Who Cheating Hurts

My first stab at a “cheating is bad” speech came when I realized the magnitude of over-the-shoulder copying on my daily trigonometry quizzes. It was epidemic. So, turning reluctantly from teacher to orator, I sat down the juniors and gave them two basic arguments.

First, cheating is bad for the cheater. It circumvents the very purpose of school, which is learning. When you cheat on homework, you deprive yourself of the chance to learn. And when you cheat on tests, you deprive me of the chance to measure your learning—and thereby to help you learn better.

And second, cheating is bad for others. How you perform in school determines your access to resources and opportunities in life. Thus, when you cheat, you’re lying to steal resources from honest folk.

A sharpshooting student can leave both these arguments riddled with bullet-holes. The first case crumbles if students doubt the value of our assignments. “What if I already know how to do the homework?” they might ask. “Then can I copy it?” Or, “What if there’s a test about material we never learned, given by a teacher who’s doing a bad job? Then it’s not me undermining my learning—it’s my bad teacher.” The second argument, meanwhile, dissolves when cheating hits a critical mass in the class. “What if everyone else is cheating?” a kid might ask. “Wouldn’t it be unfair to me if I didn’t cheat?”

If school is a journey of intellectual discovery, then you’re free to cheat whenever your teacher falls down on the job. And if school is just a pre-college sorting process, then you’re free to cheat whenever the other kids do.

Most damning of all is the fact that those two arguments appear to contradict one another. First, you’re saying it’s wrong because I shouldn’t care about credentials like GPA and college admissions; I should just care about learning. Then, you’re saying that it’s wrong because I’m gaining an unfair advantage in GPA and college admissions. Well, which is it—bad because it hurts me, or bad because it helps me?

To lay it plain: Why should I treat my own education as a journey of intellectual discovery, when you just admitted that it’s all about making more money down the road?

After years of wrestling with this, I’m only beginning to formulate my reply. It’s not just that cheating is bad for the cheater or that it’s bad for others. Cheating also inflicts a third sort of damage, hurting something more nebulous and precious than our individual self-interests.

Cheating is wrong because harms the community.

It’s wrong because it erodes trust, whittling away at our faith in one another. It’s wrong because it’s cynical, subjugating principle to opportunism. It’s wrong because tells others—and ourselves—that this isn’t a world where we play by the rules, where we deal honestly and openly with each other, but one where we bite and claw to get ahead. It’s wrong because it chips away at our capacity for selflessness, our instinct to act on another’s behalf. It’s wrong because it conceives of the world as an obstacle course to be navigated and manipulated, rather than a community to be respected, honored, and dignified.

The problem isn’t just what “cheaters” do to themselves or to “non-cheaters.” It’s what cheating, as a whole, does to the community—to this delicate, living organism that we all together comprise.

Obviously, rhetoric alone won’t turn our classrooms into utopian communes of intellectual honesty, with zero plagiarism and daily sing-a-longs. Teachers still need to take preventative measures, and to enforce swift, fair consequences for anyone who does cheat. We need to make sure kids are learning, so the “cheating-harms-you” argument carries some force, and that cheating isn’t widespread, so that the “cheating-harms-others” argument does, too. Even then, cheating is like the common cold—it’ll never go away entirely. The young people we work with are bound to make mistakes now and again. It’s part of the job’s charm, and part of why they need us.

20 thoughts on “Who Cheating Hurts

  1. I couldn’t agree more.
    As a 9th grade student, I do pretty darn well in most subjects for someone who doesn’t study or do homework. In fact, I get reliable B’s and C’s, and reliable A’s in math! But then… French. The first letter sums up my grades pretty well.

    Recently we had a French test. And, well… Let’s just say I might be one of the few who didn’t cheat.
    Like, seriously. Even those who study regularly, and are the guys in class who study and get straight As at everything cheated. Out of the 20 people (it’s a small class), I think only 3 or 4 didn’t cheat. Even those who I thought would never cheat did.

    In the end? I barely got a C. Do I mind? No.
    School is supposed to test you. What’s the point in cheating in tests? I’m there to make sure I know the stuff. And even if I won’t use the knowledge, I still tested my brain. I still had to learn. And even if this is completely useless to me, it’s knowledge. And if I don’t know it, I deserve to fail at French.

    My point is, I never cheated, never will. If I fail, it’s my own darn fault. And I should face the consequences: not avoid them like a wuss.

