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Research conducted by the head of UCSD's academic integrity office has uncovered a major cheating problem at the 23,000-student school, one of America's leading research universities, according to a paper published this month in the journal Science and Engineering Ethics.

Worse yet, according to the paper, entitled "Academic Integrity in a Mandatory Physics Lab: The Influence of Post-Graduate Aspirations
 and Grade Point Averages," by Tricia Bertram Gallant, Michael G. Anderson, and Christine Killoran, official numbers may signficantly underestimate widespread cheating at the school, characterized in the paper as "a significant problem at the University."

Gallant, UCSD's Academic Integrity Coordinator, was lead author of the study, which surveyed 3,367 physics labs students at UCSD. The majority were between 17 and 21 years old.

"In the first lab of the quarter, the students are provided with the academic integrity expectations for the lab and are asked to sign their understanding of those expectations and agreement to abide by them," the paper says.

"Specifically, students are told that they are allowed to discuss pre-lab and post-lab questions with their classmates but they may not use the answers developed by another, copy the work completed by others in the past or present, or write their academic assignments in collaboration with others.

"Despite this, there has been a history of student cheating, particularly the copying of pre and post-lab assignments.

"In the 2007–2008 academic year, 86 students were reported for cheating in physics courses and in the 2008–2009 academic year, the year of data analysis for this study, the rate of reporting increased to 115 students.

"We know, however, that this rate of reporting cheating is far less than the actual rate of cheating.

"Based on McCabe’s (2005a) data, we can expect that as many as 9,600 undergraduates at the University cheat at least once per year or as many as 1,700 of the students enrolled in the physics labs.

"Thus, the rate of cheating is assumed to be much higher than what is officially reported and is thus considered a significant problem at the University."

The paper adds, "Overall, a large percentage of students perceive more cheating than they admit to. For example, while only about 11% of students admit to sometimes or frequently receiving unpermitted help, almost 66% perceive that other students are doing this."

One female student is quoted as saying ‘‘people do cheat here. The cheating tactics just go up when you come to university; it’s strategized cheating.’’

She added, "It’s kind of understandable because if the labs make no sense to you and you’re frustrated with the whole thing, you kind of don’t get the whole point of them and copying doesn’t seem so bad you know?

"Because if you’re sitting there like, 'I don’t know what I’m doing' it’s like, whatever. It’s just another ... I mean if it’s an obstacle you can’t solve, you’re not going to be like 'Oh let me solve it now.'"

Another student told the researchers that many of her peers "will do anything to get ahead’’ and describes being aware of "people taking exams for other people."

She "relayed a story about a friend, an English major, who has so many ‘people pay her to write essays for them' that she is 'thinking about doing that as a business.'"

"Perhaps the most disturbing finding of our study is the sheer number of students who perceive that teaching assistants ignore the copying that occurs," the paper says.

"This is despite the fact that the teaching assistants receive extensive training on lab management, teaching laboratory concepts, and enhancing academic integrity in the lab."

In a telephone interview today, Gallant said that the university has subsequently changed the way it counsels students about academic integrity. Rather than simply dwelling on personal integrity, she says, ethics workshops and materials prepared for students now emphasize the importance of integrity in professional life and career advancement.

Gallant noted that since implementation of the changes, which have included a primer on scientific integrity, reported cases of cheating have fallen, though no formal follow-up studies have been undertaken.

Co-authors on the paper were UCSD physics faculty member Michael G. Anderson and Christine Killora, an admissions counselor at the University of San Diego.

The paper, costing $34.95, may be ordered on the journal publisher's website.

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Comments

monaghan Nov. 11, 2011 @ 4:20 p.m.

Did you mean to say at the end of this story that the report on cheating among undergraduates taking physics classes at UCSD was co-authored by an admissions counselor at the private "University of San Diego?" That strikes me as odd, but I suppose anything is possible.

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Visduh Nov. 12, 2011 @ 11 a.m.

While this study is about UCSD, and more particularly the physics labs, it doubtlessly applies to many or most universities. At UCSD, there are some areas where the teaching is considered to be weak. Physics is one and math is the other. This is sad because students hoping for careers in technical areas flock to UCSD. Students who aspire to medical school think UCSD can help their chances.

Even though the typical UCSD student is well-motivated, that doesn't mean he or she is all that well prepared for the rigors of that campus. Often the high schools fail to teach "science" courses in a scientific way. In high school, collaboration is encouraged, whereas in higher education it is often seen as cheating. Many of the students are concerned with having high grades, such as those demanded by medical schools. Combine those with classes that are poorly taught, and you have a formula for students to find no other course than to cheat.

Reading the quotes from the female student, you can see that her ability to articulate is not the best, with her "Valley Girl" usage and sentence structure. She's typical of most young undergraduates. UCSD has struggled for its entire existence to appeal to its students. The dropout rate there was long the highest of any UC campus. I'd guess that frustration with classes and faculty there have contributed to that. It is still obvious that alumni loyalty to the place is low. They need to do something differently there. More training in student ethics is fine, but not the answer to the underlying issues.

(More to follow in next post.)

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Visduh Nov. 12, 2011 @ 11:22 a.m.

The other damning part of this report is the blame placed on the teaching assistants. TA's are graduate students who have long been used on university campuses as a source of semi-slave labor. They are poorly paid, and are concerned with their own studies that are usually leading to a doctorate. The teaching they do is a distraction, and many do it only to keep the professors happy. While some are actually good instructors, many are wretched. Too many are foreigners with only a minimal grasp of English.

Who should tackle this matter of rampant cheating? Maybe the professors? Why is this seen only as a matter for teaching assistants? The sad fact is that many profs are AWOL from their state-funded teaching responsibilities. They are in their labs, their institutes, and out raising money for research.

Research? Yes, that is the function of UCSD. Doubt that? Just read the puffery that comes out of the campus, and you'll see. The faculty sloughs off the job of teaching many of the undergraduate courses to teaching assistants. Too many profs minimize their contact with students while expecting an underpaid and overstressed graduate student to make it happen.

The teaching assistants should not be expected to single-handedly police the labs. Confronting students with such things as borrowing of data from a friend is unpleasant and stressful. That those individuals take the path of least resistance and ignore all but the most flagrant cheating is not surprising in the least.

Physics labs can be confusing and are very time-consuming. When the data repeatedly falls short of supporting the hypothesis, borrowing data or just inventing it is the obvious way out. And so students take it, and are branded cheaters.

Get the profs back in the classroom and labs, and much of this difficulty will disappear. But don't put your life on hold waiting for academia to implement that reform.

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