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Amherst College > News & Events > Amherst Magazine > Archives > Winter 2004 > College Row
College Row

Cheating on the rise

The incidence of reported cheating at Amherst has taken a dramatic jump in the past few years, from what had been a steady rate of three or four cases a year to 35 cases in 2002 (the most recent year for which figures are available). According to Dean of Students Ben Lieber, the rise in cheating is a nationwide problem, and fairly recent. “In 1998,” he says, at Amherst “there were three cases. In ’99 there were 16, in 2000 there were 19 cases. In 2001 there were 10 cases—a little bit of a decrease, which caused mild and misplaced optimism—and then, in 2002, 35 cases, which just blew us away.”

Most of the cheating (21 out of 35 cases last year) takes the form of plagiarism, often involving material taken from Internet sites. “There’s an interesting question that we haven’t been able to get to the bottom of,” Lieber says. “Are more students cheating off the Internet because it’s so easy to do? Or are more students getting caught because it’s so easy to catch them?” He points out that faculty members can simply enter a suspicious passage into an Internet search engine to check its origin. Lieber says that cheating also takes the “simple, old-fashioned” form of one student copying another’s work during a test.

The trend noted by the Dean’s Office was confirmed by a College Council survey sent to students at the beginning of October 2003. Among the 444 students who returned the anonymous survey, 7.6 percent admitted to cheating at Amherst and said they had not been caught.

According to college policy, cheating students are placed on disciplinary probation for the remainder of their college careers after a first offense; they are suspended for a substantial period after a second offense. The Dean’s Office recommends that professors fail students who they find cheating in their courses, but faculty have latitude to take into account extenuating circumstances and to make their own decisions about grades.

President Anthony W. Marx told The Amherst Student on Oct. 29 that the rise in cheating “says something about our society and what messages we have sent to our students about what is acceptable. It also says something about the pressures our students feel, and [reflects] a confusion, perhaps, about what is or isn’t cheating.”

Marx’s concern about societal pressures is borne out by the fact that many of those caught cheating are not weak students

trying to stave off academic disaster, but rather some of the best students. “The issue in their minds is not flunking the course,” Lieber says, “but the difference between getting an ‘A’ and getting a ‘B.’” He suggests that one element in this thinking may be grade inflation. Because average grades are higher today than 40 years ago, he says, “there are large numbers of students who now see ‘B’ grades as a sort of step down, or even a humiliation.”

The pressure seems to start earlier, too. Forty-one percent of the students who responded to the Amherst survey said that they had cheated in high school. “All of the elite colleges have become very competitive to get into, and that’s led to the notion that to be successful you have to get into one of only 10 schools,” Lieber says. “Students’ perceptions of what college is and how to go about getting into college and what to do when you’re in college have to be affected by this.”

Stemming the tide of cheating has become a priority for the Dean’s Office. During Orientation, the office organized a mandatory seminar on intellectual property led by three faculty members. And the Dean’s Office is working to educate students about the problem through articles in The Amherst Student and discussions in the student government. “But one of the concerns [about alerting students to the problem’s growth],” Lieber says, “is that there can be a kind of backlash effect; that you actually create the impression that everyone does it.”

One hopeful sign is that students themselves are taking up the issue. “I support an honor code,” wrote Kelly Theim ’04 in an Amherst Student op-ed,“in which students, when they see incidents of cheating, vow to speak up. While I agree that an academic environment in which we feel as though our peers are spying on us is certainly not ideal…it seems clear to me that the only people who would be genuinely concerned would be the cheaters themselves....If someone spying on me would help combat the problem of academic dishonesty,

I have no basis for concern, because I, like most of us, submit authentic work.”

Next: Redefining cold >>

 
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