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In my opinion

Dealing with cheaters

Do professors in Canada and the U.S. treat student cheaters differently?


We share many similarities to our neighbours south of the border, especially in higher education. Departments and faculties are similarly structured, as are many academic programs. However, some differences exist between the two when it comes to the treatment of students suspected of academic misconduct. In 2006 I conducted a study, exploring the ways in which Canadian and American faculty differ when they have to deal with a cheater.

The respondents included 206 faculty members: 93 from Canada and 113 from the U.S. They hailed from two large, comprehensive universities, both offering undergraduate to doctoral-level programs, and both strongly committed to research.

One of the first findings to highlight is that 40 percent of U.S. faculty and 41 percent of Canadian faculty surveyed said that when dealing with a suspected cheater they did not pursue the issue or take any direct action. This result correlates closely with the 2003 findings of Rutgers professor Donald McCabe – a founding member of the Center for Academic Integrity – who reported that “44 percent of faculty in U.S. and 46 percent in Canada acknowledge they have ignored cheating ‘on occasion.’”

However, a look at how the more action-oriented faculty members responded to suspected academic improprieties revealed clear differences between the two countries.

When confronting student cheaters, participants in the study were unanimous in their belief that holding students accountable for their actions is important. However, because U.S. faculty members typically act in a more individualistic manner, they preferred more direct approaches to the problem. They indicated a marked preference for dealing with academic integrity matters in a face-to-face manner and discussing their suspicions of cheating with students. U.S. faculty also felt more in control of their decision and confident in their right as an instructor to speak to a student suspected of cheating. Finally, they felt that by talking to a student suspected of cheating, they were doing something positive to help the student learn about academic integrity.

On the other side of the border, Canadian faculty members indicated that they pay greater attention to subjective norms (i.e., how they perceive other faculty or administrators think they should act) when confronted with a student cheater. Closely related to this approach, they ascribe greater importance to doing what other faculty members in their departments do or have done in the past. Generally speaking, the Canadian faculty members felt that they had a lower measure of individual control over the situation and they seemed to be seeking institutional support for their actions. For example, they were less inclined to have a private, one-on-one meeting with a student suspected of cheating, preferring to refer the case to someone else or to meet with the student in the presence of others. These findings may help explain why faculty at the Canadian institution were more than twice as likely to refer incidents of academic misconduct to their department head, an administrative body, or a disciplinary committee.

As in most things academic, the situation is not as simple as it may seem. Canadians believed more strongly that students should know which of their actions would constitute cheating in advance of tests or evaluations. However, the American faculty members were 17 percent more likely than the Canadian faculty members to discuss with their students what they interpreted as cheating or plagiarism and how such instances will be handled.

Attitudes about gender also proved to be interesting. The American faculty members believed that men and women are equally effective in dealing with instances of cheating, making the gender of the faculty member a non-issue. But Canadian faculty members believed that women were more effective than men in dealing with cheating.

These findings are only suggestive. Testing a variety of institutions on both sides of the border would demonstrate more clearly whether these findings indicate differences in national culture or differences in local academic culture. By design, this study focused on the faculty members’ responses to academic integrity violations. It did not offer any indication about which approach is more effective in preventing future student misconduct (e.g. confronting the student suspected of cheating or referring him or her to the representatives of the academic collective for action).

Despite our shared heritage, it’s apparent that there are cultural differences as to how faculty members respond to students who cheat. Clearly, more investigation is needed to further determine to what extent “we are exactly the same…only different.”

Arthur Coren is the dean of the school of business at Kwantlen Polytechnic University.

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