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Cheating In College: Where It Happens, Why Students Do It and How to Stop It

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In May 2012, a teaching fellow for a government class at Harvard started noticing similarities between students' final exams that shouldn't have been there. The professor brought the case forward and it was discovered that approximately 125 students -- nearly half the entire lecture class -- had been cheating. If students at Harvard -- the most prestigious school in the world -- can be caught cheating in large numbers, it's safe to assume that cheating happens on every campus much more often than we would like to think.

About 75 percent of college students admit to cheating, suggesting that probably even more than three quarters of college students have done something against the rules to improve their grades. With an increasingly competitive atmosphere and a culture that some say is more accepting of cheating than it was in past generations, cheating has sadly become a somewhat expected phenomenon at universities across the country.

It's hard to say what makes cheating common and acceptable. There are many different opinions about the prevalence of cheating yesterday and today and why students are so likely to take part.

Has cheating become more prevalent today than it was 50 years ago? According to the Boston Globe, the number of students who admit to cheating has remained constant since it was first measured in 1963. As our culture changes, college campuses become more competitive and internet gives cheating new forms, it seems surprising that the percentage of students cheating would remain the same. While this may or may not tell us something about ourselves and people in general, it clearly indicates that whatever is being done to stop cheating today hasn't worked.

A blog post by Ralph Heibutzki on GlobalPost.com put students' reasons for cheating in five different categories. These categories were ambiguous attitudes, competitive pressures, institutional apathy, lack of understanding, and self interest. A student's decision to cheat could come from any one of these five sources or a combination of more than one.

First, ambiguous attitudes among students about what qualifies as cheating may cause more academic dishonesty than intended by students. While most students will call plagiarism cheating, many of them will define plagiarism in a way that allows them to indirectly copy the work of others.

Competitive pressures placed on children at a very young age carry on with them through high school and college. With so much pressure to stand out as the smartest in a class, some students may give in to the opportunity to succeed at the price of integrity.

Institutional apathy likely causes many students to cheat as they do not see the academic environment as one that deserves their honesty. Just like cheating at Monopoly is easier to justify than tax evasion, if students don't believe their university deserves high standards then they may see no reason to follow all the rules about grading. Lack of respect for the collegiate institution should also prevent students from reporting instances of dishonesty they see around them.

Many students lack understanding of what constitutes cheating as most probably haven't read their student rules. This lack of understanding may lead students to cheat on accident or in a way that isn't known to be called cheating.

Self interest is the final category but would appear to encompass all cheating. Students are hoping to see a return on their investment of time and resources in college and watching someone else make a better grade can be painful. With only his or herself in mind, cheating is hard not to justify when someone can get away with it.

As the internet makes cheating easier than ever and the college environment becomes more competitive, how can cheating be stopped?

Tightening the rules on classroom behavior during exams seems like the most obvious and readily available solution. The University of Central Florida has a testing center designed to prevent, or at least limit, cheating on campus. Exam proctors record everything suspicious, measures are taken to prevent students from  photographing a test, and students aren't even allowed to chew gum as it provides a way to hide that they're talking into a hidden microphone.

Since cultural ideas may influence the prevalence of cheating, the best long-term solution may be to take a societal approach. For cheating to be reduced, instead of seeing cheating as something that can't be done, they must come to recognize that it should not be done. Removing the desire to cheat is the least immediately practical but most assured way of encouraging academic integrity.

So instead of laughing it off when you hear a friend's story about cheating, confront them about it. And when you see someone cheating in class, don't be afraid to report it to a teacher. Cheating in college poses a threat to all of our educations, and it can only be reduced by us choosing to stop it from happening.

By: Bryce Buchmann, Texas A&M