Analysis of Academic Misconduct Using Unobtrusive Research: A Study of Discarded Cheat Sheets

Article excerpt

Cheating is the bane of higher education and strikes at the heart of established values in American culture. Causal factors run the gamut from large classes, impersonal relationships with professors, competition for jobs, gaining higher GPAs in order to enter graduate school, to a culture that appears to accept cheating readily as a normal part of life. While other studies on cheating have examined attitudes, definitions, and justifications, this analysis takes a refreshing digression into the techniques used to cheat, namely the form and format of discarded cheat sheets. The review of actual cheat sheets focused on disciplines represented, type of information recorded, format and construction, method of concealment and the disposal process.

Cheating is the bane of higher education. It strikes the heart of established values in American culture and is present in classrooms and laboratories alike. The academic community has been studying cheating in depth for more than 60 years (Drake, 1941) and has produced many suggestions for its cause and prevention. Causal factors run the gamut from large classes, impersonal relationships with professors, competition for jobs after graduation, higher GPAs to enter graduate school, to a culture that appears to accept cheating readily as a normal part of life (Barnett, 1997, Hajela, 1997, Wilson, 1999, and McCabe & Drinan, 1999). A recent assessment by McCabe and others points to poor role models, lack of parental guidance, and easy access to virtually untraceable sources using the Internet (Clayton, 1999).

The lack of success in preventing all forms of cheating is evidenced by the continued high levels of cheating measured in self-report studies, several of which have been reported in this journal. Frustrating attempts to thwart this continued problem is the apparent lack of desire of professors to challenge students when they suspect a cheating incident has occurred (Maramark & Maline, 1993, Innerst, 1998, and McCabe & Drinan, 1999).

In a comprehensive review of the literature, Stern and Havlicek (1986) found estimates of cheating ranging from 50% to 91%. Recent studies of cheating reinforce the prevalence of the problem with many finding self-reported admission of cheating in the 80% to 90% range (Smith, Ryan, & Diggins, 1972; Sierles, Hendrick, & Circle, 1980; Stern & Havlicek, 1986; and Eskridge & Ames, 1993). A different measure of the seriousness of the problem comes from Whitworth (1990) who adopts an "if you can't beat them. join them" approach and recommends that students be allowed to use crib notes for exams, much like professors use notes when they talk or write. Nevertheless, there is a general consensus, based upon empirical research and anecdotal experience, that academic cheating is a serious, widespread problem.

Nelson and Schaeffer (1986) offer a dissenting view in raising the issue of the difficulty of inferring cheating behavior from self-reported admissions of cheating based upon questionnaire data. Others have echoed that concern and have suggested that actual cheating behavior be studied as a way of validating the information gathered about admission of cheating (e.g. Karlins, Michaels, & Podlogar, 1988). Relatively few studies of actual cheating behavior have been published (for exceptions, see Karlins, Michaels, & Podiogar, 1988; and Ward & Beck, 1990). This is not surprising as it is much easier to study attitudes (Eskridge & Ames, 1993), definitions (Stem & Havlicek, 1986)and justifications (Stevens & Stevens, 1.987) than to study a behavior that is intentionally hidden. In addition, there are ethical problems with the study of cheating in the areas of right to privacy, preventing harm to subjects, and securing informed consent.

This study significantly adds another dimension to the current focus on cheating behaviors. While other studies have examined attitudes, definitions, and justifications, this analysis takes a refreshing digression into the techniques used to cheat, namely the form and format of discarded cheat sheets. …

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