Harvard scandal casts spotlight on how colleges fight cheating

A prisoner sits at a desk, scribbling answers on a piece of paper. As he works, guards patrol around the room, watching him for any suspicious movements. He looks up from his paper to contemplate a question, staring at the ceiling so as not to look at anyone around him. He notices that one of the guards is videotaping him and quickly puts his head back down.

It’s not too far from what happens to college students during a final exam in a large class.

A scandal involving more than 100 Harvard students, who are currently under investigation for allegations of cheating in a class last spring, cast a glaring spotlight on how universities deal with academic integrity issues.

At the UA, instructors and professors use a variety of methods to curb cheating. Some of the larger classes have teaching assistants scanning the room during tests and videotaping students. Other professors create multiple versions of the test, changing the order of questions or using different questions entirely to prevent students from exchanging answers with their neighbors.

In classes that require written essays, students typically have to turn in essays through the D2L drop box, which is connected to turnitin.com, a website that scans and compares documents for plagiarism.

Some instructors even use all three tactics — yet students keep cheating.

Universities nationwide are doing their best to wage war against widespread cheating among university students. In a 2011 poll published on Education-Portal.com, 75 to 98 percent of college students admitted to having cheated at some time during their academic careers.

At the UA, the numbers are a little less serious. According to a survey of more than 2,000 students performed last spring, 84 percent of UA students said they think students who cheat should be punished, though at least 60 percent said they have cheated at least once. Most admitted to cheating on homework, but at least 19 percent admitted to cheating on an exam.

The university is making little headway despite the litany of honor codes, online plagiarism checks and TAs surveying the students.

When 60 percent of the student population admits to cheating in some way, the univerisity must examine the reason why students are cheating. When a school tries to combat cheating without understanding the reason why students cheat, it’s similar to a doctor treating a patient without knowing the disease.

The cheating epidemic is largely due to the fact that few tests are given in a semester, so they hold more weight in a student’s grade than anything else in the course. When students are put under pressure to either perform well on a test, or potentially jeopardize their future, many may fall to cheating.

Yes, one test isn’t likely to make or break anyone’s future, but we’re college students and we struggle to see the long-term perspective.

Cheating shouldn’t be condoned, but until universities reform the way that tests are presented, or until students learn how to fail with dignity and grace, instructors cannot eliminate cheating.

— Dan Desrochers is a pre-journalism sophomore. He can be reached at letters@wildcat.arizona.edu or on Twitter via @drdesrochers.


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