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Cheating themselves

Students who cheat are a problem on Canadian campuses - a problem that universities and faculty members must wrestle head-on. Based on his research and his own experience with cheating students, this professor discovers three crucial steps to keep them in

By ALEX GILLIS | MAR 12 2007

In 2003, soon after I began a job as a journalism instructor at Ryerson University, one of my second-year students told me that her classmate had cheated on a written assignment. The news jolted me. The cheater was a good student in the class of 23, but she’d fabricated parts of various assignments – as did a second student in the course, I soon discovered. The following school year I found three fabricators and a plagiarizer out of 89 students in three classes.

The students in those two years were first-time offenders, as far as I knew, and discipline involved difficult meetings, failed assignments and three students dropping out of journalism. The awful thing was that I’d randomly fact-checked only about a tenth of the course’s assignments. How much cheating would I discover if I checked all my students’ work each year?

A lot, it turns out, if I did nothing about it. Over the past two decades, surveys by the Center for Academic Integrity at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, and the Josephson Institute of Ethics in Los Angeles have shown that more than 70 percent of students admit to cheating in universities and colleges.

Now, hard numbers are available in Canada. In the current issue of The Canadian Journal of Higher Education (Vol. 36, No. 2), Julia Christensen Hughes and Donald McCabe report that 53 percent of nearly 15,000 Canadian undergraduates admitted to cheating on written work at least once in the 12 months before the survey. About two-thirds of this involves copying sentences without citation, but students also admitted to high levels of other types of serious cheating (see “Let me count the ways” on page 14).

Dr. Christensen Hughes directs the University of Guelph’s Teaching Support Services, teaches in the university’s school of hospitality and tourism management, and is president of the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education. Dr. McCabe is the founding president of Duke’s Center for Academic Integrity, a management professor at Rutgers University and North America’s foremost authority on academic misconduct and integrity. They surveyed students, teaching assistants and faculty at 11 campuses in five Canadian provinces in 2002-03. The study cautions that we shouldn’t make definitive claims about the findings, but should use the numbers as indicators for concern and action.

The two researchers also report a surprising level of cheating among Canadian graduate students. Of the 1,318 graduate students who were surveyed, 35 percent admitted to cheating on written work and nine percent on exams. The researchers say that exam cheating is probably much higher, because 37 percent of students said they “were certain another graduate student had cheated in a test or exam during the past year.” This is an astounding admission when you consider that the vast majority of students don’t rat on each other.

While the level of undergraduate cheating, in the U.S. at least, has been consistently above 50 percent for 40 years, high levels of cheating by graduate students may be a new trend in Canada. Two universities that were not involved in the survey have reported increases in graduate student cheating. The University of Toronto’s judicial affairs officer, Tony Gray, noted a jump from 2003 to 2004, and the University of Saskatchewan’s university secretary, Lea Pennock, saw a rise between 2004 and 2005. Dr. Christensen Hughes says she’s worried because many grad students are teaching assistants and thus responsible for overseeing exams, marking essays and preventing cheating among undergraduates in the first place.

Four reasons to cheat

Why do students cheat? I used to think the blame lay with individual students who had personal problems, but this is the least important of the four reasons for cheating. In “Understanding Academic Misconduct” in the Canadian Journal of Higher Education (Vol. 36, No. 1), Drs. Christensen Hughes and McCabe reviewed previous research and found that cheating occurs more among students who are young, male, overworked, study in a second language, have low self-esteem, suffer from anxiety or have high grade-point averages. This last is an eye-opener: cheaters are among the best students in a class. They cheat to get an A.

A more powerful reason – reason No. 2 – is context and culture, both outside and inside academe. Students see high-profile cheaters getting away with illegal activities in business, sports and journalism and conclude that a bit of academic cheating is okay. This worsens if “cheating cultures” develop inside universities and in specific departments, according to Dr. McCabe’s studies. He says that students in business and communications (which includes journalism) admit more to cheating than students in other departments: “They’re always number one or number two.”

