The New York Times ran an article today discussing the growing problem of cheating among college students, particularly through the use of various electronic devices:
Colleges Chase as Cheats Shift to Higher Tech
One portion of the article jumped out at me:
In a survey of nearly 62,000 undergraduates on 96 campuses over the past four years, two-thirds of the students admitted to cheating. The survey was conducted by Don McCabe, a Rutgers professor who has studied academic misconduct and helped found the Center for Academic Integrity at Duke.
David Callahan, author of "The Cheating Culture: Why More Americans Are Doing Wrong to Get Ahead" (Harcourt, 2004), suggested that students today feel more pressure to do well in order to get into graduate or professional school and secure a job.
"The rational incentives to cheat for college students have grown dramatically, even as the strength of character needed to resist those temptations has weakened somewhat," Mr. Callahan said.
Now, I don’t want to justify cheating, but I think the increasing “rational incentives to cheat” Callahan points to, while real, mask a much more serious problem of which they are (largely) a symptom, namely that the selection mechanisms which determine who gets into graduate or professional schools or secures desirable jobs operate to a significant extent on the basis of known poor predictors for future achievement in those activities. Moreover, I have the impression that as applicant pools rise this problem is growing: schools must extend offers to only a small number of students out of (the much larger) 1/5 or 1/4 of the applicant pool they would be happy to have; employers publicly advertise fewer positions, recruit from fewer schools, etc. While I doubt most students recognize these developments as such, I believe they are experiencing increasing frustration at a perceived disconnect between the amount of effort they invest in their education and the payoffs from that effort. If I am correct that this is more than a mere perception of the part of students, then it is not merely that (as the article suggests) the advantages of apparent educational achievement have increased, but that the value of putting in the effort for actual educational achievement has decreased relative to the advantages to be gained by (and the risks incurred by) cheating. To put it briefly, if graduate or professional schools and employers select on the basis of poor predictors for future achievement (and hence being admitted or hired is to that degree arbitrary), then students have every incentive to subvert those poor predictors (to that degree) by cheating. This isn’t so when selection occurs on the basis of strong predictors, for then a student who cheats will not actually have the knowledge or skills which lead to future achievement, and thus will be less likely to actually achieve. But where poor predictors are used, a cheater’s deficit in knowledge or skill is unlikely to undo his achievement in this way.

To the extent that the use of poor predictors in some area is unavoidable (or only avoidable at impractically high cost), it should come as little surprise that cheating occurs. This analysis predicts that, for a given activity (occupation, profession or discipline) rates of cheating should be positively correlated with the use of poor predictors for selection. It would be interesting to know if this is the case. Even if it is not, it would be interesting to know if rates of cheating were positively correlated with the belief that selection is based upon poor predictors (or at least the belief that success in that activity is to a significant degree arbitrary).

If anyone is aware of any research on these topics, I would be interested to know.


Anonymous Dr. FJE McDonald said...

You might want to look at Rebecca Moore Howard's work on plagiarism. She makes some related points:


I'm not quite following your "poor predictors" point--You might want to give some more details here. Most everyone I've met in graduate school, in our graduate school and quite a few others, is pretty sharp. One thing that might lead to poor undergraduate teaching is that graduate students--especially the students in the most "elite" programs--aren't required to teach much and hence don't have sufficient experience to be excellent college teachers.

19 May, 2006 14:55  
Blogger margot said...

There is suprisingly a dearth of resources available to graduate-level institutions on how to deal with this symptom; the problem being students' impetus to cheat in the first place. Without going into more detail I can tell you that in my large public university graduate program, this is becoming a bigger problem as years go by (particularly in the past 5 years). It will be interesting to watch the trend and see if it continues, then what universities will do.

30 May, 2006 03:16  

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