Your cheatin’ heart

As mid-term exam week is incumbent, I am reminded that my reputable institution holds its students to the highest standards of morality and integrity, and that “any behaviour which could potentially result in suspicions of cheating, plagiarism, misrepresentation of facts […] is a serious offence [, which] can result in suspension or expulsion from the University.”
Sounds serious, doesn’t it ? All instructors have to add a sentence containing the above wording, plus a precise reference to the University Code of Conduct, to each and every one of our syllabi, at the place where I work… It is colloquially referred to as the “NSS provision”…

I am sure my institution is no different from any other.
I have really no idea how widespread cheating is on campus, these days, but it is conceivable that it could be. I do not know how many students are suspended, expelled or sanctioned every year, as a result of cheating or plagiarism, which, based on my experience, can be very difficult to prove, even when circumstantial evidence seems overwhelming. In almost fifteen years of teaching at the undergraduate level, I can only think of one or two instances in which I strongly suspected that something was going on, but could not really do anything in either case. That of course does not mean that cheating is infrequent, simply that I did not detect it.
I suppose it is possible, and probably even easy for a student to cheat in a course. The simplest way is with homework assignments, which can be completed with the help of others. It also seems relatively straightforward to cheat on a midterm exam, especially one administered in a crowded room, in which it may be literally impossible for instructors and teaching assistants to prevent students from looking over at someone else’s papers, using text messaging to communicate with others inside or outside the room, etc.
Much less clear to me is whether students can/do really cheat their way to passing a whole course, or a to a degree.

Be that as it may, whose responsibility is it to combat and prevent “academic dishonesty” ? Is it up to me, the instructor, to make sure that students not engage in cheating, plagiarism, misrepresentation or any other unethical action ? And if so, what does that entail, in practice ? Am I expected, among other things, to
1) Ensure that, during in-class exams, all students in the room switch off all cell phones and/or other devices capable of transmitting information (e.g., iPods) ? That they not communicate with others in other, more traditional means, nor peek at someone else’s paper ?
2) Intervene on a suspicion of cheating, either mine or of one of the Teaching Assistants charged with grading homework and/or proctoring exams, confiscate inadmissible electronic devices, demand a student to show the content of a backpack or a purse (remove shoes ?), eject from the room the students caught in the act (of cheating, silly !), seek a disciplinary action against him/her ?
3) Require that students show medical or death certificates, accident police reports, and generally provide documentation of unforeseen, catastrophic circumstances, allegedly preventing them from showing up for an exam and/or seeking a deferment thereof ?

I am sorry, but this seems really absurd. I already hardly have enough time as it is to prepare class notes, grade papers, make exams, help to the best of my ability the many students who are genuinely trying to do as well as they can (while they juggle punitive schedules and workloads), in short try to be a passable teacher. I cannot afford to spend extra time trying to be a gumshoe, a bouncer, a public safety officer, a chief investigator.
Not only is it not what I signed up for, nor is it part of my job description — I am not qualified to serve in any of these capacities [0].
Call me silly if you wish, but if a student can tell me with a straight face that there was a death in the family, or that they were rushed to the Emergency Room, or that they witnessed a bank robbery and were held as witness by the police, or any other similarly dreadful event — and that that is why they missed the exam/could not hand in an assignment/what have you, and none of that is true… well, more power to them. I am not going to investigate any of that. It is not my job.
I am here to be a teacher for the overwhelming majority of serious, conscientious students, not to uncover the lies of a few crackpots.
They are the ones who have to live with their actions, not me.

The truth is, if universities cared about cheating as much as they purport, they would attempt to curb it by taking a few obvious and simple actions aimed at rendering it harder, less practical, and riskier.
Case in point: Allowing for sections with enrolment in the hundreds, knowing full well that students will be rubbing elbows during exams, crammed in a small room, attributing to a single instructor and a few teaching assistants (typically graduate students) the responsibility to ensure that the Code of Conduct be observed, seems hypocritical, unfair and ridiculous.
And a university really intent of curbing cheating will take swift action against those who do. If receiving a grade of zero for the single exam or assignments in which they are caught cheating, is officially established by the university as the worst possible consequence that students can face, who engage in this behaviour, it ought not surprise anyone if cheating rises.
Alas, I am afraid that at the end of the day the pernicious, but regrettably fashionable ideology that regards students as “paying customers”, entitled to satisfaction, may influence also the way in which cheating is regarded and dealt with.


[0] Along the same lines, I do not see it as my responsibility to ensure that students behave in a civilized manner in class, arrive on time, not litter, not snore, dress appropriately, not read the newspaper, not distract those sitting near them by checking their favourite web site on their iPad etc.

5 Responses to “Your cheatin’ heart”

  1. Schlupp Says:

    A zero? How harsh! Austrian laws concerning primary and secondary schools specify that students may not be given grades for work where they cheated, meaning that teachers have to give them a makeup exam. Consequently, universities have a really hard stand whenever they want to – horribile dictu – impose sanctions against instead of encouragements for cheating. And rarely do so.

  2. Massimo Says:

    So, if you were a teacher and had the suspicion someone was cheating, what would you do ? Looking the other way, knowing that in all likelihood they will get it wrong anyway, sounds like a pretty good option…

    • Schlupp Says:

      Exactly. There always were funny competitions between students trying to cheat conspicuously and teachers “not seeing” it. Actual life was not as insane as the laws themselves, precisely *because* the law’s insanity made it all completely above board. The rules were: Students try to cheat, teachers try to prevent it. Works perfectly for traditional exams. (Hm. At least in the times before cell phones.) Unfortunately, it breaks down completely as soon as one wants to have graded independent-study projects.

  3. Schlupp Says:

    “not distract those sitting near them by checking their favourite web site on their iPad etc.”

    And what about “distracting the professor by being in possession of an iPad, i.e., a big shiny apple toy, in contrast to said professor”? Would it be your responsibility to do anything about that? This is, of course, purely hypothetical, not that any professors we know care about apple toys.

  4. prodigal academic Says:

    I agree with you. As professors at Prodigal U, we need to jump through a ridiculous number of hoops to “reduce cheating”, though I think the measures mostly just make more work for the faculty and don’t really stop cheaters.

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