USC students, professors question cheating definition
(Comtex Business Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge)LOS ANGELES, Mar 09, 2006 (Daily Trojan, U-WIRE via COMTEX) --Even before he had received his midterm exam, University of Southern California student James knew he had nothing to worry about. He and his friends had concocted a plan that guaranteed them a passing grade. If the smartest students had prepared well enough, James could even hope for a B-plus.
"The smart students always sit in the front, so the people who were really good at cheating would sit in the second row, the next level of cheaters would sit in the third row, and the rest of us would be in the back," said James, a senior majoring in sociology who declined to give his last name.
This way, his friends sitting in the second row could steal responses from the unsuspecting students sitting in front of them. As the period progressed, the answers, through subtle glances and slightly raised answer forms, would make their way toward the back of the classroom.
Those students in the back of the room took fewer risks and were less likely to get caught, but also had the disadvantage of copying responses that their friends ahead of them had purposely answered incorrectly in order to ward off suspicion from the professor, James said.
"You have to get some wrong," he said. "If everyone in the class had the same answers, the professor would know that something was up."
While James admits that the sort of system he and his friends devised might not be common at USC, academic dishonesty in all forms is rampant on campus, he said.
"I think the school sets you up to have to cheat. When a foreign language teacher gives 30 homework assignments, students feel like they have to cheat in order to survive," James said.
A student-run Web site, www.uscoursenotes.com, sold notes for several business and accounting courses. Students could pay for these notes online and have them delivered via mail or order over the phone by calling a phone number whose voice mail greeting asked customers to leave a message for uscoursenotes.com.
The packets included detailed information on specific material covered in class and divided the products based on midterm and final exam preparation. Prices ranged from $40 to $60 for the complete packets for each course.
Brandon Strand, an undergraduate accounting major and creator of the Web site, shut it down after being contacted by the Daily Trojan for comment.
"We interpreted the (USC Code of Conduct) differently. If the notes were created with the intent to sell them, then they would be in violation of the code. Our notes were created for our use, and when people started asking for our notes, we thought that there was something in this," Strand said.
One section of Strand's Web site recruited students to audit courses and take notes in order to expand the site's selection.
"We weren't trying to get rich. We were basically trying to reduce the cost of higher education. We didn't feel that we were doing anything unethical or in violation of the spirit of the Code of Conduct. (The code) says the university seeks to maintain an optimal learning environment. We felt that our service was actually promoting a learning environment," Strand said.
A Web site similar to Strand's, www.batnotes.com, was started by friends Atman Kadakia and Francisco Sevilla, both juniors majoring in business administration.
Their Web site offered detailed notes for two business administration courses, which were available to customers for $50 per course.
Four days after their Web site was launched, they were asked by one of the professors whose class was included to take it down.
They immediately complied, but not before they had sold 57 sets of notes.
"Marshall is a very competitive school. I witnessed students lying to their friends about the day of a test just because they want to bring down the curve. For a lot of students, the purchase of these guides would have helped them," Kadakia said.
"I have never encouraged the use of my guides as a substitute for class," Sevilla said. "So what if students missed class. The goal is to have students understand the material. Whether they used our guide or not doesn't matter. In the end, my grade still reflects the fact that I understood the material."
Rex Kovacevich, the professor who requested that Kadakia and Sevilla take down their Web site and whose notes were included on both www.uscoursenotes.com and www.batnotes.com, expressed concern over the sites.
"I was always a bit uncomfortable about it. I had a problem with it because someone was taking my work and profiting off of it," Kovacevich said.
But Kadakia and Sevilla take a different perspective.
"If everyone had our guides everyone would understand the material and that would force students to be more competitive. We were raising the bar and pushing students to work harder. Although sharing our information makes it harder to succeed, at the end of the day, I know that I've gotten a better education," Kadakia said.
"Cheating is always going to exist. I don't think you should sacrifice the overall learning of students because of something that some students choose to do," Kadakia said.