I cringe at that, but I see what he means. Each year, my students watch at least one superstar, professional journalist evade punishment after a spectacular case of fabrication or plagiarism.

Dr. McCabe says that “engineering used to be way up there” but not anymore. He explains that maybe engineering’s emphasis on professional codes is helping. And perhaps their courses in ethics work better than those in journalism and business. My journalism department and Ryerson University have put a lot of effort – more than most – into countering a cheating ethos.

Besides individual and cultural reasons for cheating, a third reason revolves around a course’s pedagogical problems. According to the Canadian survey, 36 percent of undergrads and 12 percent of grad students think that fabricating or falsifying lab data is “trivial cheating” or “not cheating,” while nearly all faculty think it’s much more serious. It turns out that students cheat when they feel grading is unfair. For instance, students cheat on labs when instructors allocate few marks for experiments that take a long time or when marking schemes ignore effort and grade only right answers.

Students also cheat more often when a professor inadvertently creates “game-playing” conditions – when students find out that a teacher re-uses assignments or exam questions each year. Dr. Christensen Hughes believes that this probably explains why half of undergraduates and 30 percent of graduate students think that “getting questions/answers from someone who has taken a test” is okay. Another kind of game playing involves “hiding library or course materials,” which nearly half of undergrads think is “trivial cheating” or “not cheating.” All the professors I’ve spoken to are stupified by students’ relaxed attitudes, which makes me think they are unaware of their own part in creating the conditions for game playing.

Finally, the fourth and most important cause of cheating is linked to universities and to faculty members who don’t fully address the problem. Academic integrity policies must be supported at the top and must be accompanied by more than rhetoric.

Universities have been making more efforts to reduce cheating by hiring integrity officers and holding campus-wide, academic-integrity weeks, says Dr. Christensen Hughes. Some brave institutions that took part in the 11-campus study – including Dalhousie University, Simon Fraser University, the University of Western Ontario and the University of Manitoba – have publicized their statistics of academic misconduct. These are among the institutions that have become leaders of academic integrity in Canada and are the ones that academics and administrators are watching. St. Francis Xavier University and Brock University didn’t take part in the survey but also make their statistics public.

Professors have to change their attitudes, too. Drs. Christensen Hughes and McCabe found that 47 to 60 percent of Canadian faculty go to “little or very little effort to document an incident” of cheating. The main reason: 85 percent of surveyed faculty and 79 percent of teaching assistants feel that they don’t have enough evidence.

But one fifth of faculty cited other reasons: lack of support from administration; lack of time to pursue suspected cases; and the trivial nature of the offence. “Other TA explanations included the following: they were told to ignore it by a faculty member (18 percent) and they did not want to deal with it (16 percent),” the two researchers write. Dr. Christensen Hughes says she also suspects that they don’t want to do more teaching work in a system that traditionally values publication and research over teaching.

The immediate result of a professor’s ignorance, laziness or overwork is more cheating. According to Dr. McCabe, 15 to 20 percent of students cheat blatantly and repeatedly no matter what, another 15 to 20 percent will never cheat, and many of the remaining 60 to 70 percent will cheat if they see others getting away with it. As one student told a professor, cited in a study: “It’s a cost-benefit thing.”

This year, I realized where I was messing up in my journalism course and how I could reduce cheating. I had fact-checked all the assignments in the class and had caught seven cheaters out of 28 students. There was no fabrication or plagiarism, so the discussions we’d had about those topics had worked, but the students had padded their bibliographies (they’d included interviews that they hadn’t conducted). This form of cheating happens to be a minor but relatively common form on Canadian campuses: more than 40 percent of surveyed students think that “fabricating or falsifying a bibliography” is “not cheating” or is “trivial cheating,” according to the survey by Drs. Christensen Hughes and McCabe.

I spoke to the seven cheaters individually and listened to their excuses. Had they blanked out in class during the cheating talks? Were they morally deficient? Were they stupid?

