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The Questionable Ethics of College Students

How to combat academic dishonesty
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In 2004, Harvard Graduate School of Education researcher Wendy Fischman and professor and developmental psychologist Howard Gardner reported a disturbing discovery in their book, Making Good, the majority of young people they studied, from high schoolers to young professionals in the early stages of their careers, had cheated or acted unethically at some point and believed they were justified in doing so. Almost 20 years later, Fischman reports that views about ethics and cheating among young people have not changed, particularly on college campuses across the country. 

“Not only do students cheat and unabashedly discuss their cheating, but they don’t see anything wrong with it — they rationalize and justify academic dishonesty,” says Fischman, who, along with Gardner, has just published The Real World of College: What Higher Education Is and What It Can Be, based on a 10-year study of higher education.

They find that, while openly acknowledging that academic dishonestly looms large on college campuses, students almost never report it as an important problem — nor one they should try to address or resolve. 

What contributes to this mindset?

Despite the range in college selectivity, geographic location, and focus, college students interviewed by the authors are more similar than they are different. Two points of overlap in their mindset include:

  • Valuing “I” over “we”: Over the course of hundreds of pages of interviews, students used “I” statements 11 times more than they used “we” statements. This suggests that students tend to put themselves and their own success over a sense of communal responsibility.
  • A disconnect between students and faculty: Students also tend to view a college degree as a transaction and college as a place to achieve and build a resume so that they can earn and get a good job after graduation. Faculty, on the other hand, think college is transformational — that it’s a place to grow and develop your mind. These differing views about college mean that students and faculty who enforce the rules, may understand the ethical problem very differently.

"Students should be encouraged to think about the reasons why one should not cheat — the negative consequences for the community and one’s own learning. If academic honesty is not signaled as vitally important, students will dismiss it."

What can colleges do?

Ultimately, Fischman notes, it’s up to the individual student to act responsibly and to do the right thing. That said, administrators, faculty, and other adults can do more to cultivate that sense of responsibility to the campus community and to society as a whole.

  • Put ethics front and center. As soon as students walk on to campus, they should know that unethical behavior like academic dishonesty is taken seriously, “not just in terms of repercussions, although that’s a piece of it,” says Fischman. “Students should be encouraged to think about the reasons why one should not cheat — the negative consequences for the community and one’s own learning. If academic honesty is not signaled as vitally important, students will dismiss it. After all, do they want themselves — or members of their families — to be treated by a doctor who cheated in medical school?”
  • Have frequent conversations with students. In general, students should be prodded to discuss ethical issues with different community stakeholders as part of the college experience. These conversations can help students to become more sensitive to ethical dilemmas and think through them. Parents, too, can discuss this with their children at home.
  • Discuss the purpose and value of college. Recognize that students and faculty have different “mental models” for the college experience. Faculty could help students reflect on the purpose of college and to think about how college can play an important role in their lifetime, not just for getting that first job. Additionally, through these discussions, it’s possible that faculty will begin to understand the pressures students might feel, which could lead them to develop new and more relevant approaches to assessment and instruction.
  • Encourage ethical and responsible decision-making instead of imposing limitations. “No matter what rules and regulations are put into place [to monitor cheating], students will always find a way around it,” says Fischman. Instead, the focus should be to encourage students to think through dilemmas and make the right choices independently.
  • Cultivate a sense of belonging on campus. For many schools, the necessary shift to remote and online learning was also coupled with a rise in cheating. This may be, in part, because students lack a concrete tie to a community. To cultivate a sense of responsibility towards a community — and a desire to act ethically — students must first feel like they’re a part of it. 

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