Thursday, December 12, 2013

A Cheating Student Speaks Up

This morning I received an e-mail from education writer Jessica Lahey that my book Cheating Lessons: Learning from Academic Dishonesty would be mentioned in her education column over at The Atlantic.  I was thrilled, and even more thrilled to read her very kind and generous article about the book.

I went about my business during the day, which was mostly preparing for a webinar on cheating that I was doing for Magna publications.  When I finished that webinar, I had an e-mail from Jess which she was forwarding from a student at a top state university.  The student's message offered a disturbingly honest confession of the cheating she had done in high school, the total lack of remorse she felt for it, and an explanation of why she put the blame for her cheating squarely on the back of her poor high school education.  You can read the whole thing here, but here's a brief excerpt:

"It boils down to this: we are told that cheating is wrong because we are attempting to earn a grade that we do not deserve. A grade earned by cheating is not a grade reflective of our true achievement. But my contention uses identical reasoning. I cheated because the grade I would have otherwise been given was not reflective of my true learning. I never cheated in a subject that I did not learn on my own terms. That is supported by my performance in AP testing. I took 9 AP tests in high school, scoring 5s on all of them except the one I self-studied for, on which I earned a 4. Never did I cheat on any of those tests, because I felt that they were fair representations of my learning. But in AP Biology, I cheated on literally every in-class test. The curriculum and test techniques of my absolutely atrocious AP Biology class were not fair representations of my knowledge. I felt cheated of the education I deserved, and thus to earn the grade I knew I deserved, I had to cheat the system. This is only one example. I also cheated throughout physics, introduction to statistics, Spanish, chemistry, and so on. But never did I cheat a subject that I did not learn on my own terms."
What can you say about this?

On the one hand, the student's explanation of her cheating supports my overall approach to the problem.  Cheating represents a failure in the teaching/learning transaction, and we should look at all features of that transaction to understand and combat the problem--including the role that the course design and teaching practices play.  Teachers aren't perfect, and we have to acknowledge that we may contribute to the problem. Thinking hard about cheating can help us understand when we are not reaching students effectively, and we can learn from it how to do our jobs better.

But I would never argue--and did not argue in the book--that this excuses students for their cheating.  There are two problems with her explanation:

1) She found herself in a difficult situation, in which she felt she was not given a real opportunity to learn.  Her frustration is understandable.  But she could have found other ways to try and improve that situation, rather than simply defaulting to one that compromised her academic integrity.  Did she talk to her parents about her courses?  Her teacher? Her principal?  Did she talk to other students about how they might have worked together to effect change in the curriculum?  I recognize that these would be challenging activities for a high school student to undertake, but she has to recognize that she will encounter such difficult situations throughout her life, and there are always going to be easy and wrong solutions, and difficult but better ones.  We have to train ourselves to choose the better ones.

2) Dan Ariely's research on cheating and dishonesty, which forms an important basis for my own research, suggests that multiple instances of cheating produce a "What the Hell?" effect in the cheater.  After cheating a certain number of times, he explains, the subjects in his experiments always reached a tipping point after which they seemed to just say "What the Hell?" and cheated at every opportunity that presented itself.  So if you get into the habit of cheating, cheating becomes a habit--and that habit may bleed over into all other areas of your life.

When it comes to cheating, we need all hands on deck.  I firmly we believe we need the teaching/learning approach I take to cheating, but I believe as well we need to help students understand that honesty matters, and that their work in our courses should help prepare them for lives of integrity beyond their college years.


  1. James, of course, you are right about not excusing cheating, but the stance one should actually take in real life depends on to whom you are talking, your relationship with them, and the circumstances. I hope that Jess's parents and teachers don't simply moralize at her about how cheating lacks integrity, and (theoretically) a grown-up would make a better choice. I hope that they engage in a reciprocal, empathetic conversation in which everyone, not just the child, takes responsibility. She is clearly smart enough to learn from the experience if approached intelligently.
    The simple (if immature) justice of her position is inescapable, as you acknowledge, but I hope "all hands on deck" includes examining the culture in which she and her classmates and teachers and parents are operating. Since the game of school she is playing is not about learning but about collecting grades, scores, badges and certificates, I think we have an "emperor-has-no-clothes" type situation here. Part of me--perhaps a less mature part--wants to advise her to form a mutinous assembly of students who vow that they think creatively about how to boycott this silly game until the achievement mill collapses and they and the adults form a more perfect union in a true learning community where learning is recognized and extrinsic rewards abandoned as a tool of motivation.

  2. Rick,
    Quick correction--Jess is not the name of the student, but the name of the author of the Atlantic article and recipient of the letter.

  3. The first part of your argument that the student did not have an appropriate excuse is flawed for many reasons. You are making an assumption that one, the teacher cares and everyone else too involved in administration. How does one handle a situation when faculty knows they have tenure or that there will be no consequences for their actions? You leave no room for criticism of how very little is addressed by those who truly do a disservice to students who should not be teaching. As a high school student you cannot drop the course, change teachers or substitute the course for something else. They are high school students having one teacher often for the course, this simply is not up for a 'discussion' or 'debate' and thinking so is highly foolish. You also fail to consider the ramifications of power dynamics between teachers and students, especially in a high school setting.

    You appear to assume that the changes can be and would be made to the inadequate system as though they are swift and justly for students to continue on with their education while earning the correct grade to fulfill their obligations to college admission standards, etc. This simply does not ever happen with anything in life, ever. By the time anyone gathers their facts, due diligence or any other process they deem appropriate, grades will have been posted and the terms will have ended. How does this help anyone?

    I am not defending the student's rationale, but rather simply showing you the ethics of the dilemma are a little bit more like several shades of gray and not black or white as you aptly portray.