Cheating in College

Last semester, for a change, I instructed my students not to cheat on the final exam. Does that strike you as strange? Some people might think it would be a strange instruction because students know they shouldn’t cheat, so what good is telling them not to? Other people might think it’s strange that I don’t issue that instruction every semester.

Until recently, I didn’t like to talk about cheating. One of the biggest reasons that students cheat is that they think that “everybody is doing it,” so that by not cheating, they are putting themselves at a disadvantage. Therefore, I thought it was best to keep my mouth shut on this subject, lest students assume that my mentioning it confirms that everybody is doing it.

I’ve caught students cheating at all three institutions I’ve had the privilege to grade at (as a graduate student at Stanford and as a faculty member at Duke and CU). The cases have spanned the full range of offenses: from large-scale group collaboration on a take-home exam, to copying numeric answers on an in-class test, to erasing and rewriting answers in a returned blue book and claiming grader error.

In all those situations, the student responses were similar: I wasn’t thinking. I’m under a lot of pressure. In most of the cases, the students simply didn’t think they would get caught, implying that no one cares to look closely enough to notice the infraction. Maybe students instinctively know how hugely stressful it is to confront someone with a cheating accusation, so they think we are going to look the other way.

Cheating makes me more sad than angry. Cheating is a sign that the students view school as an ordeal to be survived rather than a feast of wonderful educational opportunities. Yes, there are boring lecturers and questionable assignments and lame team members also being served at the feast. But with the right attitude, and the right guidance, those distasteful elements can be dwarfed by great experiences. My wish for the indifferent students is that they could appreciate the resources and opportunities in front of them. My wish for the “high achievers” is that they have people in their lives who can give them the proper perspective to use their considerable talents to make good decisions.

Why did I change my approach last semester? The previous two semesters, I had caught students cheating, so I thought it might be time to try something different. Looking more closely at that research on cheating that had guided my silence, the very research that finds the large influence of peers’ behaviors and attitudes, I see that my “don’t talk about it” conclusion was misguided. That research also finds that the perceived severity of penalties reduces cheating. I therefore announced to the class that anyone caught cheating on the final would fail the course. I meant the public and unambiguous statement to raise the perceived severity of the penalties. (I don’t think there was cheating…at least I didn’t catch anyone.)

I am not naive on this subject. I recognize that cheating springs from a natural inclination, not unique to students or school. Apparently, people even cheat in fitness contests by strapping the Fitbit to a fan. Funny, and sad, too.

I also don’t want to disadvantage honest students. The Stanford Honor Code instructs that “[t]he faculty will also avoid, as far as practicable, academic procedures that create temptations to violate the Honor Code.” It’s not enough simply to have an honor code. It’s not enough simply to avoid talking about about cheating. Faculty and concerned students need to talk about academic integrity, its importance, and how it specifically applies to our classes. We need to design tests and assignments that reduce gains to cheating. We need to follow campus procedures when we do catch someone, as uncomfortable as that is. The possibility of cheating creates work, but that work is part of doing a good job in educating our students.

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