Pinocchio in College
“Dr. Crocker, I know who complained about you to your boss—you reported her for cheating on her final exam.” Only a week after publication of the story of my time as an educator at George Mason University (GMU), I was contacted by one of my former students. She had a shocking tale about her former friend, “Hiroko,” who was caught cheating, then followed and intimidated another student whom Hiroko thought had blown her cover, and finally made false allegations about me. Since Hiroko was subsequently discovered to also be cheating in other classes, she was suspended from GMU, but is now in business contracting for the government.
This vignette points to a basic problem. Starting with the lower levels of education in high school, following through college, and finally in the professions, we are having a national crisis in integrity.
The problem begins in our educational system. According to the National Science Foundation, 80% of top high school students have engaged in cheating and half of these do not even think it was wrong. Consider also data from two highly-selective universities: Duke University reported that more than 70% of surveyed students admitted to cheating while in college and half of the students at Cambridge University said they have indulged in plagiarism.
While at GMU I witnessed all kinds of cheating. Pairs of students would turn in identical and wrong answers to a quiz, once in the same handwriting. Despite the fact that I gave out three versions of the exams, a few less observant students would always copy answers from their neighbor during a multiple-choice exam, resulting in a score of less than 20%. Students even stole marked lab reports and essays from each other in order to sell them or turn them in the next semester, when they might have to repeat the course.
Unfortunately, many professors do not report student cheating; up to 95% of cheating students are never caught. Therefore, the habit continues. The GMU Dean of Students told me that I was the first biology professor to report cheating for many years. There may be a number of reasons for this negligence. Some educators are simply in denial and claim, “there is no cheating here,” even when presented with hard evidence. Others feel that by the time a student enters college, the battle has been lost and is not worth addressing. Still others are worried about possible legal repercussions or, understandably, prefer to spend their time as a teacher rather than as a policeman.
A significant, but less well-known, reason for not reporting cheating in college is that a professor’s performance is judged mostly on the basis of student evaluations. Educators who report cheaters, or demand higher standards of learning, can experience fierce retaliation from disgruntled students. And, even though professor quality in terms of the future success of their students is inversely proportional to their student ratings, student evaluations of an educator are a prime source of information when he or she is being considered for renewal of a contract or tenure. And so, lack of integrity at school continues unhindered into the professions and breaches in integrity, particularly scientific integrity, have become so commonplace that the public is losing faith in science and scientists.
I believe that integrity in education and practice happens when students honestly do their own work and researchers and teachers are encouraged to consider and teach the whole picture, even evidence that challenges the current consensus point of view. This is not happening in many areas today. Mr. Chris Mooney bemoans his impression that Americans are what he terms scientifically illiterate: they ignore scientific advances and reject scientific principles. But, who can blame them — when they see problems with scientific integrity all around us? This is particularly apparent in teaching. Rod Dreher notes that it is good to be skeptical of authority, especially scientific authority. But, it is a regular occurrence that educators are restricted to only teaching those scientific “facts” that are politically correct, financially beneficial, or even ideologically attractive. Students are indoctrinated instead of educated.
Take the story of University of California at Los Angeles’ professor Dr. James Enstrom, who has been fighting a battle for his job ever since publishing data that calls into question California government policy on diesel emissions. Or Dr. Randy Wayne, whose course at Cornell on Biological Principles, which encouraged students “to think skeptically about scientific and medical issues,” was arbitrarily cancelled. Dr. Wayne theorized, “It is possible that the soapbox…was removed because I teach my students to be thoughtful and have an active skepticism about the popular and lucrative trends in science and medicine…” Or consider 2011 Chemistry Nobel prize winner, Dr. Dan Shechtman, who “had to fight a fierce battle against established science” and was even “asked to leave his research group” because his published observations were discordant with the current scientific consensus.
This practice of censoring professors keeps students and the public from benefiting from those excellent and highly qualified people who dare to be “skeptical of authority.” The questioners are not allowed to work as educators, if they are permitted to work at all. But, it also has a restrictive effect on currently-employed teachers and research scientists. Many are avoiding controversial subjects in their teaching curriculum and research because they want to be tenured and/or funded. Others have requested anonymity as members of organizations promoting scientific integrity because public participation may cause demotion or job loss. Understandably, some people lose interest in being educators—after all, they did not enter the profession to mold mindless robots but to create lifelong learners.
The solution to this problem may not be simple, but it is vital. It has been shown that student cheating is decreased when an atmosphere of academic integrity is maintained and when there is a personal relationship between teacher and student. But, more significantly, cheating is reduced when students are encouraged to learn, understand and evaluate what they are taught—basically scientific integrity encourages more integrity.