No. But it was only after talking to Lynn Taylor, director of Dalhousie University’s Centre for Learning and Teaching, that I realized how to address all four reasons for cheating – and to reduce cheating at the same time. In a forthcoming manuscript, she and colleagues at the universities of Manitoba and New Brunswick cite three things that universities and professors must do to promote academic values and deter cheating: educate, detect and discipline.


Education about academic integrity works at two levels – university and classroom.

In the past seven years, universities have been doing more education to reduce cheating. For example, the University of Guelph, York University and Ryerson University offer online tutorials on how to avoid different types of cheating. Guelph and several other institutions run workshops about instructional and assessment approaches for faculty and teaching assistants. Wilfrid Laurier University uses trained, senior students to deliver sessions to most incoming students on the importance of academic integrity and the consequences of cheating, and it plans to use students in the enforcement process. Some university departments post an honour code – also called a “code of conduct” or a “code of ethics” – that students must read but don’t have to sign.

But one of the most effective and radical ways to curb cheating is a pledge of academic integrity, or an honour code that students must sign when they begin university or start a program. Dr. McCabe discovered that signed honour codes in U.S.schools correlated with lower levels of reported cheating, compared to campuses or programs without signed honour codes. The code is popular at prestigious U.S. schools, but it seems that none of Canada’s 91 universities and university colleges requires one.

Some faculties or departments do. The University of Manitoba’s department of computer science, for example, requires all students to sign an honesty declaration and submit it with all assignments, says Brandy Usick, director of student advocacy and resource services at the University of Manitoba. Two schools that are considering university-wide signed honour codes are Mount Allison University in New Brunswick and the new private Quest University Canada in Squamish, B.C. My guess is that we’ll see more Canadian institutions considering such honour codes in the future.

Whatever we do, says Dalhousie’s Dr. Taylor, “We need to pay more attention to education.” Most professors assume that someone else has taught students how to study for exams, reference properly and avoid cheating. But faculty members have to show their students exactly what cheating means in a specific discipline and course, and not just tell students to refer to a course description or a university website, she says. One department’s “plagiarism” can be another’s “research.” Also, they must tell students what to do when personal problems overwhelm studies or when they feel that grading is unfair. And faculty can’t be afraid to use the words “cheating,” “plagiarism” or whatever is relevant.

Just as important is the message that students should strive for truth. “At the bottom of all this are a set of academic values that are important,” says Dr. Taylor, “and that’s where we need to start. Those values are articulated by the Center for Academic Integrity [at Duke] and include being honest, being fair, being respectful to the work of other people and taking responsibility for your work.”

At Ryerson, I had told my students all this, and in a respectful, non-patronizing way, which is essential when talking about integrity. But I hadn’t been precise. I hadn’t told them that a bibliography can’t include planned interviews that never took place (even though planning is good), that plagiarizing a sentence isn’t okay (even when a couple of words are re-arranged) and that fabricating a detail isn’t allowed (even though some fabrications are simply good guesses).

I gave the seven students another chance, after a second talk about integrity.


Taking the time to check for cheating on all assignments early in a course shows students that you care about academic values, right from the beginning. Detection can be emotionally and academically messy, as some schools discover when they use and other online plagiarism-detection services. Students at a few universities have convinced their institutions to stop using, because, some argue, the process assumes students are guilty until proven innocent, and the Canadian Federation of Students condemns mandatory use of detection services.

In the sciences, universities like McGill are deterring cheating by scanning multiple-choice answer-cards, looking for clues (such as identical answer patterns) that reveal cheating may have taken place.

Many campuses are updating exams rules. “We looked at our policies for the examination regulations,” says Manitoba’s Ms. Usick, “and we realized how outdated the description was, because it talked about ‘use of a calculator.'” The regulations have been revised to include “any electronic device capable of receiving or transmitting signals.” Manitoba also displays “big, orange posters with a cell phone and a big X through it,” she says, in clear view of students lining up to enter the examination room.

As for me, all my students know that I use and that I fact-check articles, a norm in my industry of mainstream magazines.


The other problem in my course, I realized, was discipline: I reported cheating to my department but not to the university, which meant there were no official records – something students perceive as a weakness, and rightly so.

