A few weeks ago, a new cheating scandal erupted at the University of Florida as 97 students in a 250-person course (39%) in Computer Science & Engineering were caught cheating on an online exam. Students were given the option to come clean before the presentation of evidence, in which case they faced reduced penalties. One student complained because she cheated in a way that students in the past had cheated, but she was caught while they were not.
The method of cheating detection, according to the course instructor, was perfect. Hidden markers were included from old exams so that any copy/pasting would result in those hidden markers being included in the student’s exam. These markers could not appear any way other than by copy/pasting. Thus, there may have been more cheaters than were detected, but there were definitely at least this many.
What caught my eye in this story was a comment by a student found by the reporter:
Julie Rothe, an 18-year-old finance and information systems freshman, said she plans to accept responsibility. But she will challenge the penalty, she said, because students cheated in years past.
“I’m really angry at the fact that students got away with this in earlier semesters,” she said. “We are taking the hit, and I believe that is unfair.”
According to a commenter, the online format was only adopted last semester, so this student’s premise is probably false anyway. But it still offers an intriguing anecdote in which to explore how people perceive “fairness” in decision-making.
In I/O Psychology, we talk about fairness in terms of organizational justice theory. This theory poses three types of justice:
- Distributive justice: rewards/punishments are distributed fairly
- Procedural justice: the process by which rewards/punishments are distributed is fair
- Interactional justice: adequate information about reward/punishment distribution is provided respectfully
As instructors, we think primarily about distributive justice. In this case, the students were caught cheating and they should be punished accordingly – end of story. To an academic, cheating is a break of the most sacred trust between students and faculty: that student only represent their own work as their own. Violation of this trust should result in substantial penalties, up to and including expulsion, because the transgression is so extreme.
But to the student interviewed, this is not the primary concern. Instead, she is concerned with how the decision was made in the past. Although her facts may not be correct, we can summarize her thinking with, “In the past, students weren’t penalized for doing what I did. Therefore, this is unfair.” This is a judgment about procedural justice. Although she accepts responsibility for being caught, she believes that because cheater detection in the past was not like this, she should not be penalized severely.
Which is more valid? Ultimately, the punishment itself is what should be judged as fair or unfair, so the student’s position is not tenable. But we can still appreciate the “logic” of her position. It highlights that in organizational settings, it is perceptions of fairness that ultimately affect employee behavior and attitudes more so than it is the actual fairness of decisions.