Early in this spring semester, I had an incident that prompted me to write this piece. I had started it, but got a bit distracted and put it away to come back to later. Not long after, another incident prompted me to reopen and continue working on this piece, only for it to again be shoved to the back burner as other aspects of the semester took precedent. Now, here I am, once again prompted to reopen and continue working on this piece that frustrates me because the students this semester simply won’t allow the topic to die in peace.
I could say a lot of really wonderful things about the majority of my students. They work hard. They seem to be engaged and often ask thoughtful questions. They make meaningful contributions when we have the time to get into class discussions. However, for every three or so fantastic students, you always get that one. You all know the one that I’m talking about. The check-boxer. The grade-grubber. The vortex of negativity. The buck-passer. And my all-time least-favorite, the cheater. Ahh, yes, the infamous cheat. The student who doesn’t have time to study, but puts in the time to devise ways to get around that pesky little obstacle of an exam intended to test their understanding. I’m always amazed at the lengths students will go to cheat rather than putting that energy into actually learning the material.
We’ve all had to deal with it at some point, so I wasn’t shocked when it became a thing under my watch…however, I was surprised to see it coming from my 300-level class, which is primarily populated by students looking to go into careers in healthcare. The thought of a future M.D., physical therapist, or dentist needing to cheat in an undergraduate level human physiology class is more than a little bit terrifying.
The first in a series of unfortunate events this semester came before the first exam. I was informed that students were not only planning to cheat on their first exam, but that they apparently thought it was cool to brag about how they would be “getting away with it”. Seriously? Are you really so incompetent that you need to cheat in a foundational course for something you plan to make a career out of? Worse yet, you want people to know how little you know about the subject? Why would you want to showcase your ignorance to your peers? What odd little creatures! In response, I changed the location of the exam without warning on the day of the exam and recruited a second person to help proctor. It made several of them nervous, though it remains a mystery as to which students were involved in the premature cheat-bragging.
Fast-forward a few months into the semester. I return to my office following my morning lab session to find a note attached to my door. “Dr. J,” the note began, “People are using the first quiz from 9 am in the 1 pm to cheat. They were bragging about it in the halls.” My heart sank. I thought we had moved past this. I became a bubbling pot of anger and disappointment. I really just can’t fathom how a person, particularly a person who wants to go into healthcare, would not only be devious enough to cheat, but also to have the gall to brag about planning to do so. As luck would have it, I had had a little extra time over spring break to make the quiz for that week much different between lab sections than I have normally been able to do, so the joke was on these cheaters even before their classmate let me know what was going on. I did let them sweat the 1 pm quiz and gave an admittedly rambling, likely somewhat incoherent speech on the audacity of highlighting one’s own ignorance and academic dishonesty. It scared a few of them, but I have no way of knowing whether or not it reached the ones that it actually needed to reach.
Another week or two goes by and a fun little rumor makes the rounds. Students are uploading materials from my class onto Course Hero. For those unfamiliar, basically Course Hero allows students to download materials from classes in exchange for them uploading materials from other classes. It’s a way of helping students to cheat or to help them facilitate the cheating of others…so they can then cheat themselves. Students earn credits for their uploads that allow them to download more content, but if there’s not enough credits earned for downloading, a student can always pay for the service.
The nature of content on Course Hero is really variable. Some of it is old exams, quizzes, etc., while some of it is essays or class resources. These later pieces of content walk the line of cheating or just getting help, but nevertheless the site is closely associated with academic dishonesty and not good for a budding professional reputation.
The fact that content from my course was posted was brought to our attention by a student who had Googled their own name to check their online reputation before submitting applications to professional programs. The student’s name popped up on a document that had been uploaded to Course Hero without their permission. You see, my students work on case studies in groups of 4-5 and one of the group members had uploaded the case study to earn themselves some of those Course Hero credits. The student was devastated that their name, through no fault of their own, was now associated with the site. Employers and admissions teams aren’t going to care about who posted these kinds of materials, but they are likely to raise quite the eyebrow if seeing an applicant’s name associated with Course Hero. This unfairly calls that student’s professional reputation into question. (Just another way of twisting the knife after the struggle that is a group project.)
