During the 2015-2016 academic year, over 40 percent of reported incidences of academic dishonesty involved international students.
That number — 43.7 percent, to be specific — seems disproportionately high, considering that Miami’s international population made up just 11.4 percent of its total student body in fall 2015, according to the Office of Institutional Research’s Fact Book for 2015-16.
But the numbers aren’t as they seem, said Brenda Quaye, Miami’s coordinator for academic integrity.
First, Quaye said, it’s important to understand what exactly a reported incidence of dishonesty means — that is, a case of suspected academic dishonesty reported by a faculty member to his or her department chair and brought to a hearing. These numbers don’t only represent cases in which the hearing found the student responsible for committing academic dishonesty, either — in fact, 104 of the 460 cases reported last academic year found students not guilty.
The term “academic dishonesty” can refer to a variety of circumstances, too — most commonly cheating (as on a test or quiz), plagiarism or “unauthorized collaboration” with other students on an assignment. According to the official incidents report for 2015-16, nearly half of the reported cases last year involved “students copying/using others’ work, giving work to others and/or collaborating in an unauthorized manner.”
Quaye noted that the 460 cases reported last year are likely “a drop in the bucket” compared to the actual number of incidents that occurred.
“With, in the 2015 2016 academic year, 43.7 of our cases coming from international students, that does not mean that international students are committing dishonesty at that high a rate. It means they’re being reported at that high a rate,” Quaye said. “I don’t think they’re cheating any more than our domestic students. I think they’re getting caught more and being referred more than our domestic students.”
Nevertheless, Quaye said, the outsize proportion of international student incidences is “concerning.” Her office has been analyzing the data to determine patterns in the types of cases reported, whether international students regularly commit more of a certain type of dishonesty as opposed to domestic students, and what classes they occur in.
“The types of academic dishonesty we’re seeing with international students aren’t necessarily different than the types of dishonesty we’re seeing with domestic students, but for some cases, they’re easier to detect,” Quaye said, citing plagiarism as an example.
Domestic students, whose native language is English, naturally write in a style that’s similar to other English-language speakers. That makes plagiarism less noticeable.
Carol Olausen, the director of Miami’s American Culture and English (ACE) Program, agreed.
“The domestic students have spent 18, 20 years gaming the system. If the studies are true and 80 to 90 percent of high school students have cheated or do cheat regularly and don’t get caught, they know how to do this,” Olausen said. “You know the shortcuts to get to your house, but somebody new to your neighborhood is not going to know that. You just know how to work the system you’re in because you’re used to the system.”
Olausen added that differences between international students’ oral and written English can serve as a red flag.
“If you have a student in your class who speaks in a halting manner and suddenly turns in a beautiful, perfectly written paper, you may not think about that if it was from a domestic student,” Olausen said. “But from an international student, whose communication in class suggests otherwise, that may immediately flag it.”
Plus, Olausen pointed out, international students’ English vocabulary is generally smaller than that of a domestic student, making phrasing thoughts originally more difficult.
“Many students will use outside resources, fearful that they will look bad to their professor if their words aren’t good. They don’t want to look bad on paper to their professor,” Olausen. “Your vocabulary [as a domestic student] is double what that of an international student’s vocabulary would be, so if you’re supposed to paraphrase something, you’re going to be a lot more successful just because you speak the language and have more vocabulary than somebody who looks at that same text and says, ‘I don’t have better words than those.’”
The American educational system, Quaye and Olausen said, often comes with a learning curve.
“An academic integrity policy is completely based on our culture. It’s not universal,” Olausen said. “What we do doesn’t exist in other countries, and how we interpret it is completely based on our own culture. Coming into a new place and having to catch up really quickly on something, literally, that’s so foreign is definitely a challenge.”
And sometimes, the instruction provided to international students on academic integrity simply isn’t enough.
“Yes, all international students get sort of a crash course in academic integrity during orientation, but that’s 30 minutes at the beginning of the semester and then their professor may or may not review it,” Olausen said. “They’re supposed to somehow have automatically made this cultural shift when they’ve spent 18, 20 years in another culture functioning completely differently.”
