Sunday, February 05, 2006

When Students Cheat

I read with great interest the article on cheating in the News & Record earlier this week. The article focused on plagiarism and the ways that teachers, professors, and administrators are dealing with the problem in high school and college.

I was glad to read that new ways of dealing with cheating are being developed, but the article resonated with me for other reasons. My mother was a member of the UNCG nursing faculty for many years. She loved teaching, and she was honored with just about every award available at the school and in the nursing profession, but she eventually left UNCG because of rampant cheating and the nursing school's refusal to address the problem.

During her last few years, she had at least one student plagiarize work each semester. Her policy was very clear: cheating of any kind produced a failing grade. She and I talked about it many times, and I always stressed that she was training people who would make life and death decision on a daily basis. Not only was it imperative they learn the material, it was equally important they display high integrity at all times.

During her last few years at the G, she found that when she assigned a failing grade for a cheater, it was routinely overturned. In several instances, the students actually admitted to cheating, but the grades were still changed to passing. My mother was dismayed and disheartened that the nursing school would willingly and knowingly allow and promote cheating by sending a clear message that no honor code was in effect in its program.

The final straw for my mother was a conference with her last cheating student. The student acknowledged cheating on a paper, then told my mother "You don't understand. The inmates are running the asylum here." Although true, the students words felt like a two by four between the eyes for my mom, and she resigned a few weeks later.

I am good friends with a number of professors and one dean (no longer there now) at UNC-G in other academic programs. When I would ask them about their policy on cheating, they all made it clear that they did not tolerate it, and they started with the assumption that the instructor was correct in cases where teacher and student disagreed about whether academic fraud had occurred. When I explained why I was asking, they often admitted the nursing school was fostering an environment that encouraged cheating.

My mother still teaches nursing at a local community college. She has found cheating to be less common at that level, probably because more than half of her students are adults who have children and have jobs in addition to the rigorous nursing curriculum. There is also an environment there that encourages honesty and integrity.

It is disappointing that some students deprive themselves of the opportunity learn when they cheat, but it is even more depressing when those we entrust to teach create an environment that encourages students to cheat.


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