Who really loses when a student cheats?
by Alicor L. Panao
In a country that cannot even hold a decent election, students cheating their way through college should be anything but surprising. But cheating has come a long way from the ingenious crib notes or codigo neatly tucked inside one’s pocket or discreetly scribbled on the desk. Nowadays, one can lift an entire paper off the Internet and pass it off as one’s own. With mobile phones and the Internet, technology is certainly giving students even more opportunities to cut corners.
In research, the most prevalent act of dishonesty is plagiarism, i.e., copying a work verbatim or misrepresenting it as one’s own. If a student downloads essays from various websites, cuts a paragraph or two from each of them, and comes up with a paper from the patchwork, that is cheating. If the student merely cites his or her sources yet maintains the patchwork without actually writing the paper himself or herself, that is still cheating.
Another form of cheating is the deliberate fabrication of data or information to suit one’s conclusions in a formal academic exercise. No doubt, the advent of multimedia and information technology has simply made this old practice more widespread and blatant.
However, some experts believe it is not just technology that is causing the epidemic.
“We even have graduate students who do not know how to take notes or conduct basic research,” says Dr. Zosimo Lee, Dean of the College of Social Sciences and Philosophy (CSSP) in UP Diliman. “How could they be expected to paraphrase materials, acknowledge their sources, or observe proper citations?”
Lee believes it is not just basic learning or research skills that are at issue, but the manner in which teachers have imparted learning through their methodologies. “Are we still teaching students to think for themselves? Or by sheer tolerance, are we, in fact, sending the wrong message that it is all right to simply rely on available online resources?”
He wonders whether professors are still teaching students to be critical and to question the veracity of ideas they encounter.
Lee, a philosophy professor, says the problem is not the lack of good professors but the way they pass learning on to students. A professor may be good in the sense that he is smart, knows a lot of things, and is frequently published, but he may not necessarily be effective in terms of sharing knowledge, inspiring students, and teaching them the value of scholarship. “We tend to teach by mere modeling—that is, we teach students to find the right answers, but not necessarily how to ask the right questions.” Although today’s common sources of information—television, videos, and the Internet—provide access to an overwhelming amount of knowledge, learning nevertheless remains passive. “In other words, there is learning but there is no inquiry,” says Lee.
Worse, some professors, especially in the social sciences where a lot of information is transmitted through multimedia channels, have themselves unconsciously become too dependent on these technologies.
This dependence has extended to the use of technology in the current wave of academic cheating. Nowadays, with just a click of a mouse, any student with an email account and a valid credit card can order term papers online on virtually any topic, complete with bibliography and citations. Crib sheets can now be sent either as images or SMS via mobile phones. Notes can be digitized as audio files and played on iPods or any other portable music players. And while academe has guidelines against academic dishonesty, these rules cannot keep up with the expanding use of tools and media in cyberspace.
Prof. Doi Rosete, former chair of the Department of Visual Communication and Industrial Design of the UP Diliman College of Fine Arts, explains that this is because the World Wide Web is changing the concept of authorship. Materials—which include written texts, stills, and moving images—are downloaded as fast as they are uploaded by online collaborators.
In UP, the fact that the Revitalized General Education Program made basic communication subjects optional did not help either. In fact, Lee feels it only made matters a lot worse, because professors now even have to worry about their students’ grammatical skills instead of just concentrating on the content of their papers. “We spend more time editing the papers than analyzing the research value of their content.”
The CSSP dean also takes note of students’ lack of competence in any one language. “Maybe the reason behind students’ copying is simply that they have difficulty expressing themselves properly to begin with,” he says. Communication is supposedly a two-tiered process of oral and written expression. An alarming number of students—even in the graduate level—are wanting in both aspects. According to Lee, this may be due to the fact that they are no longer taught to be competent in any language, not even in their native language. “Since students lack mastery of any language, they simply resort to borrowing, if not outright copying of other people’s ideas.”
According to Lee, a national language is important if only to make sure that in teaching core academic courses, students will be afforded clear conceptual understanding. “I know of no developed country that teaches critical subjects like Science and Mathematics in a language other than their own.” This does not mean, of course, that English should be relegated to the sidelines. In the Netherlands, he says, children begin learning English as early as in their first grade. The Dutch study English along with other foreign languages for only about two or three years. “And yet they are among the world’s most literate and multilingual people.”
UP Diliman Vice Chancellor for Research and Development Dr. Luis Sison agrees that professors are partly to blame for cheating in the University. Students respect teachers who lay down clear, consistent, and appropriate policies on intellectual dishonesty. A good set of policies, according to Sison, is one that states definite and unequivocal consequences for infractions.
Teachers who are lenient for one reason or another—what Sison calls misplaced altruism—are unwittingly giving their students license to cut corners. Similarly, teachers who place unreasonable demands without giving appropriate support are also indirectly pushing students to break the rules.
