Cheating on a test

Over the 2011-2012 academic year, 74 students at the University of Regina were brought before formal panels to face charges of academic dishonesty and there were 63 cases that were heard at the University of Saskatchewan. (Shutterstock / PhotoGraphyca)

A CBC study of Canadian universities shows Saskatchewan is in the middle of the pack when it comes to academic cheating.

During the 2011-2012 academic year, 74 students at the University of Regina were brought before formal panels to face charges of academic dishonesty. That same year, 63 cases were heard at the University of Saskatchewan.

That places both schools behind Ottawa's Carleton University, the school with the highest number of charges, but ahead of schools like the University of British Columbia

While the proportion of cheating students is fairly low, both Saskatchewan universities say they know about the problem, and are doing their best to combat it.

"It's extremely serious," said Patti McDougall, vice-provost of Teaching and Learning at the University of Saskatchewan. "Any act of academic misconduct we would consider to be extremely serious."

McDougall said the school sees a broad range of cases.

"On one end of the continuum, you could have a student, who, maybe in a moment of poor judgment, cuts and pastes something from the internet into a paper and doesn't do the proper citations," she said. "That could range all the way to a student who falsifies documents to enter the university, or a student who steals an assignment from the drop box."

On the hunt

Experts say it's unlikely all--or even most--academic cheaters are caught.

"Most studies find that about half of the students responding say that they've engaged in at least one form of academic dishonesty," said Susan Bens, a U of S researcher who teaches professors how to deal with student plagiarism.

"If that would hold true, certainly at our university, we would have more cases each year than would come to formal light," she said.

So, how do professors combat plagiarism? While the internet has broadened the field for cheaters, it's also given professors new tools to crack down on them. 

Professors at the University of Regina have begun to use anti-cheating software called Turn It In. The software searches the web for similar phrases and flags it for professors.

"Students now have to work harder to conceal plagiarism when it's going on," said Richard Kleer, Dean of Arts at the U of R. "They used to be lazy in the past, and we could surprise them. But now they know we're using it," he said.

Both teachers and students have become more and more sophisticated in the battle against plagiarism. For example, sites that offer custom-made essays are popping up all over the world.

"The goal is to make it so expensive for students to cheat that they'll decide just to do the work themselves," he said.

However, many professors still use internet search engines and common sense to check for copied material.

"When you're used to marking, over the years, you just become sensitive to stylistic discrepancies," said Daniel Beland, Canada Research Chair in Public Policy. "Especially when you read a paper and it seems like a paragraph is written by someone else."

Beland said some plagiarism, especially by first-year students, can be pretty blatant.

"When I find it right away, I almost feel insulted, because the student either thinks I'm really dumb or doesn't think that I will discover it," he said.

What to do

Both universities have serious penalties for cheating. Depending on the seriousness of the offense, and whether it's a repeat infraction, students can face anything from a lower grade on an assignment to expulsion from the university.

However, U of S Vice-Provost Patti McDougall says it's best to focus on prevention before cheating becomes an issue. She says the university does its best to teach students about how to properly cite sources and to not use others' work.

"We take the front-end approach to try to educate students so that there aren't those errors in judgement, so you cut out the careless misunderstanding kinds of cases."