Cheating a Big Problem, Study Finds

Prof hopes findings will prompt post-secondary institutions to develop strategies to deal with academic misconduct


Prof. Julia Christensen Hughes says U of G has used her study to develop new policies and penalties to deter cheating.
Prof. Julia Christensen Hughes says U of G has used her study to develop new policies and penalties to deter cheating. Photo by Martin Schwalbe

A U of G professor is shedding light on cheating, deception and plagiarism in Canadian high schools and universities with a study of academic misconduct in Canadian post-secondary institutions. The study by Prof. Julia Christensen Hughes and Donald McCabe of Rutgers University will be published this fall in the Canadian Journal of Higher Education.

“Large numbers of Canadian students report having engaged in a variety of questionable behaviours in the completion of their academic work,” says Christensen Hughes, who is director of Teaching Support Services, an associate professor in the School of Hospitality and Tourism Management, and president of the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education.

“These results are consistent with the view of 43 per cent of faculty and teaching assistants surveyed who felt that cheating may be a serious problem in their institutions,” she says.

Christensen Hughes and McCabe surveyed 14,913 undergraduate students (including 1,269 first-year students who reported on their high school experiences), 1,318 graduate students, 683 TAs and 1,902 faculty from 11 Canadian post-secondary institutions across five provinces.

Cheating on written work was the most common infraction for students at all levels. Seventy-three per cent of university students reported instances of serious cheating on written work while in high school. Fifty-three per cent of undergraduate and 35 per cent of graduate students said they cheated on written work.

“Serious cheating on written work includes copying a few sentences without footnoting, fabricating or falsifying a bibliography, or turning in a paper that someone else has written,” says Christensen Hughes.

The majority of students, faculty and TAs rated these behaviours as constituting moderate or serious cheating.

A surprising 58 per cent of the first-year students surveyed said they had cheated on a test or exam in high school by copying from another student without that person's knowledge, helping another student cheat on a test or using “cheat sheets,” she says.

Eighteen per cent of undergraduates and nine per cent of graduate students said they had cheated on a test or exam in the past year. Again, the majority of students, faculty and TAs rated these behaviours as moderate or serious cheating.

McCabe, a management and global business professor and founding president of the Center for Academic Integrity at Duke University, says the Canadian results are fairly typical of what he has observed in his surveys of students in the United States.

Christensen Hughes is hoping the study will be an incentive for institutions of higher education to develop comprehensive strategies for dealing with academic misconduct and for creating cultures of integrity.

She notes that U of G is trying to be proactive in dealing with cheating. Based on the initial study results, under the direction of Prof. Maureen Mancuso, provost and vice-president (academic), the University decided to take action and review its policies and penalties associated with academic misconduct. New policies and penalties were formally implemented last fall.

“Now a warning is a formal offence that goes on the student's record, so the student's academic misconduct history can be easily traced,” says Christensen Hughes.

(The guidelines for penalties can be found in the undergraduate calendar in Section 8 online at www.uoguelph.ca/undergrad_calendar/c08/sec_d0e6420.shtml.)

In addition, a committee to review invigilation practices was established by Prof. Alan Shepard, associate vice-president (academic).

“We wanted to make it clear to students and faculty exactly what students could bring to exams,” he says.

The study also identified several behaviours that most faculty and TAs viewed as moderate or serious cheating but the majority of students did not. These behaviours included working on an assignment with others when asked for individual work, receiving unauthorized help on an assignment, getting questions and answers from someone who has already written a test, and fabricating or falsifying lab data.

“Perhaps not surprisingly, these were among the individual behaviours students reported engaging in most often,” says Christensen Hughes. “For example, 76 per cent of high school students, 45 per cent of undergrads and 29 per cent of graduate students reported having worked on an assignment with others despite being directed not to do so.”

Many students have a different view of what constitutes academic misconduct, particularly when it comes to working with others or in situations they perceive to be unfair, she says.

“Many students may engage in these behaviours simply because they don't believe they're wrong. These results may be indicative of a clash between a collaborative student culture and a more traditional, individualistic faculty culture, particularly when it comes to assessing student work.”

These results are also consistent with the finding that 25 per cent of faculty don't change exams on a regular basis, which can create an uneven playing field because some students will have access to old exams and others won't, she adds.

“To assess student work with integrity, faculty must either change their exams regularly or make old exams available to all students to be used as study aids.”

Students surveyed also commented on their frustration with lab assignments in which they might be penalized for getting unexpected results. They said this tempted them to fabricate or falsify data.

To help faculty and TAs design effective assessments, Teaching Support Services is offering a number of workshops this semester that faculty can register for online at www.tss.uoguelph.ca/registration/index.cfm.

Christensen Hughes also suggests that many students probably engage in behaviours such as copying a few sentences of material without attribution because they're unaware of why it's important or how to do so properly.

“Educating students, particularly with respect to information literacy, is a very important part of supporting integrity in written work.”

She notes that U of G's Learning Commons has developed online resources to support students in citing their work properly (www.learningcommons.uoguelph.ca/ByTopic/Writing/WritingReferencing/index.html). Even before students set foot on campus, they can prepare themselves for academia through the Learning Commons website dedicated to helping students work with integrity: www.academicintegrity.uoguelph.ca. It uses a video vignette, short quizzes, definitions and lists of Guelph's rules, regulations and penalties to explain how to properly cite sources.

“It's a one-stop source that helps put professors, teaching assistants, researchers and students on the same page to internalizing U of G's code of ethics,” says Nancy Schmidt, co-director of the Learning Commons.

In addition, Barbara Christian, co-ordinator of writing services in the Learning Commons, recently spoke to a first-year class of 120 students about academic integrity and gave them a mini test on plagiarism.

“I was impressed that the students were keen to know what the rules were and that they were asking questions to find out as much as they could,” she says.