Academic Dishonesty: Students’ Corruption

[this is not very related to science but it is an issue I feel very strongly about. This was my essay for the Ethics and Corruption in the public sector course I took during my Masters in Public Policy.]
1. Description
One of the behaviours that negatively affect an educational system is the very high levels of students’ academic dishonesty. This is especially the case for written examinations, the main assessment procedure in both high-school and university level education in Greece.
Academic dishonesty is a very dangerous type of corruption because it happens when people are at such a young age, at the stage when they learn how to think, try to find out what they believe in and develop into the people that they will eventually become. If a behaviour is perceived as correct or normal at this stage, it is more likely that it will be repeated for the rest of the life of the individual, or even be transferred in situations outside education. By adopting such a corrupt behaviour at such an early stage, young people are more likely to be corrupt as adults as well.
Academic dishonesty in the context of written examinations exists in many forms. Students can increase their chances of getting good grades by finding out the questions before the exam, copying from other students during the exam, copying from material brought into the exam room (notes in the bag, on the floor, in pencil cases, etc), from texts written on their hands, arms, thighs etc, and/or using technology (e.g. using mobile phones to obtain answers from the internet or from friends at home) or even by sending someone else to sit the exam for them. All these forms of cheating are used to great extents depending on the situation.
The focus of this essay will be university students who are performing any of the above behaviours during their higher education studies. They are the ones who initiate and benefit from the corrupted act of cheating in written examinations.  The alarming trend that served as inspiration for this essay is the increasing number of university students that consider cheating as an integral and justified part of their studies, even a right. The majority of students nowadays consider it completely independent of corruption.
There are three main reasons why opportunities for such acts exist in the higher education system. First, there are inadequate control systems to detect students cheating during a written examination. As a result detection rates are unrealistically low. One of the reasons for this is that control systems have not been adapted to the growing levels of cheating over the last half century, so they can be safely considered inexistent or badly designed. For example, technology has greatly advanced over the last few years, but examination conditions have not been adapted in order to be able to detect cheating through technology.
 Second, even when cheating during the written examination is detected, it is ignored by the invigilators. In other words, no further measures are taken because of the stress and discomfort that such a report would entail, mostly for the professor. For example, there are many cases where a professor caught two students talking during an exam, asked one of them to move seats and the students replied that if the professor “dared repeat this phrase again they will burn  their office”. When invigilators and professors are faced with such behaviour, they could be even scared to report cheating behaviour during written examinations to the University authorities.
Finally, when the professor decides to express the fact that a certain student cheated, this is handled on an individual level. For example, the professor could notify the student that he or she will fail because the professor knows that he or she copied. In this case the student either sits the exam again in the September examination session, or passes the exam orally, depending on the discussion the student had with the professor. Such detection, of course, remains invisible to the university authorities.
2. Rationalisations
One of the reasons that such a corrupt act takes place so extensively is that the students’ can choose from a great breadth of rationalisations to convince themselves that what they are doing is not wrong.
The most common rationalisation is that all other students are also cheating, so there is no reason they should not cheat as well. In this way students are denying any responsibility for their actions. This argument can go even further. Students can convince themselves that the reason they cheat is because they have to if they are to keep pace with others who are cheating. For example, students by looking up facts during the exam using their phone could be more likely to get top grades, compared to others that have to answer their questions without help. Students thus consider that without cheating, just based on what they have studied, they are at a disadvantage. To avoid this disadvantage they are obliged to cheat.
A second rationalisation could be that since cheating is found in every part of society, the student considers it appropriate for written examinations as well. Here students are using social weighing in order to avoid of responsibility. For example, if they know that some people cheat themselves into getting their job by knowing the person hiring them, why not cheat in the exams?
The quality of the knowledge obtained through the course could be questioned by the student in order to justify his or her corrupted behaviour. Their act does not really matter because they will not use this information in their professional life. If this information will not be valuable when they practice their profession, they might as well copy so that they can focus on other subjects that they consider more important.
There is also a great economic incentive for the students to cheat. Especially in the last few years when youth unemployment is increasing and the job market is becoming more and more competitive, the grades that students get during their university education are become a very important determinant of their chances of finding a job and thus earning their salary. Thus, they use the excuse of being in an impossible situation, i.e. that only if they have the best grades they will be able to earn their living after they finish their degrees, so they have cheat if this is the only way to ensure that they will get the best grades.
Similarly, when the goals set by the students or their parents are high, they are also more likely to cheat in order to make sure they will achieve them. For example, if the students aim to get into a very competitive and well-known university for their postgraduate studies, where grades are the major factor affecting their acceptance into the course, this could get manifested as high pressure on the student to do well. The student then chooses to cheat in order to later on achieve his or her extreme goal.
