Cheating and plagiarism by college students has always been a cat-and-mouse game, but these days the mice come to school armed with smartphones and internet search engines. Fortunately for the cats, some of their old tools still work—and new ones come along every day.
One of the most basic tools for educators is a strong code of conduct with a clear set of rules. Students need instruction about academic misconduct from the beginning of their careers in higher education, faculty members say.
“At our level, it’s important to educate them about what is acceptable and not acceptable behavior, because a lot of them have not received that message,” said Cathy Scott, chair of the accounting program and professor of accounting at Navarro College in Corsicana, Texas. “A lot of what we see is having to explain what academic integrity means.”
For example, students may not understand that reusing or copying their own work can be in violation of their school’s code of conduct. “If they’re turning in a paper that they wrote for another class, they just look at that as their ownership,” said Scott, who will lead a panel discussion on academic honesty and integrity in August at the annual meeting of the American Accounting Association.
Instructors usually reinforce codes of conduct in their syllabuses and with verbal reminders at the beginning of a term. Most schools require students to sign a statement indicating they have read and understood the code of conduct.
“The main step that I take is telling students on the very first day, and prior to each exam and assignment, that I don’t tolerate cheating,” said John Lacey, CPA, Ph.D., a professor of accounting at California State University–Long Beach and a member of the AICPA Pre-certification Education Executive Committee (PcEEC). “If I find someone cheating, we immediately go to the administration and pursue all remedies to the end.”
The accounting program at the University of Denver holds its students to a stricter standard than the university’s general code of conduct, according to Sharon Lassar, CPA, Ph.D., a professor and director of the School of Accountancy. She also chairs the PcEEC.
“We believe that future accountants should abide by a higher level of ethics and integrity than we might expect of our other students in the university,” she said. “So the School of Accountancy has its own code of conduct, and we can dismiss a student from our accountancy program with a first incident, if we want to. We usually don’t, but we have a separate procedure.”
Here are some other tips for preventing and detecting plagiarism and other forms of cheating:
Trust, but verify. There are many ways to make sure students take their own tests and do their own work in class. For small sections, take attendance verbally and make eye contact with each student, Lassar suggested. Simply passing around an attendance sheet may enable one student to sign in for another.
When a student submits a major project, Lassar recommended having them spend the first few minutes of class writing an essay about it to verify they did the work themselves.
Turn technology to your advantage. Students have found many new ways to cheat in the digital age, such as finding answers to test bank questions online and making copies of exams by taking high-resolution photos with smartphones. Faculty members can counter with their own electronic toolkits.
A number of programs check papers for plagiarism, such as Turnitin, SafeAssign (part of Blackboard Learn), PlagScan, and iThenticate. Scott has her students consult the Purdue Online Writing Lab, or OWL for short, to gain a better understanding of what plagiarism is and how to avoid it.
Scott also recommended that instructors give students the benefit of the doubt when using plagiarism checkers. She said she’s had some drafts flagged as possibly plagiarized by SafeAssign, only to find that the students who wrote them just didn’t know how to cite things properly. “A lot of times it’s a procedural error vs. an intentional error,” she said.
Lacey offered several tricks to thwart students who access test banks: Use test banks for a different textbook than the one used in the class, write questions rather than relying on test banks, or assign problems to be solved rather than giving multiple-choice questions. He cautioned that instructors who write their own multiple-choice questions need to pretest them to make sure the questions don’t have more than one reasonable answer.
Faculty members can also follow digital paper trails to verify that students are doing their own work. Projects completed using Excel can be checked for time and date stamps and authors across submissions, Lassar said. The online version of QuickBooks allows instructors to track keystrokes and detect whether a student actually worked on an assignment or simply put his or her name on it and uploaded it, Scott said.
Examine exam methods. Use a proctor. Schools that give online exams often use a service such as ProctorU to substitute for an in-person proctor, Scott said.
Verify students’ identities. In large classes, Lacey recommended checking photo IDs for each student before beginning an exam.
Ban cellphone use. If students need to leave the room, make them turn in their phones until they return so they can’t use them to look up answers. Hand out calculators rather than allowing students to bring their own, if possible.
Mix up seating assignments to discourage students from copying answers. Use multiple versions of exams given on the same day so the answers are less likely to match those on a neighboring student’s paper.
Get everyone on board. At the University of Denver, some faculty members didn’t believe cheating was a problem at their school, Lassar said. Therefore they didn’t bother with safeguards such as anti-plagiarism software. They used test questions out of the textbook, with answers readily available online.
Open discussions in faculty meetings about academic misconduct opened their eyes, Lassar said. The idea came from a member of the school’s advisory board who worked in civil engineering and said meetings in the construction business always opened with a crucial topic: safety. He recommended starting faculty meetings with a crucial topic in academia: cheating.
“He said, ‘Why not try starting every meeting with a discussion of the academic conduct climate in your university?’” Lassar said. “We did that, and that gave us an opportunity, as a faculty, to talk about the issues we were seeing and what we felt were the appropriate consequences.”
Faculty members quickly realized the depth of the problem and agreed to more rigorous safeguards. “Within about 18 months, we had completely turned around the culture,” Lassar said.
By taking a few simple steps like these, you can help foster a culture of integrity on your campus.