University Cheating – is it an ethical delima? A surprising study links cheating and grades

March 18, 2010

Each day I receive (on-line) the Chronicle of Higher Education.  I skim what I see looking for interesting information that might be useful in my frequent presentations of university audiences.  As a business ethics speaker, as you can imagine I am often asked to speak to business majors on the ethical side of business choices, but a larger ethical question looms that affect all students.   So here’s the story…

Jeff Young wrote – Cheaters Never Win, at Least in Physics, a Professor Finds

A professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology devised a clever way to detect student cheating on homework in his introductory physics course—and found about 50 percent more cheating than students reported in anonymous surveys. And he discovered that frequent cheaters ended up bombing their exams.

The professor, David E. Pritchard, led a research team that analyzed student performance in an online homework system called MasteringPhysics.com during four different semesters. The researchers were able to measure the time spent on each question and look for suspicious work patterns. If a student took less than a minute each answering several complex questions and got them all right, for instance, the system flagged that as likely cheating. “Since one minute is insufficient time to read the problem and enter the several answers typically required, we infer that the quick-solver group is copying the answer from somewhere,” said the researchers in a paper due out today in the free online journal Physical Review Special Topics–Physics Education Research.

The interesting part of this story for most is how the study correlated the consequence between cheating students and their test grades.  Interesting stuff, but perhaps no great surprise.  If you don’t study and don’t do your homework, how could you assume that anyone would do great on tests?

From my perspective the study, while interesting, revealed attitudes that showed ethical deficiencies.  When there is an ethics lapse, review will generally reveal three components – NEED, OPPORTUNITY and RATIONALIZATION.  So lets look at other parts of Mr. Young’s article and see what we can find.

Researchers found that the culprits typically copied answers from friends, by logging onto a friend’s account on the system to copy work or by getting answers via e-mail or instant message.

OPPORTUNITY – how the students cheated showed that it was not sophisticated.  Rather, the likelihood that a student will cheat is related to the ease in which one might do so.  In other words (less academically put)…if OPPORTUNITY is present, students (under pressure) will choose to cheat.

More students cheated later in the semester than in the beginning, and many students surveyed said that time pressures led them to copy a friend’s work.

Interesting … PRESSURE combined with opportunity was cited as a prime reason that students resorted to cheating.  In fact the patter is similar to those who commit white collar crime.  The fraudster is not an inherently bad person, rather, they succumb to pressure by taking OPPORTUNITY  to relieve the pressure.  In fact, the PRESSURE might be considered the NEED portion of the equation.  One might assume that if there was a reduced homework requirement (less pressure) then there would be a greater likelihood that cheating would be reduced.  Just a theory…

Either one cares less if they cheat, lie or steal OR through personal RATIONALIZATION they convert their unethical behavior into something that intellectually and/or emotionally they can deal with.  Here’s what the article says…

“If you look at the self-reported data, over half the kids think receiving unfair help is either not a big deal or trivial,” Mr. Pritchard said in an interview. Among other reasons students gave for cheating: “I knew this pretty well from my high-school physics course so it was only review,” and “not motivated to learn physics because I don’t enjoy it and it’s not needed for my major.”

Mr. Pritchard said that many professors turn a blind eye when students cheat on homework. “A lot of people are willing to forgive copying because they think those students are weaker— that they work as hard but just aren’t as able to get them,” he said. But he said their research showed that cheaters were most often those who waited until the last minute to start the work and that they copy answers before even trying the problems.

IT’S A THREE LEGGED STOOL:

If you wish to reduce fraud, remove one of the legs – then it can’t stand.  The same is true when it comes to cheating in school.  Whether it was part of his model, in effect the professor involved removed one of the legs – HE CHANGED THE TEACHING MODEL.

The professor said he did find a way to greatly reduce cheating on homework in his class. He switched to a “studio” model of teaching, in which students sit in small groups working through tutorials on computers while professors and teaching assistants roam the room answering questions, rather than a traditional lecture. With lectures, he detected cheating on about 11 percent of homework problems, but now he detects copying on only about 3 percent of them.

Great article Mr. Young.  And for those Universities who grapple with the issues of ethics and cheating…I can see this research now becoming part of my presentation.  Somehow I think the students will get this…

YOUR COMMENTS WELCOME!

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Business Ethics Roundup – Week ending January 24, 2010 – Comments by Business Ethics Speaker Chuck Gallagher

January 24, 2010

This is a weekly round up of some of the best business ethics articles, reports and blogs that I’ve seen.  Feel free to click on the links provided, take a look and offer comments here.  The discussion that follows is useful to those who routinely come here for business ethics news and reports.

