Is There a “Cheating Crisis?”

Mike Arnzen recently blogged about the Primetime Thursday special on the “Cheating Crisis.” Because I rarely, if ever, watch primetime television (for reasons that have nothing to do with being a snob–I’m simply too lazy to watch primetime television), I didn’t see the episode. Basically, it sounds like Primetime is offering a familiar argument: the Internet is making it easier for students to plagiarize papers or to share test information via text messaging. Students feel pressure to cheat because of the need to sustain a solid GPA. Students see adults cheating in the workplace without any serious consequences, so they believe they can get away with it, too.

After quickly glancing through the article about the Primetime story, I’m a little suspicious of some of their statistical information. According to the Turnitin analysis, something like 30% of all submitted papers “have significant levels of plagiarism,” which seems a little misleading, given the ways in which the program measures “plagiarism.” Most of my students have fairly significant “matches” with other sources, simply because they are quoting familiar passages. I’d also guess that the ABC survey (which I’d imagine is based on self-reporting and may in fact suggest higher levels of cheating) may also be innacurate. But before I state my primary reservation about the “cheating crisis,” I’ll point out that, yes, I’ve caught a few students who have plagiarized, either through Turnitin or Google searches and that I will continue to use those resources as deterrents (although I’m ambivalent about using them). I think they are “necessary evils,” especially when I’m dealing with such a large number of students.

My primary objection to calling the current situation a “cheating crisis” is that I wonder if there are more students cheating now than in the past. It was relatively common for students to cheat on tests when I was in high school, and I’d imagine (although I can’t confirm it) that some of my classmates plagiarized papers. And universities certainly have a history of academic dishonesty, as the so-called Jan Kemp Affair at the University of Georgia illustrates (I also remember hearing stories about students at UGA who routinely altered their professors’ gradebook, but certainly can’t confirm that).

What I’m suggesting is that Primetime’s claims of a cheating crisis seem to imply an innocent past when students were more honest and cheating was less widespread, and I’m simply not convinced that students were any more honest ten or twenty years ago than they are now. In fact, perhaps there really isn’t a cheating crisis so much as the new computing technologies have made cheating somewhat more obvious because of the very materiality of cell phones, graphic calculators, and paper databases. The kind of cheating that might have involved a conversation in the hallway or dorm is now made visible by the technologies that seem to enable dishonesty. The “panoptic” systems of surveillance make cheating easier to trace.

I realize that I invest a lot of trust in the teacher-student relationships that I cultivate (and when students do cheat I often feel somewhat betrayed), but it seems that to speak of a cheating crisis establishes a teacher-student relationship based on suspicion. Mike’s absolutely right on this topic–we do need smaller classes. I also realize that my confidence in my students derives in part from the comparatively small class sizes in composition classrooms, a relationship that cannot be duplicated in large survey courses. When the teacher and student have a personal relationship (and the student isn’t a mere number), I’d imagine there’s a certain responsibility to that relationship that reduces cheating.


  1. weez Said,

    May 4, 2004 @ 9:50 am

    Just a commentary on superlatives.

  2. Dennis G. Jerz Said,

    May 4, 2004 @ 10:09 am

    The story was certainly hyped in the best TV style, with footage of college cheaters who agreed to talk on camera, but who were flimed from behind, in backlight, or through extreme closeups of their mouths or hands. It gave the report an art film look that was mesmerizing, while at the same time annoying (I kept wanting to click “next” during the host segments, not to mention the commercials).

  3. Mike Arnzen Said,

    May 4, 2004 @ 10:09 am

    Great post! I really liked your point about panopticism and the idea that the materiality of technology may be making cheating more present, rather than raising the number of instances and that nostalgia for the past might lie behind the belief that education is in a cheating ‘crisis’. There’s a sense of panic and paranoia behind almost any claim to ‘crisis.’ Plus there seems to be a large disconnect between kids and adults these days — adult society seems to be trusting the youth less and less (though I have absolutely no evidence to back this up, save for the choices made by TV news, including this very news segment we’re discussing). Naturally TV media will demonize other forms of media; this might be a part of that, too. Nonetheless, I still feel there’s some merit to the claim that cheating is on the rise… or if not cheating, then a degree of laxity to student concern with ethical things like citing sources or paraphrasing correctly. And if tests are a PART of surveillance culture, then I can see why students would see themselves like spies, subverting it. Maybe. But as a teacher, I still feel I need to address the notion of cheating in my classes somehow…if only to increase my emphasis on the pleasures of orginal research and scholastic achievement.

