Friday, September 5, 2014

Learning About Integrity: The Experience of One Group of College Students

The e-mail had arrived Sunday evening, from a student in one of my classes. The Friday before I had to be in Washington, DC for some meetings, so I had our Department Secretary hand out exams in a class. The exam was not proctored; I had trusted my college students to be honest when taking the exam.

The e-mail started: “Dear Professor Rhoades. I’ve been torn all weekend. Finally, I decided to write to you. Friday, about halfway through the exam, several students started to share their answers with each other . But, please don’t ask me to tell you their names.”

Instantly, I was astounded. I had observed my classes take exams over the course of several semesters. I had not encountered any instances of cheating.

Then I was dismayed. Angry. I wondered, “What should I do?” No students had yet been identified. I felt betrayed, as if something had been stolen from me.

As I pondered my likely course of action, another e-mail arrived: “Dear Prof. Rhoades. I’m not a snitch, and I don’t want to name names. But it’s not fair to me, nor to others. I saw five students exchanging answers during Friday’s exam.”

I realized, at that moment, that this incident was not about me. It was not about my emotions. Rather, it was about the impact on my students. The days ahead needed to be handled in a fair manner – to address those who had cheated, and to address those who had not.

As my own emotions subsided, I began my research – about cheating. I found that cheating was widespread on college campus, even at the very best of schools. I suspected that cheating at my college was less, due in part to the small class sizes and the intensive interactions students have with the professors, and in part due to the fact that tests for plagiarism are done for nearly every essay submitted, in any class - a fact well-known by students.

I also learned from my research that cheating is more prevalent in the afternoon, as one’s self-control begins to lessen over the course of a day. And I learned that some students in college did not receive, as I had assumed, due to the students' socio-economic backgrounds, a strong grounding in concepts such as “ethics” and “integrity.” I learned that some college students, when asked, could not even generally define these terms.

I graded the exams, did a statistical analysis of the answers, along with a comparison to two prior exams. And then I revised my lesson for the next day ….

I began the class on Monday with my typical pre-1990’s musical selection. Students arrived and settled in their seats. I smiled as I jotted down attendance, as I usually do.

The 1:00 p.m. hour arrived, and I wrote on the board, “Integrity.” I asked the students to define it.

“Being truthful,” said one. Others chimed in: “Honesty.” “Being righteous.” “Adhering to your values.”

“These are good definitions. Let me provide another one. Integrity is doing the right thing, even when no one is watching.” Most students in the class nodded their assent. A few students began to look around at each other. A few others bowed their heads, as if afraid to look up.

I then showed the class a short video, “It is Just Me – Integrity,” available at

I then drew a triangle on the page. At the tips of the triangle I wrote three words: “Opportunity.” “Incentive.” “Rationalization.” We then engaged in a discussion of the “Fraud Triangle.” I explained to these students, all majors in business, that the Fraud Triangle consists of three conditions generally present when fraud occurs: (1) Incentive (i.e., pressure); (2) Opportunity; (3) and Rationalization.

We discussed how “rationalization” often leads to employee theft. How employees might feel, since they work hard, or do work better or faster than others, that they might become “entitled.” And how small employee thefts can result in a slippery slope, of ever-increasing frauds.

I then paused. For a full 30 seconds, I looked around the class, and looked each student in the eye.

“I need your assistance,” I stated. After yet another pregnant pause, I continued. “I have discerned that several students in this class committed fraud on last Friday’s exam. By me not being here, I provided an Opportunity. These students had an Incentive – they feel the pressure to get better grades. Somehow – I don’t know how – these students provided the Rationalization for their actions.”

Another pause, as I let the lesson sink in.

“I must admit, when I learned about this cheating, I was angry. I felt as if someone has stolen money from me. And I felt betrayed. My trust, in these students, has been violated.”

“Let me ask you a question,” I continued. “If your husband or wife, boyfriend or girlfriend cheats on you – violates your trust – how long will it be until your trust is restored.”

Just a few students answered. “A long, long time,” said one. “Never,” said another.

“That’s right. Think of it … when you violate the trust of a client, or a customer, or a friend, or a family member, or … a professor, that trust may be repaired over time, but it will never be fully restored.”

A student then asked me, “What are you going to do, about the students who cheated?”

I then turned the tables on them. “What should I do?”

As the class discussed same, we discussed penalties for cheating. In our department on campus, the first instance of cheating results in expulsion from the class and an “F” grade. A second instances results in expulsion from the college. I explained that some colleges were not so lenient.

We then explored whether I should try to force students to come forward, and tell me the names of who cheated. All students agreed that such would be unfair. I agreed – and explained that our student honor code, as it was worded, did not obligate students to inform on other students. I also explained that the honor code at other institutions – such as the one at West Point – did compel students to inform on those who cheated.