Most universities define a range of penalties for cheating, from redoing an assignment to expulsion from the school, but professors have to be precise about consequences, linking a penalty to a crime.

And they have to take action. In 2003, Ms. Usick and Dr. Taylor (at the time both at Manitoba) and Barbara Paterson (then in the University of British Columbia’s school of nursing) took a close look at plagiarism at UBC and found that some students advise each other how to get away with cheating. They reported one common trick that a student told them about: “If you are ever caught, you say that you are stressed out or you didn’t know how to write papers properly and then you are off the hook.”

In my class, students now know that zero on the assignment is the minimum penalty for cheating. Redoing an assignment is no longer an option after all the education and discussion we’ve had. They know that I’m being fair and supporting honest students who do good work. I tell them that more serious infractions, such as fabricating parts or all of an assignment, could mean failing the course. Multiple offenses could mean expulsion from the department. Students realize that academic values, such as truth, are worth fighting for – which, surprisingly, is a profound message in our cynical discipline.

This term, after I’d educated and disciplined, I found another cheater – a plagiarizer this time. She’d cut-and-pasted sentences from a website. She said she hadn’t known how to reference properly, even though we’d reviewed this in class twice. She said she was sorry and the plagiarism wouldn’t happen again. As we spoke in my office, the unspoken question hung in the air: would I give her another chance?

I couldn’t. She failed the assignment, understood why and was ashamed.

“I know you’re only doing your job,” she said.

Yes. And she would now do hers.

Alex Gillis is a writer who teaches journalism at Ryerson University. He can be reached at

Further reading and resources:

York University’s Tutorial on Academic Integrity:

Univeristy of Toronto Guide on ‘How not to plagiarize’:

Ryerson University guide to why students cheat: guide to research resources on academic integrity:

Center for Academic Integrity at Duke University:

Let me count the ways

In the new survey of academic cheating by students at 11 Canadian universities, “cheating on written work” – admitted to by more than 50 percent of Canadian undergraduates surveyed – was, mainly, copying sentences from an online or paper source. But it also included serious cheating, such as turning in work done by someone else (usually a classmate) and submitting a paper from the Internet. “Cheating on tests” – 18 percent of undergrads said they did it – referred to copying from another student, using crib notes and helping another student cheat on an exam.

Internet plagiarism is widespread: 35 percent of undergrads in the survey and 22 percent of grad students admitted to cut-and-paste plagiarism. Overall, the web has increased plagiarism by five to 10 percent in the last decade, says Donald McCabe, the Rutgers University professor who has been surveying students on questions of academic integrity for more than 15 years.

He and Julia Christensen Hughes, director of teaching support services at the University of Guelph, undertook the Canadian survey in 2002-03. They note that buying essays online no longer seems to be a big issue; less than one percent of students admit to this. The number may be lower because of better detection methods or because fewer students are admitting to this high-profile form of cheating.

Two new problems have mushroomed: collaboration and fabrication. In the 11-campus survey, 45 percent of undergraduates and 29 percent of graduate students admitted to “working on an assignment with others when the instructor asked for individual work.” And 25 percent of undergraduates and six percent of graduate students admitted to “fabricating or falsifying lab data.”

Why are these new types of cheating growing? “Maybe our traditional assessment practices are out of date,” explains Dr. Christensen Hughes.

“These results may represent a clash between an emerging, collaborative, student culture and a more traditional, individualistic, faculty culture,” she and Dr. McCabe write. They say many students seem to realize that working collaboratively “can be time-efficient and learning-effective, and can lead to higher grades for everyone.” In contrast, traditional assessment practice focuses on differentiating one student from another to decide who should get a scholarship or go to grad school.

Cheating has also gone high tech: cheaters use cheat notes on specially programmed calculators and iPods and send text-messages to each other during exams. Brandy Usick, director of student advocacy and resource services at the University of Manitoba, says some students may not realize they’re cheating when, during exams, they use cell phones as watches or when students whose second language is English use electronic translators and dictionaries.

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