It came to light which students had been actively posting and downloading from Course Hero. Some of the names were unsurprising, but a few left me in a state of deep disappointment. I played out various scenarios in my head. Confronting the students directly. Addressing the problem in lab sessions that included the students involved. Giving up precious lecture time to address the entire class. Each had their own sets of pros and cons. While trying to decide the best approach, my department chair came to tell me that another colleague had taken the time to address their class about the issue. Whatever that colleague had said effectively shamed one of the perpetrators into approaching our department chair to discuss the issue. The student deleted their account and contacted the company about removing the content from their site, which (somewhat surprisingly to me) the company agreed to do about a week later. This was the student who had posted materials from my class, so the student voluntarily coming forward effectively brought closure to the situation on my end.
While I was relieved that no further action was required on my part, the fact that academic dishonesty has been a reoccurring problem this semester has left me profoundly frustrated and disappointed. I’ve been trying to take a step back from my emotions to ask the more relevant question, why? Why do I have students who want to cheat…who wants other people to know that they don’t have what it takes to do well on their own…who thinks it’s cool to be the bad-ass who could get kicked out of school for academic dishonesty?
It is difficult for me to relate to this. I understand getting overwhelmed. I understand feeling backed into a corner. I don’t understand using those feelings to justify cheating in your class…particularly when such behaviors could have dire consequences and leave one wholly unprepared for one’s future career. While I certainly cannot claim to have never followed the easy path or done the bare minimum in a class, I can confidently say that I have never gone out of my way to intentionally cheat academically. And if I have cheated and my memory is just betraying me, you can be sure that I probably felt guilt and remorse and I can pretty much guarantee that I never would have bragged about it. I’ve never seen cheating in college or facilitating cheating in college as being an option for me…mostly because I actually wanted to learn in the vast majority of my classes. I wanted to gain the knowledge and skills that would propel me forward. Sure, I had days when things weren’t clicking. I had weeks of banging my head against a wall because I couldn’t grasp a concept. However, when all was said and done, I could say, “I hated that class, but I did learn something along the way”.
I don’t really have a moral to this story. I still have no idea how to explain to students that cheating is wrong. That it’s disrespectful. That it devalues their degrees and shortchanges the competencies that they are supposed to be developing as they make their ways through our programs. The one thing I can say is that students seem to cheat out of either ignorance or arrogance. There’s been recent institutional talk about plagiarism and how we stop students from doing it…either out of ignorance or arrogance. Ideas like registries to document events of academic dishonesty across the campus seem appropriate to me. It might even deter students from engaging in such behaviors if they knew that a record of wrongs was kept by the faculty and could impact things like recommendation letters or scholarship nominations.
It seems to me that repeat offenders tend to cheat out of the arrogance that we professors will not notice or care enough to bust them. I find that appealing to these students’ senses of morality or empathy is not effective for changing the behavior. In such cases, more drastic measures are required, such as giving zeros on quizzes, assignments, or exams. In extreme cases, administrative intervention and expulsion may be required, which I hope I never have to deal with as a faculty member.
On the other hand, when students cheat out of ignorance, we instructors can make this into a teachable moment. Incidences of ignorance allow us the opportunity to say, “this is why what you are doing is considered cheating” and those students often do not repeat the behaviors that got them into this situation in the first place.
In the Course Hero situation from this semester, I was happy to learn that this was more of an ignorance than an arrogance situation. The student followed up with a personal e-mail to me and a few days later came to talk to me in person so that I would know that things had been removed from the site and that she had not intended to cheat herself, her classmates, or future students who would be taking my course. The fact that she owned her mistake and made it a point to try to rectify the situation speaks volumes about the personal integrity of the student involved in the incident. That kind of student is the kind I can work with to divert them onto a better path rather than letting them jump off the rails.
I think that a lot of this comes back down to professionalism and students not always have a good grasp on what it means to build a professional reputation. Perhaps having the resources to better convey professionalism to students through workshops, seminars, or even courses could help prevent the rising problem of academic dishonesty. Such intervention strategies would certainly address the ignorance side of cheating, but maybe…just maybe…it might also help with the arrogance side as well.