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Cheating bothers them, undergraduates report

While there is no evidence of a "cheating crisis" at MIT, half of the respondents to a study on undergraduate cheating at MIT described themselves as "bothered by the degree of academic dishonesty that goes on at MIT."

Eighty percent of the faculty respondents said they believed that the level of cheating has remained more or less the same over the years. The prevailing opinion among all who participated in the study was that academic dishonesty is either less of a problem at MIT or about the same as elsewhere.

The report on Undergraduate Academic Dishonesty at MIT, which included separate surveys of undergraduates, faculty and teaching assistants, was sponsored by the MIT Colloquium Committee and the Undergraduate Academic Affairs office. The report, authored by Alberta G. Lipson and Norma McGavern of the Undergraduate Academic Affairs office, was made available to the community last week through Institute mail and bulk distribution in many of the lobbies. Copies may be obtained in Rm 7-104 or 20B-140.

The Colloquium Committee, made up of faculty, students and administrators, was formed in 1992 to plan an MIT colloquium on academic dishonesty.

The issue had become a topic of much interest during the previous two years following an act of cheating in the spring of 1990. In that incident, of 250 undergraduates taking Introduction to Computers and Engineering Problem Solving, 78 were found to have cheated on homework problem sets.

The students were sanctioned by the Committee on Discipline (COD), but some contended at their hearings that cheating-unauthorized collaboration and homework copying-was commonplace in the class. Further, many did not think what they had done was wrong.

The study resulted from a need to have solid data on the actual extent and nature of cheating at the Institute.

In the report, the authors said, cheating was examined "as a literal reality, rather than as an abstract concept."

"Undergraduates were asked about their own behavior and the behavior of other students, and for their assessment of whether particular acts constitute cheating," they said. "Faculty and graduate teaching assistants were asked similar questions about their attitudes toward and experiences with undergraduate cheating."

The groups also were asked about reasons for cheating and ways that it might be mitigated.

A random sample of 20 percent of the undergraduate students (891) yielded a 44 percent response rate. The faculty survey was mailed to 1,378 regular members of the faculty along with 106 people in other categories such as instructors, lecturers, research associates and research scientists, yielding a 33 percent response. Of 481 graduate teaching assistants who received the survey, 42 percent responded.

The responses "reveal a complex of thoughts and actions usually unseen and unspoken," the authors said. "The results have pedagogical implications and contain important messages about values held within the MIT culture."

They said that recognized dishonest practice, such as cheating on homework, is accompanied by "trouble" that is rooted in "mistaken values."

"Half the undergraduates reported they had misrepresented or fudged data in a lab report or research paper, or had listed references without reading the sources, or had used another person's phraseology, argument or ideas without attribution [while] about one quarter admitted copying from another person's paper or published work," the authors said.

"It is disturbing that many of these actions are considered either trivial cheating or not cheating at all. If such attitudes are to be changed, explicit guidance about fakery, plagiarism and sloppy attribution needs to be on the educational agenda in our classrooms and laboratories."

Much of the report results focus on cheating on homework problem sets, by far the most common kind of cheating and the only kind, according the authors, that can be said to be widespread.

Students who cheated were more likely to be sophomores and were more likely to have lower grade point averages. They were generally reluctant to ask faculty for help when they were in academic difficulty.

The authors suggested several corrective measures, including the need to insure that students receive "sensitive and knowledgeable advising" and that faculty take into account the "competing demands" of various homework assignments and clusterings of exams. In addition, the authors suggested the need to communicate publicly "the likelihood that specific punishments will be meted out for specific offenses."

"The current secret sanction process sends the community no messages," they said. "Publicity about specific cases (with the anonymity of the individuals protected) would let the community know that cheaters are caught and punished."

Other areas in need of action or serious attention, the report concludes, include:

The extent of allowable collaboration and the means by which students are informed of allowable limits; communication between lecturers and recitation instructors about the handling of cheating; student workload; getting support to students having academic problems; the recycling of homework problem sets and exams, and student use of "bibles"; keeping records of dishonest behavior, and the need to teach about ethical values to prevent other kinds of cheating identified by the surveys.

A version of this article appeared in the December 8, 1993 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 38, Number 17).

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