Pressure for good grades often leads to high stress, cheating, professors say

L.A. Cicero Obenzinger

Hilton Obenzinger, an author and lecturer in the Department of English, said he is concerned that plagiarism is overemphasized and has occurred, often inadvertently, in the works of many famous authors. At left, Denise Clark Pope, a lecturer in the School of Education, also was on the panel.

Eric Roberts, professor of computer science, readily admits that there is an "oversupply" of student honor code violations in the Computer Science Department, where the temptation to cheat is as close as the nearest paper recycling bins or the "trash" folders on computer desktops. But when it comes to plagiarism, it seems no academic discipline is immune: Associate Professor Debra Satz in the Department of Philosophy discovered that students apparently had taken material from an online source when writing papers about the philosopher and ethicist John Rawls.

For Roberts, Satz and other Stanford faculty and lecturers who spoke last week during an "Everyday Ethics" forum sponsored by the Program in Ethics in Society, the relationship between stress and cheating in an academic environment is not simply a problem of student integrity. (Anonymous surveys of students self-reporting their own violations of the honor code show that the level of academic integrity has improved since 1997, when the honor code was revised to give students more responsibility in maintaining standards, said Roberts, the faculty co-chair for the Board of Judicial Affairs, in an interview after the panel.)

Instead, panelists linked cheating to the social pressure put on students to prize high grades over education and other values, including creativity and imagination.

Pressure by parents and schools to achieve top scores has created stress levels among students—beginning as early as elementary school—that are so high that some educators regard it as a health epidemic, said Denise Clark Pope, a lecturer in the School of Education and the author of Doing School: How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed Out, Materialistic and Miseducated Students. "The number one cause of visits to Vaden Health Center used to be relationships, but now is stress and anxiety," she said.

When Pope shadowed five students at an area high school for a year in order to research the sources of high-achieving students' intellectual engagement, she found instead that students spent most of their time "finagling the system" in pursuit of grades. "In every class where a test was administered, there was cheating," Pope said. Students feel as if their life success depends on getting the top SAT scores and the highest grades, she added. The students "know [cheating] is wrong; they tell me they wish they didn't do it," she said. "But they feel like the most important thing they do is get the grades, by hook or by crook."

Although some students have told Roberts that cheating was part of the culture in their high schools, the motive for cheating is high in the intensely competitive computer science field, he said. Students are drawn to the discipline because of the potential for high income, and unlike in other more subjective fields, "the computer is completely unforgiving as an arbiter of correctness."

Roberts has initiated measures designed to ease the pressure, including using a "more subtle" grading system than standard letter grades and issuing a number of discretionary "late days" at the beginning of a quarter so that students don't have to ask for extensions. His department also has "armies" of helpers available to students, he said. "I encourage people to work together and to look for help—where it's legitimate."

Roberts said he makes a distinction between inadvertent plagiarism and deliberate academic theft. "I'm not concerned with someone who doesn't understand that they are doing something wrong. Anything that can be considered a teachable moment—in the sense that we are trying to explain what academic integrity is—ought to be a teachable moment."

When students write, "mistakes are made," said Hilton Obenzinger, an author and lecturer in the Department of English. In his view, students who forget a footnote shouldn't be brought up on charges. "It is true that if you are so sloppy it becomes egregious, then it can become a criminal thing," he said. But if historian Stephen Ambrose, whose books have been found to contain plagiarized passages, "can get pressured, if other historians can make a mistake, students will make a mistake," he added.

Obenzinger said he is more concerned that plagiarism is overemphasized. A whole slew of writers, including Mark Twain, have inadvertently used others' material, he pointed out. "Every scholar deals with this. The remedy is more and more training."

Besides, in writing, "you have to steal things from other people," he said. "Shakespeare got Hamlet from somewhere else. T. S. Eliot stole everything for The Waste Land, including the footnotes. If people get paranoid about plagiarism in a way that restricts creativity, we have a more serious problem—we have people who don't have imaginations."

Pope and others called for community-wide discussions about what constitutes success and the value of individual differences. As it is, the educational systems risks "popping out robots who are on treadmills, with very little time to reflect," she said.

We need ways to foster the notion that people are cheating themselves and their culture when they cheat academically, "robbing us and impoverishing us by not thinking and creating," Roberts said. "But it's a big, uphill climb."

"Students are seeing what the world is like, what the downside is of not succeeding," countered Satz. "The steeper the gradient of inequality, the harder it is to simply talk values."