URBANA — Late at night, several students sit around a table and discuss their answers for a take-home test.
Collaborative group work or cheating?
In response to a growing number of temptations for students to borrow facts, copy and paste information to assignments, post or even sell lecture notes or tests online, the University of Illinois is considering its first major revision in years to the student code's academic integrity section. It attempts to make clearer the ramifications and procedures for when students are accused of cheating and plagiarizing as well as address "gray areas" when a student's motive behind an infraction is not always clear.
The revisions come in the wake of one of the biggest cheating scandals in higher education in recent history. In August, Harvard University disclosed an investigation that pinned over 100 students for cheating on a take-home test. They also come at a time when group work and take-home assignments are common on college campuses and the oft-rumored fraternity house filing cabinet stuffed with old tests has been replaced by databases of tests and papers on public websites.
The code update, administrators said, is the first step in what they hope will be an honest conversation about academic integrity at a top national research institution, a conversation that will "raise the profile of academic honesty and what that means for the institution and how it's enforced," said Brian Farber, an associate dean of students who directs the UI's Office for Student Conflict Resolution.
"The temptations are great at the University of Illinois," Farber said. Students who come to the university are used to being successful, he said. "They want to continue to succeed. They know it's important to their future to continue to be successful and that can lead them to take a shortcut when they shouldn't."
The reasons for cheating, plagiarism and other actions can vary widely, such as wanting to succeed in a highly competitive environment, students not seeing value in the assignment or test, being overwhelmed or unprepared for the work, not understanding the instructor's expectations, not understanding plagiarism itself, and more.
According to Chuck Tucker, an associate dean in the College of Engineering who is that college's chief contact on cheating, there is a no one recent study that can conclusively point to whether cheating is on the rise nationally on college campuses, holding steady or in decline. But, he did call it a "time-dishonored tradition on campus."
Ethics expert Teddi Fishman, director of the International Center for Academic Integrity housed at Clemson University, makes the point that people plagiarized words and ideas as far back as the time of Pliny the Elder.
Some forms of dishonesty — looking over someone's shoulder and cheating on a test, for example — have not significantly increased, while others have, such as copying and pasting text from the Internet, she said.
Many experts do agree that because of technology and the proliferation of websites that provide answers to those seeking them, it's become easier to fall into the trap of academic dishonesty.
"The number of ways to cheat have grown," Tucker said.
Incidents reported up
University of Illinois reports show an increase in recent years in cheating and plagiarism on campus, but administrators like Farber insist that does not mean cheating is running rampant. Instead they say it could be the result of instructors being more diligent in catching and reporting cheaters.
For the most recent year ending June 30, 2012, there where 325 violations of the university's academic integrity code reported to campus. That includes cheating, plagiarizing, fabrications, enabling infractions and other similar incidents. That's down from 465 in 2011, the peak in recent years, but well above the level of 100 reported in 2006.
In recent years, a large number of the violations have been committed by students in the College of Engineering's departments of Computer Science, Electrical Engineering, Computer Engineering and Mechanical Engineering. Last year the college represented nearly 68 percent of the cases of academic dishonesty reported to the campus. Many of the incidents occur in programming and coding assignments, and even though instructors will inform students they will run programs to detect copying, every year some students will still do just that, Tucker said.
It may seem counterintuitive, but an increase in the number of cheating or plagiarism cases does not mean there is more cheating occurring on a campus, Fishman said.
Instead, an uptick in cases "is when faculty and staff are paying more attention to it. ... They're doing a good job of policing it," she said.
Compared with decades ago, there are also many more tools and programs available to snare those who don't follow the rules, such as SafeAssign, a plagiarism-catching tool available for instructors who use the course software IllinoisCompass; and the website http://www.turnitin.com.