    1. I really appreciate what you’re saying – I wish more students shared that attitude. And for our part, I think teachers have a pretty strong obligation not to let that kind of French-test scenario unfold.

  2. I think this is one of the most exciting aspects of the new approaches to education we have been seeing recently (e.g. MOOCs). We are moving toward a world where learning and assessment are decoupled. Once the folks who do the assessments of understanding are separate from the teachers, cheating becomes irrelevant in the classroom and teachers don’t have to think about it any more. At that point people who cheat in the classroom really are just cheating themselves.

    Of course teachers will not be entirely free of having to think about what approach leads to their students doing well on the assessments; and the assessments will not be under their control and no doubt some of them will be stupid. But I think the freedom from having to worry about cheating will be more than adequate compensation.

    1. That’s an interesting point – I guess I’ve thought about how MOOCs could change the teacher-student relationship, but never with regards to cheating.

      As a teacher, I’d love to have a relationship with students that’s 100% about learning and 0% about sorting/labeling/leaving my mark on their transcripts. So that’d be a big benefit.

      On the other hand, I find that the best teaching is artisinal. It occurs when a compassionate expert creates a thoughtful syllabus of ideas, tailoring the assessment and the instruction to the needs of the students. By offering standardized curricula and assessments, MOOCs carry the promise of elevating bad teaching, but also of flattening or diminishing the best teaching. I still haven’t decided how I feel about that tradeoff.

  3. I think one of the biggest problems is that students don’t reliable get the chance to make up work they didn’t understand. For example, I’m taking a trig test. I want an A in this class, so I need an A on every assignment. So I cheat. Assessments are determining my grade.
    BUT if I don’t cheat, see where I went wrong, and use the feedback to target my learning, by the end of year I could be the best at math in the class, but also have the lowest grade.
    Does my final grade reflect my learning path, so that I know the material A+ at the end, but I have a C+ because of my journey; or does my final grade reflect where I am when I finish the class?
    There are a lot of open questions in assessment, and as a former teacher I am still waiting for some of them to be resolved (I am now a tutor, and I only hear the students’ perspective on their teachers).

    1. Interesting comment. I think most students are after the grade and the learning is secondary. It’s probably been like that forever. The highly motivated students go for the high grades through hard work and actual learning.
      I suspect the majority make it through by hook or crook.

      1. I agree that many students are after the grade – and I propose that we change how they can get the grade. I have been reading this blog, along with Dan Meyer, and am of the notion that we have to revisit assessments. Since many students are after the grade, and I don’t think we can change that easily, we should change how they get it.

    2. I’m going to school right now to become a teacher and during my internship last semester we (my mentor and I) were experimenting with a way to fix this very situation. The students were given homework (and usually a couple days to do it, so they could ask questions/get help before it was due) and rather than collecting that and taking a grade, we had a “concept check”. At the start of class we posted answers and any student could ask a question about a particular problem. Then we had the concept check, usually 4 or 5 questions, and the students were allowed to look at their homework for help.
      It wasn’t perfect, there were still students who did the homework right but for some reason missed a similar problem on the concept check, but I plan to play around with this more as a full fledged teacher. I’m hoping it will help enforce the idea that homework really does help with learning the concepts.

  4. I wrote up my views on the wider question of uncredited assistance (of which cheating is just one form) some years back. I think the question to ask is, “Does this case of assistance corrupt the process of evaluation?” This is orthogonal to your points about damage to the individual and the community, which by the way is Nozick’s argument on treating crimes differently from civil wrongs: accidental killing damages the victim’s family and must be paid for, but intentional killing damages the community and must be punished. (Genocide in turn damages the entire human species, which is why it is not the same as multiple murder.)

  5. I think you hit the nail on the head. Students are often too young to really grasp this, but our entire civilization works on a certain amount of trust. Every day, we drive in cars, work and live in buildings and fly in planes that are built and maintained by strangers. If they “cheat” by doing poor work, cutting corners, we all suffer. Civilization can no longer function. Learning not to cheat and cut corners is an important lesson. Because as you get older, cutting corners and cheating become more and more destructive.

  6. I really like your arguement here. This is a good topic to put real thought into. I wonder what the Dalai Lama has to say about cheating?