Business Schools put Ethics high on MBA agendas

This article plays an interesting theme that I am focusing in on as a business ethics speaker and blogger.  What role does the business school take when it comes to business ethics education?  Is business ethics a topic or course description or are ethics larger and part of a comprehensive education that is woven into the fabric of business disciplines taught in both graduate and undergraduate education?  The article is an interesting read.  My question, however, focuses on why just advanced degrees.  It seems to me to assume that business leaders must have advanced degrees in order to become leaders.  I’m not sure I agree with that, but take a look and feel free to offer comments.

Should business ethics be more than a course offered to business students?

Another link to a business ethics university related posting can be seen here.

Caribbean bookings up…

Now one might wonder what tourism bookings information might have to do with a business ethics blog?  Consider Haiti.  Many have criticized cruise ship companies when they continue to offer vacation bookings to Haiti and their neighbor – the Dominican Republic.  Chris MacDonald, a business ethics professor at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, said travellers to either nation on the island of Hispaniola should not be deterred from their plans — unless logistics make scheduled trips impossible — because these struggling nations need tourism dollars.  Perhaps the luxury and opulence that folks think about when it comes to the cruise industry is, in fact, a positive ethical behavior when it comes to pumping money into the area and providing sustenance for folks who need an economic foundation.

What do you think?

Finders Fee or a Bribe?  A Case Study in Blogger Ethics:

It is incredible what innovations the internet has created.  One is the blog.  It wasn’t that long ago that I didn’t have a clue what a blog was, but less the power it wielded.  Of course, as a business ethics blogger and speaker, I am aware of the simple, yet powerful, use of the pen and open publishing that blogging provides.  This article is cool, in that, it expands the discussion of blogging and ‘financial affiliations’ in the open world of the internet.

Here’s a quote: On Jan. 14, Katherine Rothman, CEO of KMR Communications, sent a mass email to bloggers and other editors who cover beauty, fashion, health and fitness. “I would like to make an offer to you that could be mutually beneficial in the event that this is of interest,” Rothman wrote. Writers, she continued, often find themselves covering “smaller or emerging companies” that lack PR representation. “My offer is this: if you recommend a prospective client to our firm and they sign a contract with us, I would in turn provide you with a generous finder’s fee.”

The discussion is interesting and this is worth a read!

Your comments, of course, are welcome.

CLOSING COMMENTS – Thanks for being a reader of the business ethics blog.  If you run across stories of either business ethics at work (doing well) or business ethics run amuck…feel free to give me a shout.  You can reach me outside of this blog at chuck@chuckgallagher.com


What Theory of Business Ethics do you follow? University Business Ethics Speaker Chuck Gallagher comments!

January 23, 2010

While standing in line for a dinner/reception at a well know Canadian University (I was there as their keynote speaker for a business ethics symposium), the Dean of the Business School asked me – “What theory of business ethics do you follow?”  Most of the time I’m fully prepared to answer questions posed about ‘ethics’, but in this case – that question caught me off guard.

I wanted to be respectful with my answer while thinking to myself – “the more academic we make ‘business ethics’ the less effective it will be for students to learn and apply.”  My response – “I follow the theory of business ethics that keeps one out of federal prison.”

The look I received in response was – priceless.  “I see,” he responded and from there the discussion seemed to change direction.

The next day it all made sense – not only to the Business School Dean, but the students in attendance – as I walked in dressed in an orange jump suit and handcuffs.  (you can see some of my presentation here).  As I explained I took 23 steps from the curb into federal prison, it became clear that every choice does have a consequence.  And, as I explain, the choices you make today create the consequences you experience tomorrow and into the future.

But…I was still plagued with the answer to the question…”What theory of Business Ethics do you follow?”

BUSINESS ETHICS THEORIES:

The other day, I ran across an excellent article that outlined different theories of business ethics in “the star online” – the full article written by John Zinkin is here.  The following is a reprint of excerpts from the various theories of business ethics he espouses.  Thanks and credit to Mr. Zinkin for his work.

Machiavellian ethics

These are pragmatic, weighing probable consequences and the likelihood of achieving given outcomes, often regardless of how the ends have been achieved. People practising this type of ethics will argue that the ends justify the means.

The merit of this system is that at least any decision being taken can be assessed in terms of whether it will achieve the desired ends; and if it fails this basic test, then it should not be taken.

However, there are two problems with this approach. First, it does not recognise that organisations need codes of conduct and rules to help people to make predictable and consistent decisions.

Second, it can lead to a failure of “Tone at the Top” with people encouraged to “do whatever it takes” – the kind of thinking that contributed to the recent failures of governance in Wall Street that have hurt us all so badly.

