Monday, July 29, 2013


Just around two years ago, the editor of my last book with Harvard University Press told me that she had been to a conference about teaching in higher education and heard a lot of discussion about the problem of cheating on campus.  Everyone was looking for solutions.  She wondered whether I might have an interest in tackling the problem in a book for the Press.

I wasn't sure how I felt about it, but you don't get too many offers like this as a writer, so I agreed to think about it.  She drove out to Worcester and we has a lovely lunch together at the Sole Proprietor, my favorite seafood restaurant.  By the end of the conversation, I was convinced enough to at least do some reading and put together a proposal.  I went to the local public library, checked out three books on cheating, and brought them with me on vacation that following week.

After reading them, I had some vague ideas about how I might like to approach the problem, and the book, and so I put together a proposal, which the Press accepted.  As I then really dug into the research on cheating over the next few months, I began to see things differently.  The more I tried to understand why students were cheating, the more I became convinced that the problem cheating revealed some fundamental flaws in the ways we structured and taught courses in higher education.  I abandoned the structure of my initial proposal and struck out in an entirely new direction.

By the spring of 2012, I had settled on my approach to the issue, which was to argue that research on human learning and research on cheating were both pointing us in the same direction in terms of how we should be designing and teaching our courses, and so the heart of the book became an argument about how we can learn from academic dishonesty how to build better learning environments.  Christopher Hager, a Trinity College professor who read an advanced copy, captured this well with his very kind blurb for the book: "James Lang has written a smart, original, well-researched guide to 'building better learning environments' framed as a guide to avoiding academic dishonesty."

The heart of the book, then, is essentially an argument for how we can teach our students more effectively--and, in doing so, reduce their incentive and opportunity cheat.  Around that basic argument are two shorter sections: first, a brief tour through the history of cheating, both in higher education and beyond, as well as an overview of the statistics on cheating in higher education today; and, in the final part of the book, some arguments about how and why we should tackle the problem of cheating from the broader campus perspective.

So if you have any interest whatsoever in the question of why students cheat, or how they do it, or what to do about it, you should buy this book!  But I hope the book will appeal to all teachers, even those who teach at the secondary and elementary levels, as it also reviews recent research in learning theory and uses that material to make the case for how we should be building learning environments for all of our students.  Finally, if you are interested more broadly in the present and future state of higher education, I hope and think you will find the book of interest, as it explores how the root causes of cheating may extend deeply into the structure and nature of the way we do business on campus.

In any case, that's the story of Cheating Lessons: Learning from Academic Dishonesty.  Now click the link and buy a copy!

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Is College Worth It?

Last year Notre Dame Magazine asked me if I would be willing to write a story about the high cost of college tuition these days, and offer my perspective on whether college was still a worthwhile investment for our students.  This really involved researching two questions: Why does college cost so much? And what do our students gain from their college education?

Understanding the first question was far more complex than I had anticipated.  Like everyone else, I had read plenty of pundits opining that college costs were being drive up by dorm amenities and other unnecessary campus expenses.  It turned out that those kinds of expenses, while real, were only a tiny part of the problem.  Gaining a clear picture of the real forces that have driven up tuition costs pushed me to the edge of my economic understanding, but also really helped me see the extent to which the media has oversimplified this issue and done a disservice to the public and to higher education.

Answering the second question was more simple, and involved looking at reports on the economic difference that a college degree makes on both employment prospects and lifetime earnings.  The picture that emerges from that analysis is a very clear one.

I spent a few months researching these questions, and conducting interviews, and then sat down and pounded out a draft in a single day--something I almost never do.  I much prefer to write a little bit on a project every day, working in very small chunks.  But I'm happy with the final product, which you can read at Notre Dame Magazine online.  It's a long-ish essay, but I hope you will find it worthwhile.

Today also marked the publication of the second of my three-part series on cheating in higher education; looking forward to finishing up with part three, which should be published just around the time the book becomes available.  Of course you can already order an advanced copy.

Finally, a reader e-mailed me a few months back to let me know about a nice overview of lecturing in higher education--what it's still good for, and how to do it well.  I'm passing along the link for those interested in this form of teaching.