Instances of cheating spike at VCU

Originally published October 15, 2012 in The Commonwealth Times

Last year saw a dramatic increase in the number of cases related to cheating and plagiarism at VCU, reported the Office of Student Conduct and Academic Affairs for academic year 2011-2012.

The majority of cases involved cheating and plagiarism. A total of 329 cases were heard for student violations of the VCU Honor System, an increase of 115 from the previous year according to the Annual Report for the VCU Honor System 2011-2012.

The report was published by the Office of Student Conduct & Academic Affairs, formerly the Office of Judicial Affairs and Academic Integrity, and detailed a rising rate of cheating compared to previous years. Director of Student Conduct and Academic Integrity Karen Belanger is not concerned. Belanger said the increase is due to a rise in awareness and compliance with the honor code by students and faculty. She also noted the number of heard cases in which students were found not at fault for breaking the Honor Code has also increased.

“I don’t know if it truly reflects a greater number of students violating the policy,” said Belanger, “but it does appear to reflect a greater number of faculty or community members utilizing the policy.”

The rise of students found at fault, however, is has still increased, which worries some students about the possible rise of cheating in the classroom. Waell Elmisurati, a double major in biology and business at VCU, believes that cheating is a common and growing temptation in the classroom, commonly perpetuated by technology.

“(Technology) has made it much easier … I can pull out my phone and get on the internet with two clicks,” said Elmisurati. “That’s pretty easy, and now they’re all pocket sized so I could hide it from a professor very easily.”

Elmisurati believes students are tempted to cheat because of a need for ever-higher academic performance.

“We all want the good grades, we all want an A,” he said. “It’s usually times when you haven’t studied that I think the temptation rises more.”

Belanger said the most common sanction applied for Honor System violations is typically  a zero, but if the student has a history of infractions or a significant portion of the assignment was plagiarized, failure of the course is also frequently applied.

When a student is formally charged, the academic integrity coordinator  for the Office of Student Conduct and Academic Affairs undertakes an investigation of the infraction. The student then has the opportunity to respond to the charge during the investigation and the follow-up conversation is usually sufficient to determine whether or not an infraction has taken place, said Belanger. The coordinator must then determine what consequences should be applied.

Most Honor System infractions, Belanger said, occur in courses for credit and the faculty member is typically the accuser. She noted that allegations come not just from teaching faculty but also from students and members in the community, increasingly as awareness and compliance with the Honor System is applied. Belanger believes that a culture of intolerance to cheating is growing, albeit slowly.

“I think some are reluctant to … [look] at it as protecting the institution or the value of the degree that they’re receiving or reinforcing the value of the time and effort that the non-cheater has put in,” she said.

The most common sanctions applied for Honor System violations are a zero on the assignment or a failing grade for the course, stated the annual report. Belanger said the most common sanction is the lesser of the two penalties, typically a zero, but if the student has a history of infractions or a significant portion of the assignment was plagiarized, the recommended failure of the course is also frequently applied.

Exercise science major Kiersten Phillips feels that a zero for the test or assignment is an appropriate punishment for cheating and not failure of the class.

“A lot of students put a lot of money into school,” she said. “I think that they really should just be given probably a second chance and take that as their warning that the professor means business,” she said. But prevention of cheating in the classroom also lies with the actions of teachers, Phillips believes, and blames too-lenient professors for some cheating in the classroom.

The contemporary centralized format of the Honor System makes it easier for professors and faculty to use the Honor System, said Belanger. All instances are reported directly to the Office of Student Conduct & Academic Integrity and all responsibility for investigation and enforcement stems from them.

“I think as we continue to participate in new student orientation and new faculty orientation and training … that the more people who understand the process will find themselves utilizing the process,” the director said.

Belanger does not anticipate a dramatic increase in cases this year but is already seeing marginal growth.

“An increase is probably more reflective of the efforts to this office and the university to promote academic integrity and awareness of the policy,” she said..”

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