An ill-prepared student fearing a failing grade may be pressured to copy from a classmate simply to pass. There are also teachers who cram too many topics in a single semester “without realizing that they have gone past the point of diminishing returns.” There are also those who view themselves, not as mentors, but more as gatekeepers whose role is to prevent the unworthy from passing through. “In all cases,” says Sison, “it becomes more likely for the student to rationalize cheating.”
The intense pressure to earn good grades, or at least keep up in a competitive setting, also drives students to cheat. For some, the pressure to excel academically for the promise of future career opportunities is enough reason to resort to anything, including cheating. “Students form the greater part of the academic population, and they have to compete for the distinction of being the best in a particular field,” Rosete explains. “And grades are graphic records of a student’s intellectual development.”
The situation, according to Rosete, is a lot worse when they leave the University and compete in the labor market. In the corporate world, intellectual integrity does not matter as much as the pursuit of profit targets. “Only in academe is intellectual development a pursuit and an end in itself,” says Rosete.
But what about the University’s accountability to the public? As the national university, UP must be beyond reproach in this respect. The credibility of the research it generates and the integrity of those it graduates every year must never be in question. Those trusted with the education of the country’s future teachers, doctors, policymakers, scientists and engineers fail the country by allowing widespread cheating.
There are dire consequences, according to Sison. In engineering for instance, fraudulent data that leads to an improperly designed building or electrical system can put lives at risk. And if improper practice of profession can ruin individual reputations, the damage to the University is greater. “When a student cheats or when a researcher fabricates data, he is not only gambling his own credibility,” says Lee. “He is putting into question the credibility of the entire UniversityThe credibility of the entire University is also put into question.”
But it may be reassuring to know that UP has always denounced academic dishonesty and has tried to implement a strict policy of prosecuting and penalizing offenders—students and faculty members alike.
In 1999, for instance, the Supreme Court upheld the UP Board of Regents’ decision to withdraw the degree granted to a Ph.D. student who was found to have plagiarized a great part of her dissertation (UP BOR v Court of Appeals, G.R. No. 134625, August 31, 1999). Apparently, Anthropology student Arokiaswamy William Margaret Celine, an Indian citizen, had borrowed extensively from various sources “word for word and, at times, paragraph by paragraph without any acknowledgment of the source, even by a mere quotation mark.” But the University did not immediately strip her of the degree. It actually came up with the resolution only after almost a year of hearings and largely because of her own deliberate failure to implement the suggested revisions.
In 2004, the Department of Political Science in UP Diliman terminated the appointment of Gareth Api Richards as Associate Professor of Political Science due to his deliberate misrepresentation of academic credentials. In a statement, the department said that in his vita, Richards claimed to have a Ph.D. in Political Economy from the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom. An official verification made by the department chair, however, revealed that the prestigious British university had never conferred such a degree on Richards. When asked to explain in a meeting of the department’s tenured faculty members, Richards squarely admitted lying about his academic qualification.
Lee says that given all the measures the University has put in place to ensure academic integrity, it should not be difficult for professors to single out frauds. For instance, if a student who is not known for his writing talent suddenly comes up with an impeccable piece, a professor should be suspicious. The growing versatility of online search engines also suggests that professors can beat students in their own games. “In case of doubt, you can always google,” Lee says. Some commercial websites like Turnitin also offer instant verification services to determine how much of a document is “unoriginal” for a reasonable fee.
“Pero may nakakalusot talaga,” Lee admits. And this is largely due to professors’ tendency to be lenient in reading students’ papers. Moreover, the current system of evaluating theses—at least in the social sciences—leaves much to be desired. Typically, only the main adviser is apprised of the student’s progress and the rest of the panel members are able to read the work just a week or two before the oral defense. Lee suggests raising the financial incentive given to faculty members for advising dissertations and theses or sitting in defense panels. This will help to ensure greater commitment.
Caution to students
Sison shares Lee’s view. “The research adviser is in the best position to detect intellectual dishonesty,” he says. “Not only is the adviser frequently in touch with the student but as an expert in that particular field, he should be able to detect plagiarism or fraudulent data with ease.”
He suggests a “process-oriented” approach in evaluating students’ work to discourage cheating. Instead of basing the bulk of the grade on a single project like a final exam or a final paper, a teacher rates the student based on the latter’s progress throughout the semester. He insists that the approach is mutually advantageous, because it gives the teacher immediate feedback on the effectiveness of learning and provides the students with better mentoring. Asking for small but frequent “deliverables” also reduces the likelihood of cramming, which often leads to cheating.
Ideally, it is not just teachers but the entire academic community who must make it their duty to safeguard academic integrity. “But in the end, it boils down to how the student exercises his free will within an ethical framework,” says Sison, “And to how we, their teachers, penalize the lack of such ethics.”
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