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Recent Cheating Scandal at U of Flordia Highlights Organizational Justice

2012 March 28

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.

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4 Responses leave one →
  1. Shawna permalink
    March 28, 2012

    I like thinking about best practices in the classroom in general (not just about cheating) in terms of justice, especially because I do see a syllabus as a contract, which would provide a verifiable basis for just decisions to be made.

    I’d like to hear what you have to say about third type of justice, as you didn’t come back to it in your concluding thoughts.

    If it’s about the “perception” of justice, that third type makes a lot of sense for me as an instructor. Whether I’m deciding to change the syllabus, figuring out how to dock someone for excessive absences, or explaining why they have a heavier reading load than normal next week, I think my students will give a lot of leeway for what I do so long as I explain my rationale 1) clearly and 2) in advance. They seem to think anything I want to do is fair so long as I am open and “respectful” about it.

    I’m not quite sure about how this precisely relates to cheating–other than having open disclosure about particular methods of discerning cheating, which I do give to my students–but I like the potential applications of this threefold model for the classroom.

  2. March 28, 2012

    I think that the argument about procedural justice depends on what was listed in the syllabus. If the syllabus indicated that cheating will result in a specified punishment, at least part of procedural justice is satisfied. Sure, the instructor may not have explained HOW he knew that students cheated, but I don’t think this is a reasonable expectation on the students’ part. Furthermore, I think he’s offered them more than enough voice in the process, through their option to accept responsibility and face a lesser penalty.

    Frankly, I don’t give much credence to this student’s complaint, either from a justice standpoint, nor from an ethical standpoint. Rules change, both in school and in the real world, and you have to face the consequences if you break them. Complaining that last year people could ride around on their motorcycles without helmets and now they’re required and it’s totally unfair is not really going to fly when that cop issues you a ticket.

  3. March 28, 2012

    @Shawna – That actually reflects a lot of the research – interactional justice is composed of informational (“adequate information was provided”) and interpersonal (“respectfully provided”) justice, both of which can mitigate the effects of other perceived unfairness. The syllabus trick that you described is something I’ve used for some time – setting up expectations clearly and early does help a lot.

    @KC – I think the key with justice here is that it is all about perceptions; even if the syllabus was clear, if the student didn’t internalize/read it, there’s a lack of informational justice at the least, which also may have led to that comment. I absolutely agree that the student is in the wrong here, ethically. I am rather pointing out that a justice framework can explain why this student believes she was treated unfairly regardless of believing that being caught was fair. On the surface, this might seem to be a paradox.

  4. Douglas permalink
    May 10, 2012

    It’s very vague without understanding how they caught someone cheating. There could be false negatives. What is considered cheating? Were they allowed to look at references? If so, looking at a past exam can be considered as a reference. Under these pretenses, that means they could have been copying and pasting the answer into the textbox for the sake of convenience, and then write their answer in their own words and may even add more to it and then delete the copy-and-pasted text later. The hidden marker could have been left there (I mean, it’s hidden, you cannot see it) when in reality the student wrote very thing himself or herself.

    There’s too much flaws in such a system. Also, that student’s standpoint for punishing past cheaters is a quite… a dick move.

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