Students' Perceptions of Cheating in Australian Independent Schools

John Godfrey & Russell Waugh




In a time of economic rationalism and high unemployment levels, the competition to gain qualifications is increasing. Passing exams, doing well in assignments, and ensuring a high ranking score in relation to fellow students - jostling for position against competitors - is seen as a key step towards success or failure in getting well paid employment in the future. Building on the widely held idea that the free market and competition are desirable attributes, such student competition would appear to be a good thing. However, on analysis it would seem that this competition also appears to have been responsible, in part, for a trend towards a rise in academic cheating in educational institutions.

An understanding of the extent of cheating in our educational institutions, whether at secondary or tertiary level, and an awareness of what procedures might therefore be taken to prevent its occurrence, is important for teachers and administrators of schools and, indeed, to the wider educational community. This has more than just a moral, watchdog sense for, by implication, understanding cheating and being able to scrutinise for such activity will ultimately assist in making educational assessment fairer and more equitable.

In previous decades assessment in Australian educational institutions was based on externally set public examinations. For example, in Western Australia the Leaving Certificate Examination and later the Tertiary Entrance Examination were, in part, externally assessed. In New South Wales the Intermediate Certificate and Leaving Certificate Examinations and later the School Certificate and Higher School Certificate Examinations were also partly externally assessed. Surveillance was strict and detected instances of cheating in these public examinations were rare, with students made fully aware that if they were caught cheating their results would be cancelled.

During the last two decades, however, students' results at all levels of schooling have been changed to include a substantial proportion based on the assessment of classwork completed throughout the academic year. Student assessment remains a matter of contention in education circles with the effectivity of exams as a measure of assessment very much a subject of debate. In some Australian states Year 12 assessment involves combining the results from internal assessments as well as externally set examinations. In other states there are, in fact, no longer any externally set examinations at all at Year 12 level. Instead, results are based entirely on the teachers' assessments of the quality of their students' work.

Regardless of the position individual educators take on assessment in general and examinations in particular, these arrangements have made it easier for students to use dishonest practices in order to gain better grades. Copying from books and assignments set in previous years; collusion amongst students in preparing assignments; getting help from relatives; using illegal notes in tests; and copying during classroom tests that are more relaxed than formal examination centres are just some examples of school assessment dishonesty.

The pressure has increased in Australian universities over the past decade to use both in-semester and end of semester assessments to determine the final grades of courses. For example, in most university education faculties across the continent, approximately 50 per cent internal assessment is the norm in most courses. Thus the opportunities to be academically dishonest, in numerous ways, have increased.

Understanding the perceptions of four aspects of cheating - perceptions of what constitutes cheating; perceptions of why cheating occurs; perceptions of how cheating can be prevented; and students' attitude towards not only cheating and but also cheating behaviour in schools, have been the focus of a number of recent studies. These studies have focused not only on the extent to which students engage in academic cheating but also on whether or not they perceive the phenomena to be 'a problem' in schools.

To follow up research on academic dishonesty the authors have already conducted with international students, nearly seven hundred students from an Australian Independent school system were surveyed. The majority of the students were 15 to 18 year olds. A questionnaire containing 88 items was used to gain insight into their attitudes - their perceptions regarding the prevention of cheating, and their behaviour towards cheating. The data was then analysed to ascertain the extent to which these students are familiar with cheating or engage in cheating behaviour.

This questionnaire revealed that these school students do believe that cheating is a problem in their schools. Studies conducted in the USA support this finding, reporting that 50% to 70% of teachers and 60% to 70% of students perceive cheating to be a problem which needs to be addressed in schools. In a cross cultural study of cheating previously conducted by the authors, as many as 80% of students said that they saw cheating to be a problem. This sample of Independent secondary school students, therefore, supports these earlier findings (see Figure 1).

While acknowledging this, the data also shows that even this highly conservative group readily admit to engaging in cheating behaviour (see Figure 2). This study demonstrates that, in fact, most admit to having engaged in the usual forms of such behaviour at least once during their schooling . However, most students admit to a low level of involvement in the more serious forms of cheating, such as, having someone take their place in an examination venue or purchasing an assignment. It is, however, apparent from the results shown in Figure 2 that these students are well aware of what cheating practices exist and freely admit that they have practiced most forms of cheating, at least once in their schooling.