Inadequate resources for passing the examination with top grades without cheating is also a common rationalisation. The causes for the inadequacy of their resources could be, for example, that there was not enough time to study, that there was too much stuff to learn for the exam or that the professor had not properly explained the material during the lectures.
Students even blame the professor that taught the course in order to justify their cheating. By claiming that the professor’s attitude was inappropriate, since he or she did not put as much effort as required, i.e. by claiming that they have been “cheated” of the full education they are owed, the students justify why they cheat. Here too they are denying any responsibility for their actions, since if this is the case, no one could blame them for cheating if they are just matching the effort put by the professor. By condemning the condemners to be hypocrites, they argue that they are blamed for inappropriate reasons and thus validate their actions.
Given that the university runs under its own rules, students can also deny that their actions are wrong by simply saying that their actions are not actually illegal. Since cheating in an exam is not illegal, this means that it is not as bad as, for example, stealing money, and thus there is no incentive for not acting this way.
Another rationalisation could also be that a form of denial of systemic consequences. Students are denying any great injury, by saying that only they will be punished if detected and only in the form of failing the course/expulsion of the university. They do not consider any long-term consequences on themselves or to the higher education system as a whole.
Finally, the possible rationalisations for those that help others cheat should also be mentioned. They could help others in their exams in order to help a friend (friendship becomes a higher common good) or because in this way they can gain social acceptance. In addition, they could also use it as a tit-for-tat mechanism, in other words they help others cheat because they are hoping that these other students will help them when they need to cheat in an exam.
To summarize, cheating is justified because the stakes are too high or there are no stakes at all. Because there are inadequate resources to deal with the course load, or because cheating is so common place that if one does not cheat they are at a disadvantage. Or, finally, because it is not illegal or no one gets hurt when one student cheats in an exam.
3. Facilitating factors
In the previous section a great number of rationalisations were described, which could be used separately or in combination by students that cheat in written examinations. There are also a number of facilitating factors that enable them to act in this way.
First, there is an important ethical distance. The act does not last very long, just during the examination (a maximum of three hours) and maybe a few hours more, the time spent by the student to plan how the act would take place (e.g. write helpful texts on their hands before the exam, communicate with the student that will allow them to copy from him/her, find the exam questions, etc). Since there is a certain time lag between the exam and the results, when the student receives his or her grade it is very easy to forget that the cheating ever happened.
In addition, since in many undergraduate courses the classes are overcrowded, it is very common that students have no direct contact with the professor during the course. As a consequence, the students do not feel guilty towards the professor, which could be a deterrent from cheating.
Furthermore, when cheating is so common that is a normal part of university education, it is very likely that most students have not actually considered whether their acts could be ethically wrong or not. This absence of consideration also creates an ethical distance that allows the students to very easily believe that the rationalisations listed above are valid.
A second facilitating factor is the complexity of universities as organizations. As mentioned above, in many undergraduate classes there is a large number of students, each of which is taking one course after another without anyone supervising their progress and their exam results. Even if in some universities each student is assigned a student advisor, their meetings are only voluntarily initiated by the students, and they are usually focusing on one specific subject rather than the progress of the student. Thus, if a professor notices that a student could have cheated in their course and, as in most cases, does not report it, there is no way that he could notify the system – the university in this case – of his suspicions. Because of the way that universities in Greece are structured, there is no one for the professor to give feedback to. The only feedback that university professors give on the abilities of their students is through the grades of their examination.
The only way that a student can be found to demonstrate a tendency for cheating is through the exchange of information amongst the professors. However, since students take 48-58 courses over the four or five years, most of them taught by different professors, it is very unlikely for professors to exchange information on specific students and thus cross-check their suspicions. Only if the student happens to take the courses of two professors that frequently communicate, these courses take place at the same time and both professors notice the student cheating, there could be a chance of bringing the student to the university authorities.
In addition, professors do not just teach but they are also researchers and have to participate in administrative and scientific meetings as well. Therefore, they do not have a lot of time to dedicate in correcting the students’ exam papers and thus they are less likely to detect that a student cheated in the exam, since something like this would require a lot of time if sufficient evidence for cheating is to be obtained.
Another facilitating factor is the students’ negotiating power. Because of the way universities function at the moment, students have a say in professors’ bodies’ decisions. For example, students can object in the hiring of a professor, help professors pass certain decisions in the agenda or even elect the directors of the departments. As a result, students have a certain level of control over the professors, so the latter are many times scared to penalise or let the students know they have caught them cheating.
