“Sure I’ve cheated. Who hasn’t?”

A September 2006 article at SmartMoney.com has a list of ten things your college student won’t tell you. The first item on that list?

1. “Sure, I’ve cheated. Who hasn’t?”
Blame it on Enron or blame it on Martha Stewart — the fact is that cheating has reached an all-time high on today’s college campuses, with 70% of students now admitting to some form of it. Incidents involving unsourced material from the Internet in written work have quadrupled in the past six years, yet 77% of students don’t consider it cheating or “very serious.””Some students have justified it to themselves,” says Donald McCabe, founding president of the Center for Academic Integrity. “They’ll say it’s the faculty’s fault if they’re too lazy to stop it.”

Mobile devices exacerbate the problem; students can text-message answers to one another or use camera phones to post exams online. Spark-Mobile, a service from study-guide publisher SparkNotes, lets students send in text-message queries and get crib notes in seconds. But that’s just one of many such services: GradeSaver.com grants access to sample essays for $6 a month, while RentACoder.com lets computer-science students outsource homework to India for around $20. The companies say their sites weren’t designed to help students cheat, but “it’s impossible to police,” admits RentACoder founder Ian Ippolito.

Depending on what parameters students used to define “cheating”, and if you include a college student’s entire K-12 career, the figure of 70% is not that surprising. It’s possible that a student who accidentally let his eyes wander to a classmate’s paper on a second grade spelling test would count that as “cheating” even if he didn’t use the information.

The 77% figure isn’t necessarily surprising either, since academic dishonesty in a college class is not always an absolutely defined term but can be different between one class and the next. Students have to read the course syllabus to be clear on what’s cheating and what isn’t. In some of my classes, for instance, collaboration on homework is unrestricted; in others it’s partially restricted; in others it’s totally restricted. Students have to read the syllabus to know what the rules are and not depend on a sort of folk knowledge of cheating to guide them. Unfortunately, a lot of students think “syllabus” is the Latin word for “ignore”.

Who’s to blame? It depends. It’s not always the faculty’s fault, although if faculty really are too lazy to enforce their own rules, then they are certainly part of the problem. I don’t think you can blame the technology, though; that’s sort of like blaming paper for the existence of cheat sheets on a test. This is a widespread cultural problem that starts way before college. Although for my part, a robust enforcement of cheating policies is pretty good medicine. I’ve had a lot of students get caught plagiarizing or cheating once, but almost never twice.

[h/t Dumb Little Man]

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