The punishments or sanctions for such incidents can vary, although an analysis of sanctions since 2007 show most students receive a failing grade for the assignment. For the year ending June 30, 2012, 227 students were slapped with a failing grade for the assignment, 28 students had a reduced grade for the assignment, 84 students had their course grade reduced, 18 students received a failing grade for the course, and 52 students received a written notice of warning, with a copy placed in the student's file. Five received some unnoted sanction and two were given a denial of credit in a proficiency exam. Nine students did not receive any punishment.
As proposed, the revised code offers more variation in the sanctions, said Renee Romano, the UI's vice chancellor for student affairs.
"There are more gradations of sanctions depending on the severity ... which makes everybody happy," she said. "If a student didn't know what plagiarism was or understood it, and they're willing to make it right, that's different than outright or (willful) cheating," she said.
The new option for colleges is called "educational sanctions" and it includes the option of giving a student a make-up exam or requiring the student attend an academic integrity workshop.
In recent years, instructors and administrators said they have noticed "a lot more gray areas," Tucker said.
"We encourage students regularly to study in groups," he said. It's acceptable to discuss homework, but students must do their own work, he said.
Faculty need to provide clear guidance on what's OK for students to do while working alongside classmates, he said.
"The best advice I know for students when they edge into a gray area is to reach out and ask someone for an answer," said Peter Mortensen, English professor and associate provost for academic affairs. And instructors should leave their doors open for questions like that, he added.
"Is redundancy a bad thing?" asked Teddi Fishman. Not when it comes to educating students about plagiarism, cheating and other issues, she said.
"We do encourage people if they assign a paper to take few minutes to educate them ... to talk about the rules (for citing references), to have links to resources in a syllabus if they don't know how to cite ... devote some time to it," she said.
The solution that makes sense to Farber is for instructors to review the policies and discuss it with their students, along with their individual expectations for the class and why the instructor feels it is an important topic of discussion. How homework will be handled, how tests will be handled, whether students should look at old tests or not, how to work with others.
The reality is most students are not aware of the academic dishonesty section of the student code, said UI student Jim Maskeri, who sits on the student senate's academic affairs committee and was involved in the code update.That is, they're clueless until they find themselves facing allegations of violating the code.
"I do think this is a good step in right direction and part of a continuing conversation we need to have," Maskeri said of the revision.
"It gives clear definitions of what's acceptable and what's not. And it opens a wider spectrum of punishments for violations so faculty don't feel that they have to let someone off the hook or give them an extreme punishment," he said.
According to the code, the instructor remains the main investigator and contact for the student and it is the instructor who decides what penalty to apply. Many departments did not have policies explaining the process, including how to handle appeals, and those steps and time limits involved are now outlined in the code as proposed, Farber said.
The revised code also now offers an explicit basis for the instructor as he or she determines if a student violated the code or not. It states: "If the instructor concludes based on available information that it is more probably true than not true that the student has committed an infraction, the instructor shall make a finding of a violation and impose a sanction."
It's not about crime and punishment, Farber said. But "about sending strong, consistent messages about what's expected of (students)."
It's important to have rules so when someone deliberately steps over the boundaries, there are consequences, "just as there'd be in a workplace," Mortensen added.
Earlier this fall, the Office of the Dean of Students posted on its website the proposed revisions to the code and solicited feedback.
An ad hoc committee of faculty, staff and students reviewed the feedback and are updating the revision. They will send the revisions to the more formalized Conference on Conduct Governance, another committee of faculty, staff and students, who will review and discuss the code revision before sending it to Chancellor Phyllis Wise this coming spring.
It will be Wise's decision whether or not she accepts the revisions or request additional revisions or edits.
Reported academic integrity violations at the University of Illinois
|Total academic integrity violations||325||465||243||107||83||100|
*Years are for fiscal years ending June 30. Incidents are those reported to the Academic Senate's committee on student discipline.
To learn more about the proposed revisions to the academic integrity section of the University of Illinois student code visit, http://www.odos.illinois.edu/academicintegrity