But McCabe of the Center for Academic Integrity believes conduct and honor codes such as USC's are beneficial but not strict enough.
McCabe said that in order for cheating to be dramatically reduced, students must first understand the severity of the consequences and universities must be willing to impose them.
"Schools are too lenient with their sanctions, and some students get away with only a slap on the wrist," he said.
According to recent research conducted by the Center for Academic Integrity at Duke University, on most university campuses, 70 percent of students admit to some form of cheating, and at least 25 percent of students admitted to serious test cheating, while 50 percent admitted to serious cheating on written assignments.
The motivations for all forms of cheating vary widely, but the most common reasons are laziness and excessive pressure, said Don McCabe, professor of management and global business at Rutgers University and founding president of the Center for Academic Integrity.
"Our data suggest that students with the highest and lowest GPAs cheat more than students with average GPAs," McCabe said. "Students with the highest grades are used to being successful, want to be competitive and want to get into the best graduate schools. They're convinced that they deserve it, so they rationalize cheating by telling themselves that a small instance isn't a big deal."
These are the students that tend to get over-involved in extracurricular activities or are working students, McCabe said.
"At the other end, some students let things go and are more likely to wait until the last minute on an assignment and cheat to get caught up," he said. These students tend to repeat their behavior, and their actions are reflected in their lower grades, McCabe said.
Aside from pressure, time constraints and procrastination, McCabe's research looked into possible factors that actually encourage students to cheat.
Among the most significant findings was how instructor leniency factored into the cheating problem. In a survey of more than 10,000 faculty members at universities nationwide, more than 40 percent of the respondents admitted to having never reported academic dishonesty to campus authorities despite being aware of specific instances in their classes.
"What stops a lot of them from reporting it is their lack of proof. Many ask themselves, 'Why should I spend time on students who have a problem when I could spend it on other students,'" McCabe said.
McCabe's research found that cheating occurs more frequently in the classes of instructors who have a reputation for being more lenient in their action against students who cheat.
Code of conduct
At USC during the 2004-2005 school year, 222 cases of academic integrity violations were reviewed by the Office of Student Judicial Affairs and Community Standards.
But this number does not reflect the amount of cheating that occurs on campus, said Raquel Torres-Retana, director of the Office of Student Judicial Affairs and Community Standards.
"If you look at USC's population, 222 cases isn't all that much. However, I know that it's being underreported," Torres-Retana said.
Of the 222 cases reviewed, more than 95 percent of the students accused were found to be in violation of the USC Code of Conduct.
Nearly all of the students found responsible received an F in the course involved, and in some cases of repeat offenders, or a first-time offense by a graduate student, the student was suspended.
The two most common violations submitted to the Office of Judicial Affairs are plagiarism and unauthorized collaboration on an assignment by students, Torres-Retana said.
Often, the violations are unintentional, but the office's recommendation in most cases is at least an F in the course, regardless of the severity of the violation or a student's intent, she said.
These Fs are permanent, but for a first offense are not recorded on transcripts as being the result of an academic integrity violation. Subsequent violations result in more severe penalties and indication of the violations on permanent records.
The USC Code of Conduct, adopted in 2004, outlines all prohibited student behavior and the sanctions that can be taken against students found to be in violation.
Most of the rules are common sense -- improper citation in research papers or the acquisition of test material before the test is administered -- but there are also some violations that are not as obvious.
One section of the Code of Conduct prohibits students from distributing notes or posting them on the Internet without expressed permission from the professor.
A section dealing specifically with class notes also states that notes or recordings "may only be made for purposes of individual or group study, or for other non-commercial purposes that reasonably arise from the student's membership in the class or attendance at the university."
Jessica, an undergraduate majoring in architecture, once sold notes from a class she was taking to her friends, who had missed several sessions of the course.
"I did it because they were my friends, but I didn't know that it was illegal," Jessica said.
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