As the cheating scandal that has potentially implicated over 100 students at Harvard University unfolds, following a string of other recent academic infractions at elite institutions including Stuyvesant High School in New York City, the number of reported instances of cheating at UR requiring a student hearing more than doubled during the most recent full academic year.
Instructors at UR can report cheating in one of two ways: an Academic Dishonesty Short Form Incident Report through which faculty can address the incident directly with a student, or an Academic Dishonesty Long Form Incident Report which takes the case to the College Board on Academic Honesty and results in a hearing.
During the 2011-12 academic year, 62 long form cases were filed with the Board, which is comprised of 12 faculty members appointed by Dean of the College Richard Feldman and undergraduate students selected by the All-Campus Judicial Council (ACJC). During the 2010-11 school year, only 20 long form cases were filed, a number similar to the number of cases filed in the preceding three years.
Modern Languages professor Beth Jorgensen, who has served on the Board for the past eight years and chaired it for the past three, said this could possibly be attributed to an increase in instructors reporting cheating, as the board is “working hard to be more visible.”
Still, she acknowledged that last year was “quite an increase.” The Board is still working on hearing 11 of the cases this fall due to the record number from last year. Jorgensen said that 31 short form cases were filed during the 2011-12 academic year, which she says falls close to the average of 25-35 seen per year.
Just this week, an instructor notified Jorgensen of a cheating incident, which she said has never before happened in the second week of classes.
But the reasons for this remain unclear. Jorgensen does not believe that cheating at UR is more of an issue than it is at other institutions.
“We’re not outliers,” she said. “I wouldn’t guess that UR sees more cheating than less competitive schools.”
She added that perhaps schools with a long tradition of an honor code, such as Wellesley College and the University of Virginia, might see less cheating, but said that such ingrained traditions are not the norm among colleges and universities.
Feldman agreed that the prevalence of cheating at UR is likely not any different than other schools. He believes it is incumbent on faculty to make expectations clear to students and does not think UR should institute a blanket policy on how exams are administered.
“It’s very important for faculty to have discretion on exams,” he said, adding that he thinks there is a “real value to take-home exams.”
Both Feldman and Jorgensen agree that the Board needs more visibility and hope to incorporate academic honesty into the Communal Principles Project next year.
All freshmen are exposed to UR’s academic honesty policies during Orientation and through the required WRT 105 course, which covers cheating specific to writing papers, but not the fraught issue of collaboration, Jorgensen said.
The scandal unfolding at Harvard was a result of what can be the murky definitions of collaboration — the students are thought to have worked together, and with TAs, or possibly to have plagiarized on a take-home final examination for an Introduction to Congress class that had 279 students.
Jorgensen is looking to address what she sees as the problem with the physical conditions for exams. Large settings create the erroneous belief that more cheating is going on than really is and the feeling that students must cheat to “measure up” to fellow students, she said.
Next spring, Jorgensen hopes to conduct a campus-wide assessment of cheating through focus groups and surveys to gauge the climate and encourage thinking about academic honesty, following a conference she plans to attend this fall on the subject.
Economics Professor Michael Rizzo, who has been teaching at UR for five years, said that he thinks that there is “not a culture here that respects not cheating” and that he “didn’t realize cheating was as bad as it was.”
Rizzo said that the accommodations he is asked to make for students who have athletic commitments or other unavoidable circumstances that prevent them from being at an exam have resulted in cheating. Last fall, one student was expelled and two were suspended during the spring 2012 term for cheating on one of his introductory economics exams.
Feldman said making such accommodations is largely unavoidable, as he thinks it is “very important” to accommodate students traveling on teams, dealing with health issues or observing religious holidays.
“I’d be reluctant to institute a rigid policy,” he said. He added that perhaps there is more that could be done to work with faculty and that he is open to seeing if there are ways that UR could make it easier.
Rizzo added that he usually collaborates “very deeply” with TA’s in writing exams, a practice that he thinks leads to fairer exams, but which has worked against him because of cheating. One example, Rizzo said, is that a TA he had shared the exam’s answer key with his girlfriend.
“I have to trust my TA’s,” Rizzo said. “Something that works to the benefit of my classes doesn’t because of dishonesty.”
Rizzo also thinks that cheating is rampant on take-home assignments.
“I’d be considerably more floored to learn that no one was cheating than learning that some cheating happens on every take-home assignment,” Rizzo said.
Political Science Professor Valeria Sinclair-Chapman said that “students have plagiarized large portions of their papers” in her classes.
She said that she doesn’t have an opinion on whether or how UR standards at UR should change and said that she does not think UR is “more vulnerable to cheating than any other social institution.”
“Professors use different kinds of assessment tools depending on their objectives for the course and on their preferences,” she said.
Astronomy Professor Dan Watson said he has had more instances of cheating than he “could conveniently list.”
Watson said that he thinks collaboration is essential to the education process, but instructors should explicitly lay out expectations about when it is and is not permissible.
Watson said he encourages students to collaborate on homework assignments, but not on exams, but asks that what students turn in is in their own words and their own math — instructions that he says he clearly delineates and reviews in class.
Watson also said that he doesn’t necessarily think UR should instate more specific standards regarding exams, but thinks it is best to write exams such that students “find it easier to work them out by the rules than by cheating.” Watson said he tries to do this with his online exams, which he gives via WeBWorK in his large non-major classes such as AST 102 and AST 106. The exams are so different that students would risk running out of time if they tried to copy, he said. He also designs the questions such that they assess what students should have learned and are difficult to readily come by in a Google search.
Psychology Professor Richard Ryan, who studies theories of motivation and personality, said he has encountered various forms of cheating from plagiarism to students trying to take exams for other students, but he doesn’t see it as “normative.”
“It seems clear that most students do not cheat, even when under pressure,” he said.
Buletti is a member of the class of 2013.