations don’t lend themselves to the type of sophomoric cheating that some people envision as cheating,” he said.

“Some faculty in the School of Business, especially during exams, will say you can’t wear a cap because people write answers on the brim,” said Extejt. “I think as you learn that these things are possible there are faculty who have the initiative to put in the preventive measures.”

A few years ago the university invested in Turnitin, a computer program that analyzes papers for plagiarism, in an attempt to curb cheating.

Extejt said a student recently passed in a paper that the program realized was identical to one passed in two years earlier.

“Before the technology the faculty member would never have remembered those answers two years later, and I’m sure that’s what the student was counting on.”

But some faculty members remain undereducated about the use of such technology. While Wright said he had seen programs like Turnitin used in New Zealand when he was on sabbatical there, he didn’t know we had it here.

And many students say that their professors are not doing all they can to make cheating difficult.

Lots of professors are very into something else while they’re proctoring an exam, like grading other papers, or reading a magazine or newspaper, and not really paying attention to what’s going on in the classroom,” said a student who asked to remain anonymous. “It’s pretty obvious if you are looking around and there’re a lot of kids looking down at the floor, or looking at their crotches.”

And then of course there is the innovation of cheating: notes stuffed in socks or written on the soles of shoes and hat brims; iPod playlists of recorded information stealthily listened to through headphones taped inside shift sleeves; and more recently text message filled trips to the bathroom.

The battle between cheaters and those who try to stop them is in constant evolution. Websites dedicated to cheating, like, boast “detailed instructions on how to cheat in school, no matter the grade level,” and a search of “how to cheat on tests” on turns up 2,840 results.

Engvall said that even in the rare cases where faculty do catch students cheating, the punishment system is set up in a way that places the burden of proof on professors who often don’t want the guilt that comes with confronting a potential cheater.

“We have the interaction with them and say: ‘hey I caught you cheating in class, this is what I’m going to do,’ and often that’s met with tears, or met with a story legitimate, or otherwise talking about how their life is going to ruined,” said Engvall. “That changes things for a lot of professors.”

“You want to give somebody a break,” said Extejt. “You want to say ok you made a terrible poor choice in this class and you’ve learned from it, I’m not going to negatively influence other faulty in some future semester.”

Wright felt the same way. Though he said he has never suspected a philosophy student of cheating, he has on occasion encountered cheating in his core classes.

“In the very few cases in which people have actually copied, or worked together, I call them in, and if they ‘fess up to it I’ll give them an F, and that’s it.”

It is also common, Engvall said, for student to lie about their cheating habits when confronted by a professor. He would like to see a system utilized where teachers submit reports of cheating incidents to a central database that can be checked to see if they are telling the truth or not.

Engvall also said that the introduction of an Academic Integrity Officer would take the burden and guilt of punishment, out of the teacher’s hands, and lead to more reporting of cheating from professors.

“That’s what the Center for Academic Integrity recommends,” said Engvall. “It is possible that our system makes it a little easier to cheat and a little bit harder for professors to take the time to have to deal with it.”

In the meantime students continue to cheat at RWU and get away with it.

Last year Joe received an email from a professor that said he and another student in his class had submitted identical homework assignments. The professor said he knew they had cheated and mercifully told them they would only have to redo the assignment.

But this time Joe knew he hadn’t cheated, that in fact the other student had found his assignment and copied it, and now his neck was on the line.

“At first I was kind of angry” said Joe. “But the kid was cool about it and he redid the assignment for me.”

In an ironic twist, Joe turned to cheating to deal with a problem caused by cheating.

“If I know I can get away with something than I’ll do it,” said Joe. “Not to insult our own learning institution, but it’s easy to cheat here.”

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