Examining cheating trends at Colby

Nina Oleynik

Because of the sensitive nature of this article, students included wish to remain anonymous.

In the minds of Colby students, there is no doubt that certain individuals cheat. In a recent survey conducted by the Echo, 93.5 percent of respondents thought that cheating occurs on some level at Colby, though not by every student. In the same survey, students broadly defined cheating as either looking at a phone during an exam or copying someone else’s paper. Relatively few respondents thought that collaborating on assignments with other members of a course on non-group work is cheating, an act which professors would consider to be academically dishonest.

In a conversation with Associate Professor of Mathematics Scott Taylor, who serves as the Academic Integrity Coordinator for the College, Taylor stressed that each professor has their own definitions for what they consider to be dishonest when it comes to group work, as this can be a tricky grey area. To best figure out how to address issues of dishonesty on Colby’s campus, Taylor conducted a yearlong survey last year in which 475 students participated.

“Generally, I think most all Colby students complete most all of their work honestly and with integrity. Unfortunately, there are students who make bad decisions and there are students with patterns of dishonesty,” Taylor said. This assumption was consistent with the data yielded by his survey, with 87 percent of respondents agreeing or strongly agreeing that the vast majority of Colby students are invested in their work and do it honestly.

While the Echo’s survey and those conducted by the school aims to get honest answers, much of the dishonestly that occurs can never be reported. A student who wished to remain anonymous told me, “I just got too tired of the exam so I put my phone on my lap and just typed in answers. She was sitting in front so she couldn’t see”.

The Academic Honesty Committee, which consists of about three professors and five students each year, reviews cases brought forth by either professors or students. Taylor encourages students to join the committee.

While nearly 84 percent of students said that they cared if others cheat on assignments if they have not cheated in the Echo’s survey, the vast majority of respondents (76 percent) said that they would be unwilling to report others. Taylor affirmed this sentiment by commenting that in his experience, students are reticent to report others or wish to remain anonymous, making it difficult for the committee to follow up on accusations. This is largely the case at institutions that use the Honor Code. Taylor suggested that Colby would be well suited to employ a “modified” Honor Code, but emphasized that it is difficult to rely solely on students coming forward with incriminating information about classmates.

When asked why she thinks that students turn to cheating at Colby, Professor of History Elizabeth Leonard is not unsympathetic to difficulties with completing an assignment or struggling with a concept, but believes students should be honest with their professors and turn to them for help. In a discipline like history, in Leonard’s opinion, cheating is less prevalent and harder to accomplish.

Yet Taylor’s survey concluded that no one department has instances of cheating more than others. This is a difficult variable to accurately measure, as Taylor said that professors really only bring cases of cheating to the committee if they have strong evidence.

Even so, since beginning his career at Colby in 1992, Leonard said the department has had its fair share of instances of academic dishonesty. In an honest reflection, Leonard said that it’s an ever relevant topic for students and professors alike, as we have unfortunately entered an era where cheating, lying and deceitfulness touch the highest levels of power in our country.

Nearly 70 percent of students considered seeing a test from previous years to be cheating. This raises several interesting questions for professors. How are tests from past years made available, and how can professors attempt to combat this issue?

Leonard agreed that it is the professor’s job to constantly update prompts and craft thought-provoking assignments that don’t lend themselves to cheating. This is something that she feels Colby professors work very hard on each time they create material for their courses.

The majority of respondents found cheating to be a serious issue (58.1 percent) with 77 percent of students having heard other students discuss cheating. Yet only 27 percent of students admit to cheating on a test or paper at Colby. This disconnect is in Taylor’s opinion largely based on rumors and speculations, as the results of his survey yielded strong attitudes towards the perception of cheating culture on campus, though in reality 23 students said that in the past year they once copied from another student during an exam, 25 students said that in the past year they once fabricated/falsified lab data; nine more than once and nine students admitted to turning in someone else’s paper or work as their own in the previous year in the aforementioned survey.

“I do my own problem sets but don’t mind letting others copy off of me because it doesn’t affect me,” a student said.

Even if it is a relatively small portion of students that engage in cheating, the question of why these students feel it is necessary remains.

Taylor said while there are unfortunately some habitual cheaters, students largely turn to making bad decisions when they feel overwhelmed by or unprepared to complete an assignment. Like Leonard, Taylor wants to stress that there are always other options and in many cases it might be better to “receive a zero on an assignment” than face consequences for cheating.

Another anonymous student commented on an experience in which they saw students prioritize their grades over academic honesty. “Prior to this semester, I really only saw cheating in terms of people sharing problem sets, however this year I am enrolled in a large 200-level class, I would say it’s 75 percent male athletes, and that’s completely changed. A week before our midterm, virtually every student in the class had a photocopy of an A graded exam from a few years before. I got stressed out because I had a lot of other work that week and I wasn’t planning on studying for the test, but then I realized everyone else was going cheat and I would do poorly in comparison. I went into the test accepting that my grade was beyond my control because of the actions of fellow students,” the student said.

Leonard remarked that at a time when everyone feels that they “deserve a trophy” for their accomplishments, students are increasingly under mounting pressure — oftentimes, she assumes, from parents who foot the hefty bill of Colby. While this may be the case, she stressed that this is not a justified reason.

As Colby’s acceptance rate falls to 13 percent, this increased pressure to perform at the highest level is in line with Colby’s newfound competitiveness — to have the “biggest” and “most successful” liberal arts campaign and rapidly increase the College’s exclusivity. In Leonard’s opinion, however, if the only lesson Colby students are coming away with is that it is of the utmost importance to be “successful, rich and famous” by any means possible, then Colby is failing as an institution.