Monday, September 17, 2012

Learning from Cheating

To have a cheating scandal erupt at the most prestigious university in America just after the publication of your new book on cheating would be a blessing any writer would welcome--but to have it happen six months before the scheduled publication date is more painful than you can imagine.  I don't want to wade too deeply in the fray of the arguments about Harvard's cheating problem until I have had the opportunity to present the results of my research more fully, in book form, but I also am having a very hard time remaining silent, given that I have spent the last year of my life dedicated to researching, reflecting upon, and writing about cheating in higher education.

So, briefly.  The basic argument I make in my book (forthcoming in spring 2013 from--oh, irony--Harvard University Press) is that we can learn from academic dishonesty how to build better learning environments.  The best prevention against cheating is good teaching--and, it turns out, the features of a learning environment that induce cheating also happen to be the major ones that reduce learning, especially deep learning and long-term retention.  A teacher friend who heard me say this reacted with indignation: So now you're going to blame the teachers for kids cheating?

Yes and no.  No matter how good a teacher you are, some students are still going to cheat.  Bad apples, rotten eggs, dishonest students--they exist, and we are all bound to get some of them. One student cheating in a course may just be one dishonest student who happens to be in your class that semester. But I would argue that if you scratch a major cheating scandal, like the one at Harvard, you are likely to uncover problems in the teaching and learning environment.  Those problems may come from the design of the course, the teaching methods, the nature of the assignments--but they also may come from a curriculum which forces students to take classes which they don't want, or from larger campus cultural forces, such as the competitive nature of the environment.

The argument I am making is not so much that poor teaching causes cheating as it is that we can learn from cheating how to teach more effectively.  If we look carefully at the reasons why students cheat--which consists of most of Part I of my book--what we find are that they are frequently cheating as a response to a learning environment in which they feel unmotivated, incapable of succeeding, or uncertain about their assignments.  So the research on why students cheat can focus our attention on some key features of the learning environments we build--i.e., our courses and classrooms--and can help us understand how to make them more effective learning experiences for our students.  In some cases, yes, my argument will implicate teachers who are not attentive enough to these issues.  In other cases, it might help expose problematic curricular situations over which teachers have little control, and which need to be re-considered at the administrative level.

To take our most pressing example, consider the case of the cheating students at Harvard.  The students were given a take-home exam and told they could use their books and the internet, but could not talk to other students.  So, in other words, it was pretty much open-anything except for your fellow students.  You could get help from a guy in India posting to his blog, but you couldn't talk about the exam with the person next door to you.  Does this not strike anyone else as an extremely strange way to set up boundaries around an assignment?  In what other situations in their professional careers might students encounter such a strange set of instructions?  What purpose do they serve?

My argument suggests that we need to think harder about a take-home exam like this one. We have to build our curricula, our courses, and our assignments in order to motivate students to learn, and give them all of the tools and opportunities they need to succeed.  To take a hypothetical example from my own discipline, if you put an unwilling student into a literature survey course, lecture at him three times a week, and then ask him to write an essay on William Wordsworth's most famous poem--well, I think you are going to get exactly what you deserve in response, and very little of it will be the student's original thinking, however effectively he or she may cover up the "research" they have done.

This is already much longer than I intended, so I will wrap up.  I will just note that I have had the opportunity now to present my research and arguments at four different campuses over the past few months, and have been grateful to receive some excellent feedback and constructive questions.  Thanks to the faculty at Ken Bain's Best Teachers Summer Institute, at Framingham State, at West Kentucky Technical and Community College, and Trinity College in Hartford for their responses to my work, which will continue to evolve as we move through the editing and revision process.