Crunch time…integrity is the real test.
I was on Huffington Post College and saw that they posted this article from College Humor with some very funny (and scarily accurate) interpretations of what people say during finals. Since I started College Judicial Consultants I will not be working on a college campus during finals for the first time in 10 years, and it made me realize how much I love that time of the year. I was a big crammer, often trying to make up for a lack of studying over the previous 3 months in a week of coffee-fueled reading. As an English and Philosophy major it was really hard to cheat (few multiple choice, many essays) so this really was a matter of writing my butt off and making sure that I had a working knowledge of these philosophers whose names I didn’t know how to pronounce since I missed like 18 classes. I usually had a lot of steam for the first couple of days of finals, but occasionally I would have a final a couple of days after the one before it and those were always trouble.
Nutrition was one of those classes when I was at UCONN. I had done a really good job catching up in all the classes I cared about, but I was looking at 3 days to learn the material for this one class I thought was a total joke. After a day of looking at my then-girlfriend’s note cards I decided that it wasn’t worth doing all the work and that I was going to make a “cheat sheet” to help me though all those boring things I didn’t want to learn anyway. I remember copying down everything I needed to know, reducing it until it fit on 3 pages, and then reducing it more until it fit on one page, and then finally getting it to the point where I could get it on one page. I taped it to my leg, and then went to the final fully planning on going to the bathroom once I saw the test to get the information I couldn’t remember. I told myself I was a good student (grade-wise), this was the first time I was ever going to cheat, and the class didn’t matter to me so it wasn’t really a big deal. Right?
Wrong. Every action you take that compromises your integrity should be a big deal. There are very few things in this world that you can truly own, and the quality of your character is one of them. By taking a short-cut like the one I intended, I was saying that doing slightly better in this class I didn’t care about was more important to me than maintaining my integrity and self-respect. (This sounds like I’m saying it would have been worth it if I cared about, or needed, the class, but even then I believed that if I needed to cheat to get something I cared about then I was essentially admitting I couldn’t get it without cheating. I was not ready to admit that to myself.) I also knew a LOT of people who were cheating in one way or another during finals week, whether it was getting “help” on a paper, submitting work that wasn’t theirs, or cheating during an exam. I assumed that college professors, like retail stores, expected a certain amount of cheating, and that I wasn’t really doing anything terribly wrong. (Long confession, short: by the time I reduced all the information to a single page I had committed it to memory, and I didn’t use my cheat sheet. I probably would have, but since I didn’t need to I emerged from college cheat-free.)
When I started working in higher ed, and especially in judicial affairs, I realized that I did have some things correctly. A lot of student use crunch time and the amount of work that comes with it as an excuse to take short-cuts and professors do expect a certain amount of cheating. What I had wrong (actually, one of the things I had most wrong) was what those expectations and realities meant. Professors do expect a certain amount of cheating, especially during crunch time, so they are much more diligent during that time about catching people. When I was chief judicial officer at MIT, this meant that my busiest time was during finals and the week after finals where literally 80% of my complaints for the semester would come in. While most of these reports were about academic misconduct issues, there was also a large increase in the number of personal misconduct complaints due to students being over-stressed or celebrating too hard. Humanities faculty would do Google searches of sentences in submitted papers, science and engineering faculty would compare tests of people who sat in the same area, and computer science faculty would run code plagiarism software on everyone. Faculty also know about most if not all of the “papers for hire” sites and would check the source material to make sure that they were all available for the student, or they knew that the papers were not their work.
The point is, faculty work a LOT harder to catch people who are trying to cheat. I’m sure part of that is due to ego (what I like to call the “how dare you?!?” factor) but a lot of it is to protect those students who do not cheat. Even though many students will take shortcuts, most do not. That means that for every young Dave trying to make a cheat sheet, there are dozens of then-girlfriends in study groups, staying up late, reviewing the material until they know it cold, and working really hard to apply that earned knowledge on an exam. By catching the cheaters, faculty are supporting those people by making sure people get the grades they deserve. By punishing people who cheat they are, in effect, rewarding those who do not.
That being said, sometimes life gets in the way of students with the best of intentions. People break up during crunch week. The job you applied to that you thought you had falls through. Your parents get divorced. You get sick. Things happen. While we exist to help you get through it if you do get caught committing academic misconduct, I also want you to know that if things fall apart during this time you do have options. None of these may work, but students are often surprised at how reasonable the staff and faculty are around them. If your life falls apart and you are overwhelmed to the point that taking short cuts seems reasonable, try one or more of the following:
1. As soon as you feel overwhelmed contact your professor. All students get stressed, but if something really unusual, unexpected, and unavoidable happens let them know! They may give you an extra day or two, offer you the opportunity to move your final, give you alternative assignments, or even just remember that you called them when computing your final grade so they shift the weight of various things. Faculty have a lot of autonomy within their classroom and almost all of them care deeply about their students so give them a shot. The chance of this working is a lot higher if you contact them sooner than the night before the final, so try to reach out as soon as that bomb falls.
2. Use the academic support resources offered by the administration and departments! Almost every school has tutoring centers, writing support, academic councilors, departmental tutors, and other resources to help you edit a paper, understand part of the material that has eluded you, and understand the right way to study that particular subject.
3. Get some sleep. I’ll find and link to articles later, but if you are having trouble with a subject nothing will hurt you worse than being too tired to recall what you do know. At some point you hit the point of diminishing returns where the damage of staying up well outweighs the amount of new information you will learn. Also, when you’re tired you are less rational and any emotions you feel are therefore magnified. This helps make bad ideas look like good ones.
4. Take the crappy grade. Here’s a fact: after I got into law school there has not been a single person who cared about my college GPA. While good grades may help you get the interview you’re looking for or get into the medical school of your dreams, that one class will not. If you already have good grades, a single blip will not hurt you. If your grades are bad, a single good grade won’t help you. Take the hit and use the time and mental energy you would have used to cheat (and worry about it) to ace the other classes and move on. A lot of colleges allow you to take a course you fail again and have the second grade replace the failure, so this may not even hurt you at all.
5. Know that the consequence of getting caught is much worse than the bad grade. If you are an undergraduate student and you get caught cheating or plagiarizing, you should expect the professor that catches you to report it. This will, at a minimum, create a disciplinary file for you which counts as an academic record and, therefore, is discoverable to anyone who has your permission that asks for it. More likely you will have to deal with your judicial process and, if found responsible, will be placed on probation or suspended for a period of time. If you are a graduate student the same remains true, but you also have hurt your reputation in the field which could end your career. Compare that to getting a D, and it’s a no-brainer.
I mentioned the time I was going to cheat to emphasize that anyone can get themselves into a situation where that kind of short cut makes sense. It helps to know that most people feel overwhelmed at some point in college, that there are resources to help you, and that even if the worst happens and you fail that it isn’t that bad in the long run. That being said, if you do decide to cheat and you have tried some of the things I mention above, it will be a lot easier for us to help you with your defense. Good luck, and remember that winter break is just around the corner and that there is always a chance to redeem yourself next semester.