Jim Tour, of Rice University, runs a large research laboratory and teaches organic chemistry to undergraduates. He is passionate about integrity but, because his group publishes in excess of 30 peer-reviewed papers per year, it is not possible for him to directly supervise everything. Therefore, he is very careful to train graduate students and post-doctoral fellows in good lab practice. Dr. Tour also teaches a class where he explains how cheating quickly snowballs to be unmanageable and may lead to destruction of a career, not to mention delays in discovery. He models the upright behavior that is essential for maximal progress of science.
Dr. Tour also reported that Rice University itself has an honor code with strict penalties for those who infringe. Anyone who is suspected of cheating is turned over to the student honor council and the “starting point for penalty deliberations shall be a grade of F in the course and a 2 semester suspension.” Of course, this is assuming that the professor reports them in the first place, which according to a report on cheating at the equally strict University of Georgia, does not always occur. It stands to reason that professors might refrain from reporting a student for cheating if this action might lead to what they perceive as overly strict consequences for the student or a lack of tenure for themselves.
This is the problem at GMU where 150 or more students regularly sit elbow to elbow taking multiple-choice exams. Cheating is rife, but few professors report it. In 2001 a student wrote, “In the past few years, GMU has had many cheating incidents. Many honest students were upset because those who cheated put them at a disadvantage, and because they thought that if GMU were to become known as a ‘cheating university,’ it would cheapen the value and significance of the GMU degrees they were working towards. Many faculty expressed concern as well.”
One student, when asked about cheating at GMU while he was a senior in 2007, said, “Of course we cheated. Everyone cheated! Even when we had to use the I-clicker, the students would show each other the answers under the desks. The students formed groups of friends ready to cheat.” Nonetheless, in 2004 the GMU Dean of Students told me that I was the first biology professor to inform the authorities about incidents of cheating in many years. The problem of cheating was a favorite topic of discussion at our weekly cell biology lab prep sessions, but mostly in the form of warnings that we were not allowed to communicate with other faculty about particular problem students because of the possible legal repercussions. During my time there, I was forced to cease assigning a research paper and draw in extra people to proctor the exams, simply because academic dishonesty was such a problem.
But, if the university having stricter policies on cheating results in professors not reporting it and students getting better at it, then what can be done? I would suggest a threefold strategy: limit class size, model and require professional behavior, and encourage real learning by allowing the teaching of controversial subjects. It might also not be a bad idea to protect the jobs of those educators who seek to increase integrity in academia.
My experience showed that there was much less cheating in the cell biology course I taught at Northern Virginia Community College (NVCC) than during the same course at GMU. The students at NVCC also achieved much higher grades, despite having the same teacher, the same lectures, and the same exams. The only difference was that I knew each student personally. A good educator/student relationship, made possible by small classes, improved student performance and reduced student cheating.
A professor at Samuel Merritt University in Oakland, CA suggested that our current cheating epidemic could be a result of the erroneous, if subliminal, messages that our society gives to students. By grading all schoolwork from the time children are young, we may be teaching them that grades are more important than learning. Then, by policing their behavior, we are giving the impression that it is the educator’s job to prevent them from cheating, not the students’ job to behave ethically. The students’ very understandable response is to do all they can, even cheat, to increase their grades, not their knowledge. After all, what serious student has not found that their grade on a particular exam or in a course is not an accurate reflection of what they actually know? It is vital that our educational process is redirected towards effective education rather than mere assessment.
Finally, one of the best ways to help students want to learn the subject matter rather than cheat to pass exams is to actively educate rather than indoctrinate them: teach them controversial subjects. Controversy adds to the interest level and helps students to apply critical thinking skills to their new knowledge. I remember one of my younger tutoring students whose scores in biology increased from C- to A+ when I taught beyond the text. Yale University has released recommendations on teaching controversial subjects and agrees that avoiding bias is to be commended. They quote Dr. David Horowitz, “You can’t get a good education if they’re only telling you half the story.” The critical need for allowing argument and encouraging students to examine all sides of an issue to help them learn science is well recognized. However, this is difficult to do when educators are criticized and even penalized for offering their students information that challenges the prevailing scientific consensus viewpoints.
We desperately need to see a return to integrity in our educational system, which will start with encouraging academic honesty in students, educators, and administrators. After all, Pinocchio’s wooden nose did not stop growing until his behavior changed.
Caroline Crocker, PhD, is President of American Institute for Technology and Science Education, author of Free to Think: Why Scientific Integrity Matters, and a former college professor (cell biology).