Utilitarian Ethics

These are a more moral extension of Machiavellian ethics, where the outcomes are weighed up by calculating how to “achieve the greatest good for the greatest number” for both the company and its customers. Principles are important only as rules of thumb.

The problem with this type of approach is that it encourages the tyranny of the majority and can lead to ignoring the needs of minorities and so be used to justify persecuting minority shareholders, which is poor governance.

Kantian rules-based ethics

Rules-based ethics (associated with the German philosopher Immanuel Kant) go one step further in that they also consider the effect actions have on the rules of the organisation and whether they adhere to given principles.

This approach tends to be bureaucratic and perhaps overly legalistic, sometimes with a rigid adherence to the rules without due regard for particular circumstances that may justify exceptions.

Of course, the problem is that if there are too many exceptions or waivers, the rules themselves and the system they represent are discredited; outcomes become unpredictable; and corruption and free riding are encouraged.

Rousseau’s social contract ethics

Social contract ethics recognise the need for mutuality and reciprocity if companies are to flourish: both within the organisation itself, where “Do unto others as you would be done by” is as good a rule as any for behaviour, and between the company and the community it serves.

They also recognise that no company is an island and it must therefore behave responsibly towards the community, minimising the external costs the company creates, lest it create a “tragedy of the commons” with its associated risk of systemic failure.

The problem with this type of approach is when it leads to the kind of loyalist, tribal thinking within a profession so that bad practices are covered up and justified in the name of loyalty to the group (a favourite topic of films with rogue cops who are protected from Internal Affairs for example).

Personalistic ethics

Personalistic ethics reflect what an individual feels about the decisions being taken. As such they often share the following three characteristics:

First, they are driven by the individual’s personal sense of virtue and how the decision will reflect on the person’s character and sense of self-worth;

Second, they may be based on empathy where the decision maker puts himself/herself in the shoes of the other person when deciding what to do;

Third, they may be based on intuition driven by conscience – asking the question “will I be able to sleep at nights” when making a decision.

Obviously it is important that board members must be personally comfortable with the decisions they are involved with.

The problem is that often people who decide on Personalistic ethical grounds become impatient with other people calculating what to do using either a rules-based or utilitarian approach, and may be uncomfortable with Machiavellian thinking.

SO – WHAT THEORY OF BUSINESS ETHICS DO YOU FOLLOW?  Having spent time in federal prison for unethical choices…I stand by my response to that question.  I follow the theory of ethics and choices that keep you out of prison.

COMMENTS WELCOME!


University Ethics Presentations – A Report from the University of Florida on Business Ethics Speaker Chuck Gallagher

January 14, 2010

I must admit, as a speaking professional, I enjoy presentations to University students.  First, they are open to exploring ideas and generally eager to explore what is put before them.  Their questions are wide open and that makes the presentation fun.  But, more important, from my perspective, if a life can be changed early in a young career, then I will have paid it forward.  That inspires me!

I was privileged to speak to business students at the University of Florida and no long there after a young student wrote the following in the Greenback University blog.  His article (printed below) is a reflection of the presentation I made the reaction from the perspective of a student participant.

“I learned a lot of things in prison,” said motivation speaker Chuck Gallagher as he crossed the stage. “I found out what it meant to be Chuck Gallagher.”

Gallagher’s words to UF students rang true as he discussed the turbulence of his life in the past ten years.

Formerly a successful CPA and instructor, Gallagher was sentenced to federal prison for embezzling over $254,000 in a Ponzi scheme that later he reflected was a life-changing experience.

How might he be this week’s success profile? Simple. Gallagher’s story reflects a momentous ability to turn the tables after a horrific downfall.

On October 2, 1995, Gallagher took what he calls his “twenty-three steps” to federal prison, losing his CPA license, his relationship with his wife, and his colleagues’ trust.

“I’d absolutely considered myself an ethical person and an honest person at the time,” Gallagher said. “In the mind of a fraudster, I was always going to be able to pay it back.”

Gallagher’s life before his arrest for embezzlement can be said to be a success, built on the motivation to become educated and rise from the lower class.

“My dad died when I was two. My mother didn’t have a high school education,” Gallagher said, explaining his mother’s persistent pressure on him: “She would always say, ‘you can be somebody. Do not be concerned about your circumstances.’”

He took that lesson to heart, becoming the youngest tax partner in a CPA firm at age twenty-six.

One day while Gallagher was teaching a tax course in Boise, he noticed a note on his door from his partner asking him to call the office. During the break in between lectures, he called back. One of the clients had had an emergency. “I need the money,” his partner said.

