Cheating at Mines: Part Three

Cheating is a pervasive and old problem in college education. Cheating among students has arguably existed for as long as organized educational institutions have existed. Although the degree and type have undoubtedly fluctuated, it is curious that cheating is still prevalent after all these years. Why haven’t educators and institutions found a solution to the problem?

In the Fall 2015 semester, a survey was sent out to the entire Mines campus and additional personal interviews were conducted based upon the question “What do YOU think it means to cheat?” (Two articles were published about the topic in the March 8th edition of the Oredigger.)

The Mines campus offered a unique case study to evaluate a very specific type of cheating culture – cheating during formative assessment i.e. assessment while the student is still learning. The previous two articles discussed the results of the research data and offered two explanations for why cheating exists at Mines: differences in student and faculty expectations (the fine line between being overwhelmed and challenged), and students not recognizing their own unethical behavior.

This article addresses a final explanation for why cheating exists on the Mines campus and what can be done to curb cheating behavior in the future. This is the closing article in the series, and the hope is to move forward in creating a more ethical campus atmosphere.

The Mines environment is unique compared to other generalized public colleges. Many of the reasons Mines students feel inclined to cheat are exclusive to the Mines community. For example, the Mines engineering curriculum leaves students overwhelmed, and desperation breeds unethical behavior. Mines students justify their actions because otherwise completing the work would be impossible.

However, the final reason that pushes the Orediggers towards unethical behavior is more universal. In most cases, grades drive students to cheat at Mines and across the nation because “good grades” are what students are trying to achieve, and at times cheating to achieve. Grades are hopelessly intertwined with cheating as computer science Professor Keith Hellman illustrates, “The most obvious [form of cheating] is when a student misrepresents someone else’s works as their own to improve their course grade.”

From the student perspective, Jordan Umrysh a freshman in chemical engineering when asked about using an old test to study states, “I would say no, it is not cheating, primarily because if you are going out of your way to get an old test, you really care, and want to get a good grade.”

It is from these two quotes that we see a) the interconnected relationship between cheating and grades, and b) the difference in student and faculty interpretations on cheating and grades. On one hand, the professor states that cheating occurs when grades are involved, while the student believes that trying to achieve a good grade justifies using one’s resources. Grades are the motivator and the condemner of cheating at educational institutions.

Grades are a tricky issue because they are built into our society. A professor of Geology, Kamini Singha expresses her frustration about society’s and student’s emphasis on grades.“I think it is a societal issue. I blame society as a whole for being so grade focused.”

To be clear, this article is not arguing to get rid of grades. Eliminating grades introduces a whole other slew of issues. Grades are necessary in our society, although they do cause harm and can even be detrimental to the educational system. The promise of a good grade can make students take shortcuts. And as a result, grades do not always represent an accurate assessment of a student’s learning and comprehension.

A new attitude is needed towards grades. And that starts with answering the question of why students attend school. An anonymous professor articulates the goal of an educational facility. “When you graduate, the main thing you take with you, keep with you and continue building upon for years, is not your GPA. It is the skills, knowledge and wisdom you have acquired or developed.”

For most students, the above statement is an obvious one. But at Mines, the fundamental importance of learning gets lost. Mines prides itself on its abnormally high hire rate upon graduation. High school students choose Mines based on the promise of a job come graduation and internships intermittently. From day one, the splendor of employment is preached to students at the Colorado School of Mines.

Stressing the importance of a job is not inherently bad. It is a perfectly valid reason to attend college. It is possible, however, that the end goal of a job has led the entire campus astray from the importance of the process. As Professor Singha states, “Why are we here? The whole idea of an academic setting is to have the freedom to learn. It can’t be just about getting good grades and then getting a job on the student end, or about cramming as much material as we can intro students’ heads from the faculty end.”

No matter how essential the job is, learning has to come first. Theoretically, Mines students are desirable because they have learned something during their time here – something more than how to take shortcuts.

It is not possible to change the system overnight, and the system is not necessarily the problem. Professor Linda Figueroa of the Environmental Engineering department states, “People are driven by different motivations, some by grades and some by learning the material.” The key is to change student’s motivations and attitudes towards grades, not get rid of grades.

Grades are designed to reflect how well a student knows the material, but it is not a perfect form of measurement. As a result, grades are not always a meaningful way of assessing learning and should not be a student’s first priority. And if a student cheats to get the good grade, then the student does not know the material well after all.

People argue that there are too many require credits at Mines, that classes are poorly designed, that the curriculum needs to be completely reworked.  There is truth in each of these statements, but they only scratch the surface of the issue.

Grades and comparisons between individuals and other engineering schools are both motivators for cheating. But as Hugh Miller a professor in the Mining department states, “We do not compete with other schools. We establish our own path, and people come here because of what students know.” Professor Miller goes on to say, “We are establishing the ethical norm for our industries and our constituencies. What is ethical, what is cheating, and we reinforce that through our curriculum.”

If the Colorado School of Mines decides to prioritize learning first and foremost, the whole campus environment will change for the better.

Faculty is by no means the source of the cheating problem. However, they still have enormous power to help fix it. Students are more temporary than faculty and have less influence on the overall dynamic of the campus environment. If faculty can dedicate themselves to help refocus student’s sights on the importance of learning, the effects will be huge. It can be as simple as at the beginning the semester when a professor is going over the syllabus. As the professor gets to the Grading Criteria section, he/she can relieve some of the pressure. The students of today define their worth by their grades, for it is all they have known. A professor can say something as simple as “All I care about is how much you learn. The grades do not matter in my class; however, they have to be included.”

Not every student will listen, but those two simple sentences can have a profound impact on those who do, as long as the professor follows through and indeed makes learning the topmost priority. It is also important for professor’s to refrain from undermining their courses or student learning requirements. Some required classes are more pertinent than others but a class is never useless. Beginning a lecture with the caveat of “I am sorry you have to learn this,” makes it difficult for students to focus.

It will be a slow process to change student’s mentality and loosen the grip of grades. But in the long run it will foster an educational environment with less stress, more learning, and more ethical behavior. Mines has the potential to not only be one of the best colleges in the country based on rigor, job acceptance, and competence. It also has the potential of having one of the most ethical, supportive, and joyful campus environments.

I am a senior about to graduate in just over a week. My time at Mines had its ups and downs, its peaks and its caves. I love this place, but there were times when I hated it, and hate is a strong word. At the end, there is nothing that would give me more pleasure than to see Mines grow to be something kinder. I do not want Mines to be easy, but I do want the students to feel hopeful and happy, supported, and morally responsible. In the end, I hope these cheating articles and the upcoming report provide a place for administration, faculty, and students to start changing Mines for the better.

This research was designed to start the conversation about what it means to cheat on the Mines campus. If you have any questions or comments please email: clevy@mymail.mines.edu.




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