Professor says policy cohesion key to handling academic dishonesty

A student stays up all night studying for an exam and walks into a test exhausted and anxious. Halfway through the exam, they look up to see another student has carved out a calculator and put an iPhone inside. The device is used to look up the answers online.

This is not a fictitious example of academic dishonesty,  but rather a scenario that has been seen in the Wilkes University engineering department.

Cases of academic dishonesty in the department have gotten increasingly out of hand in recent years, with the department hitting its peak last semester, said Dr. Edward Bednarz, assistant professor of mechanical engineering. To help combat such violations in all majors, Bednarz would like to see a more explicit academic honesty policy outlined for faculty and students.

There have been three expulsions in the last two years, and although there was some miscommunication with administration, Bednarz now feels confident they can work together to uphold the department and entire university’s integrity and merit.

“I want to assure students that are doing the right thing that we do catch cheaters,” Bednarz said. “Crime doesn’t pay. I would be really shocked if anyone cheated now.”

The Wilkes University academic integrity policy is laid out in the student handbook. However, there can be confusion as to the correct steps faculty should take and how to best handle situations of academic dishonesty. This is an issue that the department faced when confronted with several cases of blatant cheating in the fall semester, Bednarz said.

The emphasis now needs to extend to the entire university in working together in a collaborative effort to combat academic dishonesty across all majors, Bednarz continued. If all incidents are reported to department heads or The Department of Student Affairs, it would be easier to identify repeat offenders and handle them accordingly.

Although it has become customary to handle academic dishonesty situations internally, Bednarz believes it would be better to involve administration right from the start and follow the handbook’s policy.

“Academic honesty is one of the most important values that a university protects, and it’s important that there is consistency and enforcement across the university,” said Vice President of Student Affairs Paul Adams. “With hundreds of faculty, it can at times be difficult to have that consistency.”

Adams continued to explain that many faculty have established their own approaches in dealing with academic integrity and that very few go as far as to report it to Student Affairs. There is a continuum of punishments that professors can use at their discretion, ranging from a stern warning to failure of the course.

One way to combat instances of academic dishonesty is to work together under a central policy rather than as separate departments. A policy change is in the works to make communication among departments easier and to have each professor report instances of academic dishonesty to the chair or dean of the department, who can then communicate with each other.

One thing that should be avoided, however, are generalizations and stigmatizations. The Family Education Rights and Education Act (FERPA) forbids professors from disclosing students’ educational records without their permission or unless certain criteria are met.

Although generalizations should be avoided, there have been students who feel stereotyped when it comes to cheating. This can be seen with international students, explained senior engineering student and teaching assistant Abdul Sheikh.

“Most of the students work hard … while some people use the easy way out to get the grade. This is unfair,” Sheikh. said He explained that when international students cheat, it creates a stereotype that others have to work hard to break.

“That’s what I’m facing.”

Bednarz  believes the university’s  engineering program is excellent, and estimates 95 percent of its students are honest and hardworking — including the international students. He noted that cultural differences may play a part in academic dishonesty issues, such as those involving intellectual property. Individual ideas are highly valued in American culture where other cultures are more accustomed to working as a community.

Sheikh rejects that claim, however, arguing that collectivism pertains to working together for homework. It is still not acceptable to work together on exams in his culture, Sheikh explained.

He also said that Wilkes effectively emphasizes the no cheating policy to international students, even having them sign a contract saying their visa will be terminated if they violate the contract.

There is free tutoring offered on campus and a mentoring program in the Saudi Club, of which Sheikh is president. This added resource is helpful for those that may not feel as comfortable working with American students, he explained.

But international students are not the only ones who violate academic integrity policies, Sheikh said.

University Provost Anne Skleder agreed, saying that there are not more cases of academic dishonesty involving international students.

“Domestic students cheat too, but those that truly can’t handle engineering tend to switch majors much sooner than an international student whose country requires the engineering degree,” said an engineering student who wished to remain anonymous. He expressed concerns about why blatant cases of cheating were not handled more aggressively.

“With (some of) the international students’ countries paying full tuition, I feel Wilkes does not want to lose that major source of income.”

“There are few values protected on campus by our faculty more than academic integrity,” Adams said. “It isn’t reasonable to think that our faculty would ever compromise their principles in favor of the University’s economic gain.”

Each is dealt with on a case-by-case basis based on the level of cheating and circumstances surrounding it, Adams and Skleder explained. Whether the student is international or domestic does not make a difference.

”The faculty and staff at Wilkes care about all students, and strive hard to ensure that students and retained, are successful in their studies, graduate on time, and are successful after graduation in their professions and in life,” she added. “This is what we owe our student, regardless of socioeconomic status, ethnicity, home country, or any other characteristic.”

As far as educating those about the consequences of cheating, Adams recommends that professors make their policy clear to students right from the start. Skleder added that there should be a strong focus on teaching academic honesty and integrity.

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