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Teaching Thursday: Cheating

Cross-posted to Teaching Thursday

The past few months have produced the typical batch of articles bemoaning cheating in American universities. From blatant acts of plagiarism facilitated by the proliferation of online materials to technologically assisted cheating on math and science tests, the popular press has decided that university life is overwhelmed by a culture of academic dishonesty.

I have my doubts, but I nevertheless recognize that academic dishonesty does occur more often than it should and, as a result, I spend more time tweaking writing assignments and changing tests and quizzes in recent years than I did before.

One issue that I put before my esteemed readers of Teaching Thursday, is what are the causes of this academic dishonesty? Is it the break down in civil society as some have suggested. Or is it simply a change in the values associated with higher education? What role do increased economic, social, and even political pressures put on students to complete their degrees successful and quickly? And do these pressures cause students to cheat? At the same time, has the current generation of university educators so fetishized originality that students are actually paralyzed by these expectations and driven to resort to profoundly unoriginal practices in desperation? Or has the culture of academic cynicism, post-everything nihilism, and radical relativism created such a confused moral zone in higher education that students lack the moral compass necessary to avoid cheating?

On the other hand, are cheating and plagiarism simply more visible now than they were before because we have better ways of catching students in the act? Search engines like Google (not to mention purpose built anti-cheating services like Turnitin) have made it easier to catch the most blatant acts of plagiarism and easier to check up on more subtle forms of unattributed “borrowing”.

What role have recent changes in universities as an institutions and as university teaching and learning as practice played in presenting a different set of challenges to faculty committed to designing classes that thwart efforts at academic dishonesty? Online classes are particularly challenging in this regard even with established proctoring arrangements and the like. The influx of students from outside the U.S. also pose challenges, as the academic standards and practices vary considerably between cultures.

It is easy enough to write unique paper assignments that short circuit all but the most ambitious strategies, but what cost do we incur when we concoct these assignments. In other words, has cheating brought an end to the classic “Moby Dick” paper?

So, for the next few weeks (depending on the enthusiasm of our readers!), I invite contributions to Teaching Thursday‘s exploration of cheating.

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