A recent article in The New York Times cited studies that found “a majority of students violate standards of academic integrity to some degree, and that high achievers are just as likely to do it as others.” There is evidence, the article continued, that the problem has worsened in recent years. Donald L. McCabe, a professor at the Rutgers University Business School, told the Times: “I don’t think there’s any question that students have become more competitive, under more pressure, and, as a result, tend to excuse more from themselves and other students, and that’s abetted by the adults around them. There have always been struggling students who cheat to survive, but more and more, there are students at the top who cheat to thrive.”
To me, this is quite alarming. If statements like McCabe’s are accurate, the questions we should be asking are: What has caused this situation, and what can we do about it?
A 2012 Duquesne University study cited in the article pointed to online tools that make copying others’ work easier, noting that the cut-and-paste phenomenon has weakened the sense of ownership of ideas and information. Researchers also pointed to the increasing practice of students working in collaborative teams as a factor in violations of academic integrity.
Even if one feels the prevailing culture permits or even encourages dishonesty, educational institutions must affirm that lying, cheating, and stealing will not be tolerated."
Clearly, this was at play in a recent cheating scandal at Harvard University, where as many as 125 students in a class of 279 were charged with cheating on a take-home final exam. Students have said the suspect behavior was the result of misunderstandings over collaboration and note-sharing related to the exam.
At Stuyvesant High School, a specialized and well-regarded high school in New York City, accelerated academics are offered to very talented high achievers. Yet, even there a major cheating scandal was recently the subject of newspaper stories. In a 2010 editorial in the Stuyvesant student newspaper, headlined “Why We Cheat,” students outlined some of the reasons this happens. Among them were the highly competitive nature of admission to Stuyvesant and a culture in which students are eager for success and willing to use unorthodox methods to attain it. Also cited were busywork assignments, pop quizzes, and standardized testing that place more emphasis on quantitative values than on a deep, conceptual understanding of the material. Students see this as a kind of disrespect for the subject and distrust of other students, which fosters academic dishonesty. They argue that students feel so victimized by the sheer volume of work they receive, the poor quality of the assignments, and the fear of standardized testing that they resort to dishonesty.
It is an environment that students believe devalues learning and analytical thought. Copying homework or sharing answers to tests are acts of communal resistance—minor acts of rebellion.
So, what remedies do these students offer? They wrote that:
• Teachers should eliminate busywork and rote-memorization tasks;
• Teachers should give assignments and examinations that test a student’s ability to analyze and apply concepts;
• The volume of work assigned by all classes should be decreased; and
• Teachers must make academic dishonesty a constant topic of dialogue in class.
Thinking about all this, I am pleased that my school has an honor code that is working well. In the upper school, students write out the honor pledge on the work they submit. Suspected code violations are reported to the school’s “integrity council,” composed of students and teachers charged with investigating each incident and determining if a violation has occurred. These are well-respected students and teachers who take their responsibilities seriously.
It seems to me that instead of spending time placing blame on technology, schools, students, teachers, and parents, our schools and universities should seize the opportunity to redouble their efforts to create and support a community of trust. It requires developing a partnership with everyone working together to reaffirm the value of honesty. Even if one feels the prevailing culture permits or even encourages dishonesty, educational institutions must affirm that lying, cheating, and stealing will not be tolerated. We must all agree that this credo is important to us, even critical to the continued prosperity of our country.
The students at Harvard and Stuyvesant have made some important points. Teachers must be clear in giving instructions about assignments and particularly articulate about when collaborative work among students is permitted and when it is not. Assignments should be meaningful and not just busywork. But having said that, students need to examine their own values and beliefs and decide that in their moral hierarchy, being honest ranks above their determination to be successful.
Parents also need to be supportive when their student comes home with a grade lower than an A. Excessive pressure from home to attain success (however that is defined) can lead a student to take shortcuts to get ahead by means that are less than honorable. Honesty is a simple concept that is easy to understand, but often challenging to put into action. I grew up being told that honesty is what you do when no one is looking.
Sometimes it takes courage. If a student is unprepared for a test, it is not easy to accept a low grade when he could cheat and get a much higher one. Also, when a student sees dishonesty around him, it can be difficult to stand up to what might be an acceptable practice by classmates. He may have to accept lower grades because that is what he earned. He may even lose friendships because he won’t go along with the idea that dishonesty is OK.
We should draw some lessons from the stories of Enron and Bernie Madoff: Lying, cheating, or stealing might bring temporary benefits, but, in the end, could do great harm. When you live a life of integrity, you will always have your honor, you will have a higher opinion of yourself, and you will sleep better at night.
A version of this article appeared in the October 17, 2012 edition of Education Week as Moving From Cheating to Academic Honesty