Gallagher was quiet on stage, expressing the silent hysteria he felt in that moment almost twenty years ago.

“God and I knew the truth,” he said. “I had stolen the money.”

For months following the revealing of his Ponzi scheme, Gallagher considered suicide. “I picked up the telephone and started calling people.” Gallagher received six answering machines before reaching someone, whose immortal words lived on in Gallagher’s conscience: “You have made a terrible mistake, but you are not a mistake. The choices you make today will define your wife and children.”

Gallagher knew then that suicide would not be an option. “I had to admit to everyone, to my wife and children, that I was a liar and a thief.”

Gallagher stressed how simple it was for him to lose sight of ethics. “Everything I had created was an illusion,” he said. “I didn’t recognize it until it was too late.”

Prison is often said to turn a person’s life perspective around, and Gallagher was no exception. “After five years of a normal life, I was sent to an eight by eight holding cell made of cinder block with a toilet and a bench.”

Gallagher went on to explain his experiences in prison and his interactions and friendships with the other inmates. “I was paid twelve cents an hour. I would get up at 6:00 and clean toilets and urinals,” he explained.

When Gallagher was released after sixteen months, he had to start from the bare beginnings. “I worked for a company before prison. They hired me as a sales associate. I went door to door selling cemetery spots.”

Gallagher claims he was only able to move up because of his ability to outperform everyone else. “When you perform, you will get other people’s attention. When you get out of school, your degree will help you get that first job, but after that, it doesn’t matter. It’s all about performance.”

Gallagher is now the senior sales executive for the company, and lectures across the US not only on business ethics but on sales and marketing as well. He lives by the moral guidelines instilled in him from his experience as a white collar convict. “I learned that every choice has a consequence. If you are 100% truthful, you’ve got nothing to lose, but if you break someone’s trust either in business or in a relationship, that relationship will not survive.”

I appreciate the report, but more importantly I am thankful for the opportunity I have to share with students in both the US and Canada.  It’s funny, but in a presentation at another University a professor asked me, “What theory of ‘ethics’ do you follow?”  I pondered the question for a moment and then replied.  “I follow the theory of ethical choices that keeps you out of prison.”  Somehow that response seemed to stiffle the professor, but was incredibly well received by the students.  I guess when you get down to it, my job is to influence the students!

Here’s the link to the Greenback University blog.

YOUR COMMENTS ARE WELCOME!


University of Louisville Education Dean – Robert Felner – pleads Guilty to Financial Fraud

January 8, 2010

Robert Felner, hailed as a grant rainmaker, found himself drowning in a sea of his own doing.  Last week, through his Attorney, Robert Felner pled guilty in a case in which he and a colleague are accused of defrauding University of Louisville and another university out of $2.3 million.

Hailed at the outset by University administrators as a change agent, citing him as the driving force behind a spike in grant money at the school. School officials now know that Felner is, not only a thief, but was directly responsible for only a fraction of that windfall.

A federal grand jury in Louisville indicted Felner and his co-defendant, Thomas Schroeder of Port Byron, Ill., in October 2008, charging Felner with 10 counts of mail fraud, conspiracy to commit money laundering and income tax evasion. Schroeder was charged with conspiracy to commit money laundering, mail fraud and conspiracy to defraud the Internal Revenue Service.

Government prosecutors allege that over a seven-year period the men used the Illinois-based National Center for Public Education and Prevention Inc. they created to defraud University of Louisville and the University of Rhode Island, where Felner was involved in another research center he helped create.

The government alleges the men used the Illinois center, which lists Schroeder as president, to divert funds owed to the two universities, siphoning $2.3 million.

The money was deposited in several bank accounts, including one that Felner told federal officials he set up in Louisville in the Illinois center’s name.

UNFORTUNATE FALLOUT

While Colleges and Universities across the nation are working to make sure that “ethics” becomes a fundamental core part of a business education, it seems that on every turn headlines are showing the frailties of the human condition and that even well educated folks can succumb to temptation and do unethical things.  Unfortunately, this will be yet another example of ethics gone awry.

Every presentation I make to university students, from the University of Florida to University of South Dakota, to Long Island University to Baylor, I begin with the following statement:  EVERY CHOICE HAS A CONSEQUENCE.

Felner and Schroeder are now living the consequences of their choices.  If there is a bright spot, hopefully the students at these universities will gain a better perspective on the effect of choices and consequences.  Perhaps, just perhaps, the students, being exposed to the media attention, will connect the dots and take the ethical high road when exposed to temptation.

YOUR COMMENTS ARE WELCOME