The data here was analysed with a computer program which orders the items along a scale from easiest to hardest to agree. The scale for such data ranges from approximately positive 2 to negative 2. Statements at the easiest end of the scale, that is, those with negative values, are answered in agreement by most students; statements at the hardest end of the scale, that is, those with positive values, are likely to be answered in agreement only by students with strong cheating perceptions.

This analysis indicates that these students have specific perceptions of what constitutes cheating and what doesn't. They find it easy to accept that it is cheating to use secret notes during examinations, or to look at another students' paper to check answers during a test (see Figure 2). On the other hand using notes and other material from past papers in order to write a new paper they find hard to accept as cheating. There is a subtle difference in perception here but it is an important one. In order to deal with cheating it is important that both students and teachers operate within the same definition of just what this entails.

These school students also have particular perceptions about what measures must be taken to prevent cheating (Figure 2). They believe that cheating would not be a problem if teachers took the proper steps to prevent it in the first place. Cheating, in this way, becomes primarily a teacher not a student responsibility. If students cheat it is because teachers allow them to do so. They also blame teachers for making cheating necessary. If teachers are unavailable to help students when they require guidance, desperate students who do not want to fail will resort to cheating to boost their grades. Similarly, teachers who are harsh graders or markers are seen to encourage, rather than discourage cheating in their classes (Figure 3). While the idea behind this toughness may be to spur students on to better work, the reality is that for many students cheating becomes the only way to stay ahead of their more able competitors. This is exacerbated if students find themselves pressured by parents to succeed academically as well.

Interestingly, the data shows that these students did not believe that teachers who are unfriendly, boring or disorganised actively cause cheating to occur in their classes or that students who unnecessarily miss school cheat or that sick students who miss school cheat more than others.

Students appear to have strong consistent views regarding the methods that can be adopted to prevent cheating (see Figure 4). For example, they believe that cheating could be prevented if teachers took the trouble to inform them well in advance of the assessment time and explained what work was going to be assessed so they could plan their work efficiently and not have to rush at the last moment. They consider that in small classes where the teacher works with students in a personal manner, cheating is less likely to occur. Seating arrangements they also perceive as an important factor in combating cheating during class assessment periods for if the opportunity arises it is hard to avoid. They believe it would also discourage cheating if penalties were made clear and rigidly enforced.

Fundamentally, cheating is perceived to be a teacher rather than a student responsibility. It is, these students seem to be saying, predominantly in the teachers' hands to solve it. This is supported by the data which suggests that making prevention a matter of honour, morality or self-discipline is considered to be simply inappropriate. Putting the onus on students they do not believe is a suitable alternative to active policing or removal of need. For example, they reject the idea of having students sign pledges or putting students on their honour not to cheat (Figure 4). Similarly, attempts to explain to students why they should not cheat is perceived as ineffective. Nor do they think that encouraging students to identify fellow students who cheat is a good idea.

The findings of this study have wide reaching implications for moral theory and for teaching practice. There are several implications for practice that teachers in general and Independent/religious school teachers and administrators in particular should note. The first is that they need to accept that these students are no different to the general school population in regard to their engagement in and knowledge of cheating techniques and that an appeal to a moral code or a code of honour will have little effect in preventing cheating. These school students know what cheating is, although they seem to have definite perceptions of what is and what isn't cheating which need to be reformulated. Cheating practices such as copying, plagiarism and collaboration are well understood by the students of these schools although more subtle forms of cheating are not accepted as such.

The second is that these students believe that it is up to the school not the students to deal with the problem. Cheating, they believe, can be discouraged although not entirely prevented by using certain simple practices such as informing students of the penalties for cheating and enforcing those penalties; ensuring seating arrangements in examination and testing centres are adequate to prevent cheating; and being aware that cheating seems more likely to occur in larger classes than in smaller classes.

Teachers can also assist in the discouragement of cheating by being aware of the high frequency of the phenomena and acknowledging the pressures under which many of these students are working. They must be patient and caring in their approach and make certain that students know that they can come to them for help or assistance and that some students may require more attention at times than others. Parents, of course, can assist in discouraging cheating by ensuring that their children are not overly pressured in their academic endeavours.

John R. Godfrey and Russell F. Waugh, Department of Education Policy and Administrative Studies, Churchlands Campus, Edith Cowan University.

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