    1. Again, it depends on “Which shortcuts?” and “In what context?” It’s a shortcut to submit a paper typed rather than handwritten, but that’s a shortcut most teachers greatly prefer students to take. (But not in a penmanship class, if there still are such things.) Once the paper is typed (on a computer, these days) it’s a shortcut to use spelling correction, but is it really cheating?

      1. I grew up having to spell for myself; and mostly still do by default. I’m happy that what I type in, these days, has a tendency to flag the [few] words some software doesn’t recognise. They may be perfectly good words, correctly spelt [or spelled; both in the OED as pp. of “to spell” and not flagged in this text-field; but I had to look it up, in case “spelt” was only the grain; the software gave no hint of this, I noticed for myself], that it doesn’t know about; but it catches enough of my mistakes that it’s a help (but I know not to blindly trust it).

        So I think, rather than deciding whether use of a spell-checker is cheating, it’s better to address the practical reality – once the student goes out into the world, the skill that’ll actually serve them is: knowing how to write “correctly” *with the help of software*; so it’s what we should be teaching and testing. Can students get “they’re there for their own reasons” right ? Then again, grammar-checkers may get just as ubiquitous, in which case the assessors [not “assessers”, that I initially typed] are going to need to think up more creative tests. In so far as learning to write well *without* software assistance is a good discipline by which to support that, it’s worth teaching that also; but it’s not the primary thing to test for; and the difficulty of enforcing the rule, that students must [not “nust”] work without software assistance, is an argument to drop it entirely from the official test.

        Perhaps better to simply teach pupils a game: initially write with the software turned off; before you’re done, let the software show you your errors; game-ify this as a challenge to see how few things the software does better than you. I think I’ve even seen a (software) game that does something similar for arithmetic. Such game scores needn’t be something anyone else sees; it can be entirely private and still benefit the student; they can likely see it will help them to be better at working *with* the software (if only by virtue of spending less time correcting what they first write) in the test. At the same time, in its own right, it’s a fun challenge, from which they can draw a sense of satisfaction as they improve their scores.

        Such learning games can also teach students that measuring performance (when they understand and respect the measure) is a thing that can help *them* to have a clear understanding of how well they’re doing, a thing they probably want to know, even when it has nothing to do with official assessment; and, indeed, official assessments may fail to give them this (in a form useful to *them*). So informal (i.e. not part of a public record) but (adequately) objective measures can be valuable in helping students learn.

        Spell-checking may give a dumb statistic (total number of errors) but it also tells the student what they got wrong and helps them correct it, making it an excellent learning helper. In contrast, assessment all too often gives them only the dumb statistic. If their work is returned to them with red ink on their errors, they at least get a clearer picture of where they (allegedly) went wrong; but what they really need is guidance on how to *not make* those mistakes. Testing, when students understand it isn’t connected to assessment, can be a good way for students and teacher to communicate; it’s not just the teacher telling students what they got wrong (and giving them a grade), it’s the students showing their actual ability, and their weaknesses, thereby enabling the teacher to better understand how best to help them learn, to grow that ability.

        When I tutored students for a year, I was entirely unconnected to their assessment (we do things differently on this side of the pond): I started by telling my students this and explaining that – while I’d be happy to see their answers to the questions they mastered (and discuss how to improve even these) or at least thought they had (they were used to teachers at least pointing out their errors, though I found it more constructive to focus on what had lead them astray and how to navigate round that in future) – it was far more important to give me (all of) their failed attempts at questions that had them stumped. (Lecturers handed out question sheets every week or two during the course; these were purely as suggested homework and discussion material between students and tutors.) That was my raw material for getting my head round which parts they did understand and what was holding them back. They duly did as I’d asked and their fumbling attempts were a rich source to study together.

        If we treat homework as a channel of communication, it becomes evident that false starts and fumbled attempts are important to see – even if (in an assessment) they would be awarded no marks, or including several of them would, at best, get no more marks than the best of them would get. Assessment encourages students to only hand in what they think might get marks; and it teaches shame about failure. Yet failed attempts – that the student typically throws away as “worthless” in an assessment – will tell someone who knows the subject far more about what obstacles the student needs to overcome in order to succeed. Assessment encourages handing in answers whose errors are mostly those made by someone who pretty much gets the hang of the subject, so you only see the (relatively) minor problems the student has with the things almost mastered. Assessment encourages leaving out the fumbling attempts that got nowhere near an answer, which actually contain far more information about how to help the student learn.

