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Honesty Committee Examines Cheating

By Eric Richard
Contributing Editor

The MIT Colloquium Committee released the results of its study entitled "Undergraduate Academic Dishonesty at MIT" last week. The action comes one year after MIT's colloquium on academic dishonesty and three years after 78 students taking Introduction to Computers and Engineering Problem Solving (1.00) were sanctioned for cheating by the Committee of Discipline.

The study was designed to answer basic questions about undergraduate cheating by trying to figure out how serious an issue cheating is at MIT, whether it is getting worse, what constitutes cheating, whether there are any underlying causes, and what can be done to improve the situation.

"The study's second goal is to provide information to the MIT community that can serve as a catalyst for action," according to the report. "It is hoped that this report will promote understanding, encourage changes that will inhibit cheating, and improve the climate for academic integrity."

"We hope it's going to be read carefully and looked at by everyone, particularly those who have some of the ability to make changes," said Norma McGavern-Noland, director of the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program and co-author of the report.

Is cheating a serious problem?

One of the primary questions the report sought to address was how serious the problem of cheating was and whether this was an issue specific to MIT.

"In recent years, people have expressed a concern about an increase in cheating on campus," the report said. However, it indicated that survey results do not support this claim.

None of the groups surveyed -- undergraduates, faculty, and graduate student teaching assistants -- suggested that there was any evidence of a cheating crisis at MIT or that cheating patterns have been changing. In addition, the report said that no group felt that there is more cheating at MIT than elsewhere.

Despite of these findings, the report said that half of all respondents described themselves as "bothered by the degree of academic dishonesty that goes on among undergraduates."

Students believe that their peers cheat more often than they themselves do, the report noted. While only 67 percent of students report they collaborated on homework problems set answers when this was prohibited at least once during the year, 99 percent of students say they believe other students did.

Definitional disparities at fault

The report indicated that, in some instances, faculty and student have widely varying opinions of what constitutes cheating. Half the students characterized themselves as "confused by what constitutes academic honesty."

Specific examples of situations showed the differences in definitions of cheating between students and faculty.

While the faculty nearly unanimously deemed "misrepresenting or fudging data in a lab report or research paper" to be a serious offense, almost 40 percent of students called it trivial.

On another question, almost 60 percent of faculty called "collaborating on homework when prohibited" a serious offense. Yet, nearly 85 percent of students responding to the same question felt it was either a trivial offense or not cheating at all.

The report explained that students seem have a "strong belief that working together helps the learning process. By working in groups, they say, they can see a variety of approaches to problems, not just one. They observe that collaboration is the norm in the `real' world of the professions, particularly in engineering, where the majority are heading."

Another problem indicated by the report was a lack of consistent, specific communication between faculty and students as to what is prohibited or allowed. "The fact that guidelines are given in class, however, is no guarantee that they are clear and comprehensive," the report noted.

"Messages about homework collaboration should be unambiguous," the report concluded. "Although many faculty report giving students guidelines about the limits on collaboration, this is not done consistently or explicitly enough."

Excessive pressure also faulted

Despite the confusion over what actually constitutes cheating, "there is considerable agreement about what students believe causes cheating -- over 60 percent cite workload pressures," the report said.

"Given the finding that workload related cheating is the most prevalent and the only kind that can be described as widespread, student responses need to be viewed not only as justifications or rationalizations about behavior, but as feedback about their academic experience," the report said.

"The pressure created by a pile-up of homework assignments or a clustering of exams could be mitigated if faculty were aware of competing demands and able to take them into account," the report said. "If there were a mechanism or mode of communication that would overcome students' reluctance to talk with faculty, this could ease pressure on students and give faculty a better sense of who those students are really doing."

"A lot of people think students cheat to get ahead," McGavern-Noland said. But the survey indicated that students cheat "more to keep from drowning."

Students with grade point averages under 4.0 out of 5.0 are more likely to cheat than students with higher GPAs, the report found: "It does debunk the common myth that high levels of cheating are also found among `excellent' students who will stop at nothing to reach or remain at the top."

"Rather than wait for students who are having academic difficulty to approach them -- a typical pattern -- faculty and teaching assistants ought to actively find new ways to overcome the student reluctance to seek help," the report concluded. "They must reach out and more consistently initiate conversations with students having academic difficulties."

McGavern-Noland said that she hopes that after seeing these findings the Committee on the Undergraduate Program will look into reducing pressure on students.

Punishments should be publicized

The report also found that a lack of publicity of punishments in cases involving academic dishonesty could be contributing to the problem. "If punishment is to help reduce cheating, the likelihood that specific punishments will be meted out for specific offenses needs to be communicated publicly," the report concluded. "The current secret sanction process sends the community no messages. Publicity about specific cases would let the community know that cheaters are caught and punished."

Triantahyllos A. Akylas PhD '81, chair of the Committee on Discipline, explained, "The community is not aware of sanctions [imposed on students] ... because of confidentiality reasons."

Akylas said that although the COD has not formally met to discuss the report, there will be a change such that "some type of publicity will be given to cases and the community will be made aware of the cases."

Report hopes for change

While the report was not actually intended to solve the problems of cheating, its organizers hope that the report can serve to instigate communication and thought on the issues raised.

"Maybe this report will make it easier to address cheating in a good, healthy way," McGavern-Noland said. "We hope this will cause conversation and some thoughtful consideration on what should be done, on everybody's part."

The report concluded by saying: "The Colloquium Committee expects that [its recommendations] will now be taken up by appropriate individuals and academic agencies at MIT -- administrators, schools, departments, committees, student organizations -- and shaped into recommendations implementable in the near future."

"It's not our role to prescribe recommendations. We just laid out what what we found, what we would conclude from the next stage," McGavern-Noland said. "[There is] no one panacea, no one solution."