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Eckerd College's new honor council seeks academic integrity

ST. PETERSBURG — Faking a lab report. Using a crib sheet on an exam. Pasting something from the Web into a term paper.

It has never been easier for college students to cheat, and up to three-quarters of those surveyed nationwide have owned up to doing something academically dishonest.

Faced with this challenge, Eckerd College is enlisting students to help create a more ethical campus.

Starting in the fall, an honor council of faculty and students will hear cases of alleged cheating, decide their merits and, in all but the most severe cases, mete out punishment.

"Our goal is to change the way we approach academic dishonesty here at Eckerd," said junior Lauren DeLalla, the president of the Eckerd College Organization of Students. "The honor council will place more responsibility on students to hold each other accountable."

That's good, says an expert on academic integrity. Students tend to be harder on their peers than faculty members would be.

"When it works, students have a sense that they own it; it's their code," said Daniel Wueste, director of the Robert J. Rutland Institute for Ethics at Clemson University.

The University of Tampa, the University of Florida, the University of South Florida and Florida State University all have students sit on panels that consider cases of alleged cheating.

At Eckerd, enforcing the code historically has fallen primarily to professors. That led to uneven enforcement, decentralized record-keeping and the possibility that some students got away with cheating again and again by telling different professors they didn't do it or, really, this was the first time.

"I can only speak for myself," said political science professor Anthony Brunello, who chaired a committee that studied Eckerd's honor system. "It's happened to me many times."

Eckerd administrators and professors have talked for years about improving the honor code.

Partly, the discussion was part of a national conversation about academic integrity on college campuses. At Eckerd, it also was fueled by some disturbing things that showed up in students' writing.

Eckerd students must demonstrate an ability to write by producing a portfolio that is evaluated by an interdisciplinary faculty committee.

Trouble was, at times the portfolio readers have seen the same paper more than once, Brunello said. Or they have seen pieces of writing so different from the rest of the portfolio that they stood out as suspicious.

The readers would red-flag the essay or paper, and professors would be called about a dubious piece of work they didn't catch before. Saying there's more than just plagiarism at issue, Brunello said some lab work also has raised concerns.

Some students believe the problem has gotten worse.

"I believe that there's been a generational shift in both integrity and academic honesty," said DeLalla, who has heard of problems with cheating from her student government counterparts across Florida.

Students often know cheating is wrong but don't know why a particular behavior is considered dishonest, Wueste said.

Take, for example, swiping stuff from the Web.

"When it shows up on your screen when you do a Google search, it has a different feel to it than when you go to a library and find a book," Wueste said. "With the book, you get a sense that someone created this."

He compares that desensitization to what took place with the music Web site Napster.

"The more widespread it becomes, the easier it becomes to say that everybody does it," he said. "They believe that the stuff that's out there on the Internet is just community property."

Nearly two decades of research by the Center for Academic Integrity, which is at the Rutland Institute, has shown that 70 to 75 percent of college students self-report engaging in some sort of cheating behavior, Wueste said.

These can range from minor transgressions such as listing a book in a bibliography that the student didn't actually read, to wholesale plagiarism or buying a pre-written report from a commercial term-paper mill.

By comparison, levels of cheating were "somewhat lower" in studies done in the 1960s, though it was still a serious problem on college campuses, Wueste said.

Experts who study academic integrity talk about three approaches that many colleges take: prevention, policing and promoting ethical behavior. Many schools tend to focus on the first two.

"Those things are useful, but they are not likely to be the most effective," Wueste said. It helps when colleges help students understand why cheating is wrong, who it hurts, how it's connected to integrity and ethics and how people they admire would act.

More than a dozen Eckerd students stepped forward to volunteer for the honor council the first week they could, said junior Rachel Harbeitner, the vice president of academic affairs for the Eckerd College Organization of Students.

Eckerd students are a community inside as well as outside the classroom, she said, and the changes to the honor system will help make a culture of integrity "more present in the classroom."

It also helps when the ratio of students to faculty is low, like at Eckerd, where it's 13 to 1. That's because students find it harder to cheat when they have a real relationship with their professor.

But Wueste said there are limits to what even the best honor system can do. Reducing cheating is a reasonable expectation.

"That you would eliminate it altogether is not," he said.

Eckerd College's honor pledge

''On my honor, as an Eckerd College student,

I pledge not to lie, cheat, or steal, nor to tolerate these behaviors in others."


Percentage of college students in nationwide surveys who have acknowledged doing something academically dishonest, from minor (citing a book they didn't read in a bibliography) to major (such as buying a term paper).

Source: Robert J. Rutland Institute

for Ethics at Clemson University

Eckerd College's new honor council seeks academic integrity 04/06/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 6, 2010 4:11pm]
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