I then informed the students, “I’ve done a statistical analysis of the answers on the exam, and compared these exam scores with the two previous exams. I am certain I have identified five students who cheated, and two more students I have strong suspicions about. And I’m certain that, if I ask, some students will voluntarily come forth and provide me with the names of the culprits.”

Silence ensued. Then, I explored an alternative path. If the offending students came forth and confessed, suggested the students, these students could write an essay about integrity in lieu of being kicked out of class. I agreed, with the conditions, however, that if the students did not come forward within 24 hours, the punishment of expulsion from class and an “F” grade would be assessed. And, also, that the essay would be titled, “Understanding the Need for Integrity and Ethics in Business,” and would be 5,000 words long, and due in two weeks, immediately after the Thanksgiving holiday weekend. I also provided that a poorly written essay would not be accepted, and the original punishment (expulsion) would be imposed if the submitted essay did not receive the equivalent of at least a “C” grade.

The class nodded their assent.

A student then inquired, “But what about their grade on the exam?” With this perfect transition into the next portion of the lesson, I asked: “What do you think I should do about the grades on the exam?”

Discussion ensued. Perhaps the cheating had enabled some students to achieve 10% better on the exam. Perhaps other students had achieved 30% better. I opined that it was possible that one or two of the students I suspected, but could not yet prove, had cheated, would escape, and hence not receive any possible reduction in grade. “That’s not fair,” a student opined.

“I agree,” I responded. “What if, instead, the entire class re-took the exam on Wednesday.”

“That’s not fair, either,” chimed in one student. Another stated, “I really studied hard for this exam. Now you want to throw out the grades? That’s not right.”

As a class, we discussed the possible outcomes. Together we concluded that there was no solution that would be completely fair. We discussed that every honest person in the class had been stolen from, in some way, by the cheaters.

The class voted. With a strong minority present, the majority of the class decided to re-take the exam.

I then asked the students how they felt. “Angry,” replied many. “Really, really mad,” said one.

I explained my own reactions when I first learned of this. That I too felt angry, and betrayed.

But I had decided not to come to class mad. I cannot always control what others do, but I can control my own reaction. Rather than spend my day, or even my week, angry and depressed, I made a conscious choice. To approach Monday as I tried to approach every day – positively, with a good spirit, and wearing a firmly affixed smile.

The class was dismissed. The discussions, as students left, continued … as I hoped they would.

By the next day six students had come forward and accepted their punishment. Another, whom I strongly suspected, never did come forth. But, without compelling evidence, I was not in a position to make charges.

The essays were turned in, assessed, and all students had done well. I made comments and returned the essays.

As for the exam, all students but four (three of whom had come forth and confessed to cheating, and the other was the student whom I strongly suspected of cheating but who did not come forward) performed either the same or better on the exam re-take. The students in the vocal minority, who had protested against re-taking the exam, all did better. In fact, the most vocal of those who protested re-taking the exam possessed the best improvement, numerically. The view that re-taking the exam was “unfair” was therefore dissipated.

It is a full year later, and I continue to think about the incident. I have learned my lesson – don’t provide the “Opportunity” – make certain all exams are proctored. It also seems far easier for me to take additional safeguards, than to later put students into a situation where they must choose to report on a fellow student.

I also learned, through this and other class discussions on ethics, that many students lack foundational knowledge of these important steps. Hence, I spend much more time in the classes I teach in addressing the Fraud Triangle, as well as undertaking team exercises involving integrity, trust, and ethical issues.

It remains frustrating that I never did possess, via any informing student, the actual names of the students who had cheated. While six came forward voluntarily, others may have existed, and may have as a result "gotten away" with cheating. Hence I wonder, in retrospect, if I should have put pressure on students to “name names” – especially the students who had e-mailed me that Sunday night. But, imposing such pressure did not seem right to me at the time, nor does it seem right to me now.

I wonder if our college's honor code should be revised, to mandate that students who observe cheating testify against their peers. It seems, however, that few institutions impose such an obligation.

I ponder how to change the culture of cheating on campus, and how that might affect the willingness of students to "whistle-blow." At a college where greater than 80% of the students reside in dorms, and where the relatively small student body means that a fact or rumor about a student can be devastating, with regard to that student's reputation or interactions with other students, I wonder if whistle-blowing would be counter-productive. If whistle-blowing were to be encouraged, perhaps this can be done by educating students on the impact of cheating - on students who don't cheat, and with regard to the impact on society in general of such behaviors (especially if they persist beyond college).

The students who cheated are still on my campus now - a year later. As I pass them in the hall, we often pause to chat. At times, with a few, we have had deeper conversations about specific concerns they possess. From such interactions I believe the lessons of those few weeks – the class, the later discussions that I’m certain ensued among peers, and the essay composition – seemed to “sink in” for three of the students. The other three – I’m not so certain.

What do you think? How could the situation have been handled differently? If this same set of facts were to occur in the future, would you advise a different course of action? Should students be mandated, or encouraged, to whistle-blow?

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