  4. chuck Said,

    May 4, 2004 @ 10:55 am

    In my original post, I did have a comment about these primetime “news” shows, many of which are in the enetratinment, not news division (Dateline for example). The shows are great at creating that kind of drama, whether through scary backlighting or threatening keywords.

    And, Mike, that’s a great point about the disconnect between this generation’s kids and adults. I’m probably not quite *as* aware of it simply because I don’t have kids, but I’d imagine it’s partially based on some parents’ fears of technology, and certainly there’s still some residual angst leftover from Columbine. I’m also wondering how this divide might be manifested in popular culture. Is Ms. Spears more threatening than Nirvana, for example?

    Here at Georgia Tech we’ve talked quite a bit about the laxity in citing sources. I’ve had that happen, and in most cases, I think students are plagiarizing unintentionally (they likely wouldn’t turn their papers to Turnitin if they thought they were guilty of cheating, I’m assuming). That’s where I believe we as English teachers will have to be absolutely clear with our students about the definition of plagiarism. I’d also suggest that requiring students to go to the shelves for most of their soures (academic articles and books) *might* help to reduce this problem. I certainly do want to foster the pleasures of research and scholarship, so I’ll continue to address cheating when I find it, but I think we can also find ways to prevent it simply by creating interesting and original assignments.

  5. mjones Said,

    May 4, 2004 @ 11:18 am

    Good post. I’m sick of arguments that everything is worse now and the nostalgia they are founded on. An answer to cheating is, as you say, smaller classes. And better designed assignments, and less recycling of lecture notes/exams/etc. In other words, the solution is going to cost money and we’re just going to have to face that and stop using these bandaids like

    (Do I sound cranky? I’m on our uni’s appeals committee, and if I see another case of cheating that could have been prevented–and this is not to blame overworked instructors, but the administrators who overwork them–I’m going to explode.)

  6. chuck Said,

    May 4, 2004 @ 4:17 pm

    I’d definitely agree that less “recycling” of past material would go a long way towards putting a dent in plagiarism. I’d imagine that’s more difficult in certain fields, though, where the material may not change as readily.

    Wow, the appeals committee doesn’t sound like the most pleasant experience…

  7. Rusty Said,

    May 4, 2004 @ 5:44 pm

    Too lazy to watch prime time TV? Nice.

    In all seriousness…

    Having been born in the late 70s, my generation was the first that grew up not knowing what life without cable television was like. I do agree it’s conceivable that an equal amount of cheating and general stupidity flowed freely in earlier decades, and might just now be more apparent because of better technology. That said, I don’t think the effects of MTV and the Industry of Cool at large can be discounted.

    I’d argue kids are definitely more materialistic (as always, with nothing more than a crackpot theory/hunch to back that up). I would be interested to get averages of how many commercials a child born in 1960 saw by age 21 versus how many commercials a child born in 1980 saw by age 21. Then, I’d be interested in some psychological studies on how that materialism might affect inhibitions (which would likely affect propensity to cheat).

    I’d wager kids are more apathetic now as well (is “more apathetic” an oxymoron?), which isn’t exactly a conscience-builder.

    Not that those are the only factors. All the usual demographics would probably skew that theory into unrecognizable directions.

  8. chuck Said,

    May 9, 2004 @ 12:27 pm

    I think the “cheating crisis” meme has passed, but yeah, my TV laziness grows out of the fact that I don’t really remember when shows are on, don’t have time to invest in uninteresting characters.

    Interesting point, though, about commercial watching. I’d be willing to guess that you’re right, especially all of the implicit commercials and branding we encounter on a daily basis (was interesting to see in Boston that most ads on the train were for local colleges). I’d also imagine that “kids today” (I feel like a curmudgeon using that phrase) may be more cynical than in the past, but I also wonder if that isn’t also an image marketed by the media (in part to produce the very cynicism they show).

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