Anyone who has looked at the research on student cheating knows that the problem is rampant on college campuses. Surveys find that between two-thirds and three-quarters of students admit to some cheating in the previous year.
But the scope of cheating varies widely across different schools. Small colleges with a focus on the liberal arts and a strong campus community tend to have less cheating, while large universities that are professionally oriented and filled with commuter students tend to have more.
This makes sense. If you know your fellow students and professors, and if you're focused on learning as an end in itself, you'll fret more about violating the trust of others and see little point in cheating in your courses. In contrast, people feel more license to cut corners in anonymous settings and, when a degree is simply a meal ticket, tend to take a more instrumental -- and less ethical -- approach to their education.
By this logic, it should come as no surprise that the biggest cheating scandal this year would erupt at the University of Central Florida, a mammoth school with 56,000 students -- many of whom live off campus, attend huge classes, and are pursuing utilitarian degrees in fields like business and hospitality. The incident in question occurred in a business course on strategic management with 600 students. According to a story in the Orlando Sentinel, a copy of the exam circulated among students before the mid-term. The professor teaching the course, Richard Quinn, learned what had happened after when he was tipped off by students who had heard their peers in the course bragging that they had cheated. Quinn then went back and reviewed the exam results, finding that probably a third of his students had cheated -- and maybe more.
Nearly all professors have stories to tell of that sinking feeling when they stumble upon cheating. But the scope of cheating on Quinn's mid-term went far beyond the occasional instance of plagiarism on a final paper. In anguished remarks to his class, Quinn told students that the discovery made him "physically ill, absolutely disgusted" and "completely disillusioned."
This drama is by no means finished, as Quinn and officials at UCF try to find out exactly how many students cheated.
But tracking down the ringleaders here will be easy compared to finding real solutions that can prevent this sort of thing from happening again. Cheating is now deeply embedded in many universities and is fueled by the economic insecurity of our age, with young people deeply worried about their futures. Another driver is the me-first culture of American society, where extreme individualism reigns and it can be hard to get through with messages about the common good.
As it happens, I visited UCF in October 2005 to speak with students and faculty about cheating, and I was struck by how challenging it was to foster academic integrity at such a large university -- a place where the faculty cannot possibly know the names of all, or even most, of the students in their big classes. Also, it's at these larger schools filled with commuting students where the economic pressures can be greatest, with students holding down jobs while going to school and wracking up large debt loads.
But as I said during my visit to UCF, even this kind of situation isn't hopeless. There are ways to foster a stronger sense of community at large schools -- for instance, by creating smaller programs within those schools and sponsoring initiatives that build bonds between students and faculty. Also, I argued that UCF would have more success if it framed student cheating as a fairness issue, which is a value that resonates more with young people than the rather amorphous concept of honor. (Check out my argument about cheating and fairness here.)
Reducing cheating is not rocket science. We know how to change the culture on a campus and we have done it in other areas, like around alcohol abuse and racial tolerance. The problem is that changing attitudes on cheating requires resources and most schools simply don't make the investment. Let's hope that yet another major cheating scandal will shake that complacency.