Monday, December 04, 2006

Cheating and virtue ethics

A new report commissioned by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority has set out various ways to tackle cheating in examinations. Many of the more headline grabbing proposals are designed to tackle the current ease of cheating using modern technology, particularly mobile phones. But the report (which can be downloaded here) also includes ideas for removing the desire to cheat. One section in particular caught my eye (p.12-13 of the report):
5.1 The Virtues Approach (Ethics)

This approach should always be the first line of defence against dishonest

5.1.1 Codes of practice:
It includes making explicit the definitions of and code of practices in operation in relation to plagiarism and other forms of cheating to students and to staff. This has been the first line of defence of both the JCQ and QCA in their dealing with institutions and individual students and staff. Statements of code of practice, while meeting legal requirements, have proved insufficient deterrent to much of the
malpractice within the student body however. The next step is developing and
cultivating an environment where cheating does not prosper and it is easier for
students to say no to peer and other pressures. Brown and Howell (2001) have
shown that institutional policy statements on cheating and plagiarism can
influence student perceptions.
5.1.2 Honour Codes:
Hinman (2000) reports that in the US academic honour codes (e.g. the Academic Integrity and Kansas State University Websites) have been shown to reduce cheating, for example serious test cheating on campuses with such a code in operation have been shown to be 25% to 50% lower than in institutions that do not have such honour codes both within the secondary and tertiary sectors. Overt codes of practice are a mark of an institution's commitment to good academic behaviour and Digital Technologies and Dishonesty in Examinations and Tests when students perceive their tutors or teachers to be so committed, levels of malpractice decrease
(Underwood & Szabo, 2004)

No surprises, then: make clear that cheating is a bad thing and that it is dealt with seriously. If that doesn't work (and it probably won't) then try to get people not to want to cheat. My main question is: why label this a 'virtues' approach? I know that virtue ethics is one of the most popular ethical frameworks right now, but I was interested to see it crop up even here where you might expect the more 'trad' appeals to rules and obligations or consequences. There is, I suppose, something here about inculcating a certain kind of disposition which rejects cheating, and something also about students moulding themselves on their teachers' attitudes, but elsewhere this seems hardly like any virtue ethics worth the name. There is even some old-fashioned consequentialism mixed in for good measure: 'developing and cultivating an environment where cheating does not prosper and it is easier for students to say no to peer and other pressures'. In other words: try to make sure cheats lose out in the end and also, importantly, make sure that it is known that they do not. (Perhaps just the latter is necessary: make people believe cheating will not be successful and they won't cheat, whether or not cheating is in fact a bad tactic...) But all in all this is thin stuff. Sensible, probably, but did we really need to commission a report to tell us this and dress it up in impressive, near-philosophical, terms?

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