And so, sometimes, international students don’t realize when they’re cheating. Olausen, who on a regular basis works with students in her program suspected of having cheated, said her pupils are often as confused about the rules as they are contrite about breaking them.
“They were trying to follow the letter of the law, but it’s a law that was just presented to them two months ago,” Olausen said.
Peer pressure, too, may contribute to the higher rate of incidences of academic dishonesty among international students.
“Certainly for some of our students, that external pressure to do as well as their domestic peers — or as well as they think their domestic peers are doing — to be able to do well for their communities back home, might come into play,” Quaye said.
In addition, the cultural differences between China, where the majority of Miami’s international population hails from, and the United States are drastic. China’s collectivist society, Quaye said, places more of an emphasis on helping others than American individualism.
Particularly, the Chinese subscribe to a social dynamic called guanxi, which emphasizes strength of personal relationships and community over individual consequences.
“We may very well have students who know that they’re not supposed to give work to someone else, yet their friend is asking for that, and it’s more important that they don’t harm their relationship with their friend than following our rules,” Quaye said. “So, they’ll give the work to their friend, knowing that they probably shouldn’t be doing this, because maintaining those relationships is critically important within their culture.”
Olausen likened Chinese guanxi to the relationships found in Greek life in American universities.
“If you were in a fraternity or sorority, would you say no to one of your sisters or brothers if they asked you for help on something?” Olausen asked. “Or are [you] kind of responsible to the group and you, therefore, help the people in your group?”
Failure to follow the principles of guanxi could lead to ostracism back in China and, because of the pervasiveness of the nation’s social and business networks, could result in the loss of a potential job.
“[Chinese culture] is much more product-oriented than process-oriented,” Olausen said.
While an American student may take the SAT or ACT three or more times, a Chinese student only has one chance each year to take their college entrance exam — a nine-hour assessment that takes place over two days and consists largely of rote memorization. After passing this exam, students take the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language); many American universities require a specific TOEFL score for full matriculation status.
So international students are used to tests. But when they arrive Stateside for school, Olausen said, they’re surprised by what they see.
“They arrive at the university that says, ‘No, we want to see that you can process information. We’re not as concerned about your test score,’” Olausen said. “They come here and we’re all about the process, drafting your papers and working in groups, and that’s a complete shift from how they think about being students.”
Quaye said that the increase in international students as a proportion of Miami’s total student body also figures into the increased incidences. In the case of academic dishonesty, there’s strength in numbers.
Four or five years ago, she said, a given class may have had only one international student enrolled. Now, that student may be accompanied by a handful of international peers — and, just as domestic students do, international students form groups.
“Four or five of those students might form a group to study together, to work together, to ask each other questions, to sort of help each other through,” Quaye said. “And some of those group relationships may turn into incidents where academic dishonesty occurs that were different than say, four or five years ago when there was just one [international student in the class].That person wasn’t sharing work with anybody because there wasn’t anybody else to share work with.”
Quaye also named increased reporting of suspected dishonesty by faculty and the role of technology (especially services like Turnitin and exam proctoring software) in detecting dishonesty as factors in the increase.
Quaye said she, Olausen and others have exploring a number of ways to combat the issue of academic dishonesty among international students. Particularly, Miami faculty and staff working with international students hope to dismantle the learning curve that comes with academic life in America. While presentations on academic integrity have been a mainstay at international student orientation sessions, students are now asked to review this information periodically — at a mid-semester retreat for international students, for example, or as a module in EDL 151, the international-student equivalent of UNV 101. Olausen says it’s critical that students apply that knowledge, too, whether through role-playing an academic dishonesty hearing or working through a case study to determine whether a given situation constitutes cheating.
All of this, Quaye says, is meant to cement the definition of academic integrity and clear up confusion. But ultimately, she, Olausen and faculty members can only do so much.
“The onus is ultimately always on the student of whether or not to commit dishonesty,” Quaye said. “We need to make sure that those messages are consistent and continual throughout a student’s career so that it’s not out of sight, out of mind.”