        If teachers can offer tests that aren’t part of assessment, they can perhaps teach kids to understand the value of handing in their fumbling struggles; in the process, this can teach kids that *their own* attempts at a question, even if they gave up or (having thought they’d solved it) got it wrong, tell the teacher how to help *that student* to master the subject. If students see the work they hand in, in response to a test, as *communication with their teacher*, who uses their mistakes *to help them learn* (rather than it all being a contest for higher scores), students are going to understand why they don’t even *want* to cheat in these tests. The habit of such frank communication with a teacher can foster self-respect and honesty, which should at least reduce the amount of cheating on assessments.

        Of course, the other prerequisite of an end to cheating is that students respect the integrity of the test; if an assessment (whether in its form or its content) does not inspire confidence that it’s a just evaluation of their abilities, don’t be surprised if they hold it in contempt. If such a test’s scores are granted more influence in the world than they deserve (in the students’ eyes), cynical optimisation of their score is a rational (if unethical) response to their situation. (Example: the “others cheat, so I need to, to keep up” rationale arises because failure to properly enforce the rules against cheating changes the form of the test, in practice, to one in which the student can’t trust the assessment to be fair.) An unfair test cheats the students; and schools teach them disrespect for cheats …

  7. To me, cheating is a symptom of a much larger problem. The assignments and tests are seen as a process for learning and assessment. They are viewed as hoops the must be jumped through in order to get a grade.

    Students cheat because it is the easiest method for getting through those hoops in the least amount of time. They don’t seen any intrinsic value in the work. Any learning that happens is almost accidental.

    I was able to get around this by teaching my students how to learn mathematics. We changed the format of the instruction, drastically reduced the “required” portions of the assignment – though if they got too many wrong or did poorly on an assessment they had to go back and do the other parts – all to change the culture of math at my school.

    Ultimately, the truth is that students cheat because we’ve taught them to. We have to re-teach ourselves if we’re going to get them to stop.

  8. I think Ben has a nice point. Schools live or die on trust; well, not literally, but without trust they stop functioning are places of real learning. Trust has to flow both ways: teachers need to trust the students to not cheat, but students also need to trust the teacher to ask fair questions (not gotcha questions), to give second chances, and so on. I think Jeff’s question above is very pertinent. A really fair grading policy, that would discourage cheating, would be set up such that missing checkpoints along the way doesn’t hurt your grade, as long as you go back and learn the material. Power-law grading might work, but so might a drop the lowest three quiz grades policy or a corrections or re-take policy. The key is perception: as long as the students feel like they have adequate chances to try, as long as the policy is thus well-intentioned, it will tamp down on cheating a lot.

  9. I teach 8th grade math (pre-algebra). I realized something had to change a few years ago when I noticed a student obviously copying another’s work. His response when I picked up both papers? “Aw, c’mon, miss, I paid 5 bucks for that homework!” His only regret? No return on investment!

    Cheating has been dramatically reduced in my classes by a few simple (not easy!) changes. The biggie: I don’t grade any form of practice assignment. That means I don’t grade their warmups, their classwork, their stations work…anything. There’s no incentive to cheat on the classwork because there’s no grade attached…all classwork is for the sole purpose of preparing them for the quizzes. (A little sports analogy helps here: points scored in practice don’t show up on the scoreboard on game day, but effort in practice sure makes you more likely to score in the real game!) I no longer assign daily homework for the same reason: it’s too easy to cheat, the students who need it most usually don’t do it, and it’s better for them to do their practice with access to help and support in class. They know they can retake any failed quiz for a better grade after coming to tutoring. Taking the grading pressure off has changed the way my classes run and feel.

    And I know you’re wondering…yes, they still do the classwork. In fact, most of them try just as hard or harder, and they learn more because they are more willing to make mistakes and explore without the threat of a grade reduction hanging over their heads. The focus is more on learning and less on grades. I have yet to have a kid refuse to do something because it isn’t going to be graded. When they ask, “Is this for a grade?” (translation: how much effort should I put into this?) I tell them, “That’s the wrong question. The right question is, Will this help me learn and succeed? And the answer to that question is always YES. So get to work!” It’s really important that assignments are actually meaningful; kids can spot a babysitting assignment a mile off. If I’m doing my job (teaching) and they’re doing their job (practicing and learning), grades are a side concern, not the focus of the class. They’ve been programmed, so the switch in focus takes time, but it’s so worth it.

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