Cheaters Never Prosper

While Ralph Waldo Emerson spoke a certain truth when he said, "It is impossible for a man to be cheated by anyone but himself," he failed to address a fundamental aspect of the problem: that in cases where dishonesty goes unaccounted, the consequences are far-reaching, well beyond that of the perpetrator.

When it comes to cheating at Santa Monica College, for every student who succeeds at cheating, honest students suffer as the integrity of the college diminishes. But what is being done to address this problem? And with the rate of reported instances of academic dishonesty skyrocketing over the past ten years, are these measures sufficient to deal with a problem that some faculty members feel is out of control?

Awareness by students of the rules governing academic behavior is woefully low. When, at the start of each semester, students use their student self-service accounts, a window appears detailing the SMC Honor Code. Students are asked to read it carefully and continue to the main site only after agreeing to adhere by the stipulated rules. But how many students actually take heart before clicking "agree"?

In a poll of 20 students, not one said that they had even glanced through the text, let alone studied it carefully. For Judy Penchansky, dean of student services and the person to whom students are sent when officially reported for cheating, this lack of general awareness is indicative of the problem at SMC.

"Honestly, there are some students who don't even know what plagiarism is," said Penchansky. "There have been instances where students have come to me who think there is nothing wrong with sharing notes in class during an exam."

But Penchansky believes that inadequacies in teaching practices are partially responsible for the problem. She said that there is currently no mandate to teach academic honesty in the classroom, which is something she would like to see addressed.

"Some teachers believe that where discussion isn't prevalent in the classroom environment, they don't need to discuss [cheating] with their class," said Penchansky, "but we should have an active discussion with students…we need to talk about it with them. It should be a blanket policy at the college."

In the majority of cases, Penchansky said that for first-time offenders a warning letter is given. In more severe cases she said that the student involved is sent before the Honor Board, a committee comprised of three faculty members, three students and an administrator. Only in the worst cases are students expelled. For some, however, current procedures are not strict enough to deal with the problem.

"I would make the penalties more severe," said Jim Pacchioli, a professor of English at SMC for over 20 years. He believes that current policies are not "stringent enough" to deter students from cheating, but also sees weaknesses in teaching methods that unnecessarily allow cheating to occur in the first place.

According to Pacchioli, some teachers make it all too easy for students to cheat by setting assignments that are too broad in scope, thereby opening the door for students to plagiarize essays from other sources.

"The more I can direct an assignment, the more obvious it is when someone is trying to palm off someone else's work as their own," Pacchioli said. "I design assignments that are so particular, it's hard to download off the Internet."

Pacchioli also expressed worry regarding the "autonomous" nature of disciplining students for academic dishonesty. He said that without proper channels and a clear sense of protocol, invariably "problems will arise down the road."

But with current procedures proving to be less than effectual, what more can the college do to combat the problem of cheating? According to Sharyn Obsatz, an instructor at SMC and Glendale Community College, one such way would be to use Turnitin.com, a Web site that Obsatz has used at GCC to successfully uncover instances of cheating by her pupils, but a Web site to which SMC is not a subscriber.

Turnitin.com allows teachers to download submitted assignments into one large database. Any assignment that a teacher believes is plagiarized can be compared to all other assignments in the system. It is a Web site with which many high schools are affiliated and, according to Obsatz, this has allowed her to uncover cheating by her pupils that would have otherwise remained hidden.

"I had a student who turned in the same paper she submitted to her high school. There's no way I could have known without this kind of database," said Obsatz. "I wish SMC [subscribed to] Turnitin.com. Just the fact you have it deters students from cheating."

Michael Ritterbrown, English division chair at GCC, agrees with Obsatz that Turnitin.com acts best as a deterrent for students. Used throughout all the departments at GCC, Ritterbrown said that it is a useful tool for both students and teachers. However, he was unable to provide statistical evidence that showed it had reduced instances of cheating at the college.

Another proposal put forward by Tim Cramer and Dana Del George, English professors at SMC, is for a "traffic school" style class where students caught cheating are required to complete a course on academic honesty before they can re-enroll in the original class.

"Sometimes second chances come too easily," said Del George, a professor whose online English 2 class during the winter semester was marred by widespread plagiarism. "Using the traffic school model, students are forced to slow down and take stock of what they've done."

According to Cramer and Del George, the course would last for approximately six to eight weeks and would have students "hear a lot of preaching" on the subject of cheating and its possible ramifications. To be accepted into the curriculum, it would first have to be approved by the Student Affairs Committee.

While Judy Penchansky was dismissive of Turnitin.com's potential to prevent students from cheating, she believed that the idea of a "traffic school" style ethics class held the promise to make a difference at SMC. She said that she is "100 percent" behind anything that is "interactive, engaging and educational," and said that it fairly addressed the issue of prevention as opposed to cure.

Whatever action is taken in the future to tackle this problem, it is the honest student who will suffer in the meantime. For anyone who misses out on a place at a university by those who earned their place dishonestly, there is little consolation in that much used adage: "cheaters never prosper."

 

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