The Honest Truth About Cheating

Donald McCabe talks to Liane Hansen about cheating among graduate students in the United States. He is a professor of management and global business at Rutgers University.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

When 34 1st year graduate students at Duke University's business school took their final exams in March they made a big mistake, they cheated and were caught. Officials call it the most widespread episode of cheating in the business school's history. Nine students now face expulsion, 15 were suspended for a year and received an F in the course, one received an F on the exam, and four were exonerated. The students may appeal to the judicial board and can attend classes while they wait for a final decision, which is expected over the next month.

Cheating is not an aberration. National survey suggests it is widespread among graduate students. Last September, a Rutgers University professor, Donald McCabe, released one of those surveys: 5,300 students at 54 universities took part and he joins us from the studios of WBGO in Newark, New Jersey. Welcome to the program, professor.

Professor DONALD McCABE (Rutgers University): Thank you. Good morning.

HANSEN: Your survey came out before this recent episode at Duke. But what did your result show?

Prof. McCABE: Well, the result just confirmed something we've suspected all along. I've done a lot of work with undergraduates over the years and consistently business students and occasionally engineering students rise to the top in terms of the highest levels of self-reported cheating. In this survey we decided to break out to graduate students including a large numbers of MBA students. And as suspected, the MBA students were also top in terms of the highest levels of self-reported cheating.

HANSEN: You say self-reported, so how accurately do you think your numbers reflect what's really going on?

Prof. McCABE: Well, it's an interesting question. I think they probably understate what's really going on, especially when you look at the more egregious offenses. You know, think about it, if you're sitting down and filling out a survey and you bought a term paper from a term paper mill or something, you're probably not too anxious to admit that even to yourself perhaps, but certainly to some guy sitting in Newark, New Jersey doing a survey.

HANSEN: Do you think there's a particular field of study that tends to have a higher prevalence of cheating?

Prof. McCABE: Interestingly when we do my surveys, there are three groups of students in general singled out for particular attention: athletes, members of fraternities and sororities, and students majoring in business.

HANSEN: Fraternity students and sorority students. Is there a group mentality there? I mean, and athletes, too.

Prof. McCABE: Well, I think one develops. I think what happens is, particularly in the case of fraternities and sororities, you know, you got to help your brother, you got to help your sister out, you know. So bring back a copy of the paper that you submitted that you've got A on and they create these files.

I think also in the case of both athletes and fraternities and sororities, the big issue is time management, that many division want schools, you know, we make certain concessions to athletes to let them in when they may not be quite as well-qualified as some other students. Then we give them the equivalent of a full-time job, and then we expect them to perform normally in the classroom. It's almost a self-fulfilling prophecy.

HANSEN: Business.

Prof. McCABE: Yes ma'am.

HANSEN: Well, why do they cheat?

Prof. McCABE: I think there are two things going on. I think number one is nature of testing. If you're working on a finance or an accounting problem, there is a right answer. If you can glance to the paper of the student next to you and see what that information is, that's a pretty high payoff for a quick glance. In contrast, if I'm taking a history exam and writing an essay, and I look at the paper next to me, I might see a few words, which really isn't going to help me very much.

Over and above that, there's no question that the attitude that business students express to us on our surveys is, you know, I'm just learning a skill that's going to serve me well when I'm out there in a profession. It's less important how you get the job done as long as you do get it done. So that bottom-line mentality.

HANSEN: Do you think that cheating actually continues outside the education system? Can you trace it?

Prof. McCABE: We've tried to trace it. We did a survey, I say we - a woman at Penn State by the name of Linda Trevino who's done a lot of this work with me -and we did a survey of alumni. Our interest was in the power of honor codes, which is one of the things we've looked at over the years. And certainly, those students - now alumni - who were out five, 15 and 25 years respectively, self-reported a reasonable number of transgressions in the real world.

HANSEN: Do you think the nature of cheating has changed over the years? For example, has new technology contributed to it?

Prof. McCABE: I happen to be the minority when I suggest that I don't think new technology has necessarily led to a dramatic increase in the number of cheaters; it certainly has led to some increase. There's no question that technology and the Internet is just so convenient, in particular, all the information is readily available.

HANSEN: Are any universities or teachers - for example, banning BlackBerrys from their classroom?

Prof. McCABE: No, you know, there's a recent flurry of activity to ban iPods, and I don't see any reason why you wouldn't ban an iPod. Certainly, I don't understand why a student would need an iPod during an exam. But I'm not aware of BlackBerrys specifically being banned.

HANSEN: How often is cheating really penalized?

Prof. McCABE: Not as often as it should be in my opinion, and that's in large measure because often it's not observed. One of the real big problems is if, you know, at the faculty level, faculty members first of all don't want to believe that somebody would cheat in their course, or at least many faculty don't want to. If they see something that's suspicious right away, their first reaction is, well, you know, I'm not sure if that student cheated or not, and I certainly won't be able to prove it if I took it to a hearing. So the best thing for me is not to do anything.

So very little comes forward to the hearing boards. Then you have many hearing boards - I don't want to say they're lenient, but certainly will give students the benefit of the doubt in many cases. So there may be indeed cases where we're erring in the side of letting a guilty student off. So when you factor all those things through, a very small percentage of the cheating actually gets punished.

HANSEN: Do you think discipline would actually curb the problem?

Prof. McCABE: I don't think there's any question that would help, but having said that, I don't favor approaches that go after stronger discipline. I favor approaches that try to promote integrity, which I think is what honor codes do in many cases. They get students to understand why integrity is important, why - as a member of this community - it's important that they exercise some self-responsibility.

HANSEN: Donald McCabe is a professor of management and global business at Rutgers University. Thanks a lot for your time.

Prof. McCABE: Oh, my pleasure.

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