Over the last decades we have observed a great shift in the baseline that determines whether cheating is right or wrong. There is nowadays no explicit and unanimously accepted honour code that regards cheating as bad. In fact, the opposite is slowly being accepted. Helping a fellow student copy is considered as honest and correct behaviour. In fact the norm of reciprocity is an important facilitating factor: students help other students that have helped them in the past.
It could also be said that students are pressured socially to start cheating. When they enter the university, any interactions with older students affirms that everyone cheats, so they have to cheat as well. Students can pass each course whenever they want, so first year students could sitting their first exams with students currently in their third, fourth, fifth even sixth year of their studies, so they observe cheating while it happens. Many times older students even help younger students cheat by providing them with material or advice on how to cheat. A need to copy the older, more experienced and thus “cooler” students, could pressure first year students to adopt this behavior from the start.
As mentioned above, students can take their courses in the order they want and they can sit an exam as many times as they want. However, once students are near the end of their degrees, i.e. when they have just a few courses left, many increase their cheating efforts in order to finish their degree on time. Scheduling thus enables students that would in other circumstances not cheat, to act in this way. For example, if a student has passed all courses but one, the student could try to convince the professor to increase their grade in order to be able to finish their degree and thus not wait another six months or a year to sit the exam again.
Another scheduling related facilitating factor is that in many cases exams do not happen the date/time they have been scheduled for. It is very common for the university to close during the examination periods, due to protests by university staff and students alike. As a consequence, the examination periods change and thus many students are found with inadequate resources for writing their exams, since they might be notified a few days earlier of the actual date of the exam.
The simplest facilitating factor is lack of enough invigilators during the examination. In undergraduate courses there can be up to 400 students sitting an exam, but there only very few supervisors to supervise them. It is impossible, therefore, for the invigilators to supervise properly all the students, and consequently easy for the students to cheat.
The “Reward A hoping for B” behaviour is another facilitating factor. The university system as it is rewards short term performance while hoping for long term. Undergraduate studies are divided in a great number of short-term courses each of which consists on a series of lectures. While the real aim of the university is to make students learn how to think, by focusing on the short term – the grades on in each of these independent, non-interrelating courses – they are converting students to grade seekers.
Finally, student political parties play a very influential role in the day to day life in Greek universities. By participating in a student political party, it is more likely for the students to cheat since they are given help by the other members of the party, many times “in order to have time to put work for the cause of the political party”. Even if a student is not part of such a party, they could be provided with help in order to vote for the party in a future election.
4. Ways to tackle cheating in written examinations
There are three stages where cheating in written exams can be tackled: before the act happens (prevention), when is about to happen (detection) and once it has happened (response). On the whole, these measures will mean that such acts will be avoided in the future rather than taking place ubiquitously as is the case now.
Prevention
The moment students enter at the university there should be a compulsory lecture in which the disadvantages of cheating are clearly explained. The vast majority of students think that the most negative consequence of their behaviour is that they might be caught. They are unaware that they are hurting their confidence, their chances of finding a job and the legitimacy of their degree.
Examinations do not take place under strict conditions. Students are allowed to bring anything into the exam room: their bag, their phone, books, notes etc. A very simple way to prevent students from copying from their phone or their books is to not let them bring them into the examination room. Students should not be allowed to bring anything else apart from pens and typex into the classroom.
As far as copying from other students is concerned, candidate numbers could be used in order determine the sitting arrangements of students. If the desks are equidistant from each other and there is at least one metre between them (something that does not happen at the moment) and each desk is marked by the candidate number of the student, then students will not sit next to their friends/students who have agreed to help them. If they do end up sitting together, this would be by chance and students will not want to take a risk this high.
In addition, the more transparent and fair the examination procedures seem, the less likely are students to cheat. This impression can be achieved if, for example, students do not write their name on their answer sheet but their candidate number instead.
In order to prevent the rationalisation related to inadequate resources, exam dates and syllabus should be given to the students from the beginning of the course so that they are able to better manage their time. Equally important is that these are kept: that the professor teaches the syllabus he distributed to the students and the exam dates are respected irrespective of whether the university is occupied or not. At the moment, it is very often that exams are postponed due to strikes or occupations, so this inputs great uncertainty into their lives of their students and influences how they study for the exams.
Detection
Detection rates will improve if the invigilation is intensified. Departments must be obliged to provide sufficient invigilators for all examinations. A common rule is to have one invigilator for up to 25 students and at least one additional invigilator per each additional 50 students. For example, if there are 100 students, there should be at least three invigilators.
In addition, students should be warned at the beginning of every single exam that the following are strictly prohibited:
·         Use of any electronic device during the exam, unless it is authorised. For example, calculators should be allowed when necessary, but their memories should be reset by the invigilators, when the students enter the exam room.
·         Any communication with other students. There can be no valid reason for such a behaviour.
·         Students must both not attempt to read other students’ answer papers and leave answer papers exposed to view by other students.
Students should be warned that if they perform any of the above, they will be removed from the examination room and will have to resit the exam in the September examination session. Invigilators should enforce these rules strictly, because if students notice that the invigilators are lax, they are more likely to defy the rules.
In order to avoid students sitting exams in the place of other students, it must be compulsory for very student to present their university ID card that shows their candidate number. The invigilators should have the choice of checking the ID cards when students enter the room or if they prefer to have students display them on their desks during the examination.
Furthermore, students will be less likely to cheat if exams are not the only form of assessment their grades will depend upon. If grades were not just based on exams but also on participation in class, presence in class or even essays submitted during the course, then students would not be able to sit exams without attending the courses and/or studying. Students sign up for a many courses as possible just in case they will be able to pass with the help of their friends, without actually attend. If there was a compulsory essay beforehand, then students could not just show up to the exams.
A great indirect way of detecting repeated is having an advisor who monitors the performance of students throughout their stay at the university. If each professor had to monitor the progress of say 10 students, this would of course be a time-consuming task, but the benefits of such an institution are immense and many of them unrelated to students’ academic dishonesty. Such an institution would help for example the student psychologically as well, since students would feel that someone cares about them inside the university and thus that they are not just floating electrons moving from course to course independently. If such a institution existed professors would give feedback to the advisor of the student, who would then talk with the student and decide what is the best course of action.
Respond
If the institution of the student advisor is adopted, it will be easy for professors to respond once they have detected such a behaviour: they would simply have to directly communicate with the student advisor. In the absence of such advisors, the university should make it easy organisation-wise for the professors to report it.
The aim of a response to such acts is not punish their students and destroy their future careers, but rather to help them understand that if they sit their exams based on their own work, then they will benefit the most from their university education. For this reason, it is proposed to impose a points penalisation system, where students are given a number of points at the beginning of their studies and every time they are caught cheating they lose a number of points depending on the gravity of their act. Students can only get their degree if they do not lose all their points. In this way, students will be more careful and professors will not be scared to penalise the students: they will be more likely to report it in this way if they know the student will not be kicked out of the university immediately, without a second chance.
5. Discussion
Extensive student cheating during university level written examinations has grave individual and systemic consequences. At the level of the student, when detected it could lead to failing a course, academic probation or expulsion or even a bad reputation amongst the professors and occasionally amongst the students. The worst individual consequence for the student, however, is the lack of learning. Not only because students leave university without the appropriate skills required in their professional career, but mainly because they lack the confidence that comes from earning something through their own efforts. They finish their university without faith in their own abilities because they know that some or most of the grades have been received without an objective assessment of their knowledge and work, so they end up doubting themselves. This lack of confidence has negative consequences in their careers, given that these are attributes are greatly appreciated in the workplace, especially when applying for a job.
There are also grave systemic consequences as well.  First of all, the legitimacy of the students’ degrees, universities or even university level education as a whole is greatly reduced. For example, when an employer knows that there are high cheating incident rates in written examinations, they do not trust the grades presented in an applicant’s cv and are more likely to hire someone else, someone who has finished a degree or a university characterised by low levels of academic dishonesty.
Secondly, students who extensively cheat in written exams are more likely to carry this bad habit over into the workplace, leading to a corrupt workforce. Thus, there is a gap between what the country’s human resources could be and what they actually are: there are reduced levels of efficiency and a less advanced economy because the workforce has not been trained as well as it was expected.
For all these reasons, great efforts should be put in tackling cheating behaviour during written university examinations. However, imposing measures such as those mentioned in the previous section, students and professors express equally negative reactions. If we take the example of obliging students to sit on specific desks according to their candidate number, professors claim that they will not be able to impose such a system because they will not be able to convince the secretaries to go ahead of the exam in the examination room and stick on the desks the stickers with the candidate numbers of students. The students on the other hand, find that such a measure would restrict their freedom and thus they would greatly oppose it, if university authorities attempt to impose it.
The written examination procedures have become so corrupted over the years that the power has been shifted from the professors/invigilators/authorities to the students. In order to move back the power from the latter to the former, it will require great measures from the university authorities, which will invoke great reactions from apparently all stakeholders. Nevertheless, these are measures that are common place in all other universities in the world. In addition, it is not surprising that the best universities in the world are the ones with the strictest rules against academic dishonesty.
If Greek universities and students are not to lose further their legitimacy, they must impose the above measures irrespective of the reactions that will receive, since the role of the university authorities is to protect the university’s and its students’ best interests and these measure serve this purpose.
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