Dealing with Cheating

This week, The Atlantic has an interesting — though I would contend deeply flawed — article by Jessica Lahey about cheating in schools. (I discovered this Article via Lahey’s blog, Coming of Age in the Middle.)

Lahey’s premise, I think, is summed up in the following paragraph:

While I’d love to place the blame for this offense fully on my students’ shoulders, I can’t. My teaching methods and classroom habits are often as much to blame as their response to them. If my teaching practices create an atmosphere in which students resort to cheating rather than rely on their own hard work and discovery, I’m doing something wrong.

Lahey’s article itself is based on a recent book by James M. Lang:

In his book Cheating Lessons: Learning from Academic Dishonesty, James M. Lang, Associate Professor of English at Assumption College, recounts his experience with cheating, and his personal journey to rid his classroom of its influence. Lang undertook his research on academic dishonesty because, “My personal experiences with cheating were probably a lot like yours: students occasionally cheated in my classes, it baffled and frustrated me, and I was never sure how to react.”

The basic ideas that Lang (at least per Lahey) is advocating are pushed on three fronts. Please bear in mind that I am relying on Lahey’s summary, and have not read Lang’s book myself.

First, a plea for a focus on “mastery” over “assessment” that amounts to the same sort of attacks on inert learning made by others, including Dewey and Whitehead. The basic notion here seems to be that students feel entitled to cheat because inert learning turns the experience of school into a formalistic and instrumental game where success is measured solely by grades.

Second, an attack on “high stakes testing” that provides supposedly provides a large incentive to cheat. If you make the choice one between college and homelessness, students are going to do whatever they have to in order to “succeed” academically.

Finally, Lang provides an encouragement for teachers to show that they believe in their students, so that their students can believe in themselves and don’t feel like they need to cheat to get ahead.

These are all good bits of advice, I think. Learning should be about learning. That’s simple enough. And school should be a place where failure (and the learning that comes with it) is an option: it should be a place to practice. And yes, students are children and you should be nice to them. None of this is controversial.

It’s not at all clear to me that this has any bearing on the question of cheating, though. Let’s posit a teacher who breaks all of these “rules” for a cheating-free classroom — a formalistic, emotionless martinet of a teacher who insists that students’ entire grade be based on their ability to fill out pointless worksheets. A student faced with such an instructor has many options. They can shut up and endure, knowing that this, too, shall pass. They can speak up, either to the teacher (let us imagine this would be futile) or to the administrators. They can organize a revolt — don’t laugh, I’ve seen it happen. Or they can abandon their honor and their integrity and cheat.

Lahey seems to be saying that this last option would be justified by the teacher’s bad conduct. But the bad conduct of others is not, as far as I know, sufficient grounds for treachery and dishonesty on my part. Consider the following letter from a student, which Lahey quotes on her blog approvingly: (NOTE: See update below)

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.

Pride. Now, I am not particularly religious, but I do know that Pride (or Vanity) is the Devil’s favourite sin (or at least Al Pacino’s) because it allows the sinner to feel good about all their other sins, and ensures that a life of sin will continue unabated.

This student says that s/he needed to “cheat the system.” That sounds harmless, right? Like Italians fudging on their income tax. The system is rigged. So screw the system, right?

Well, yes — to the extent you are able to do so without compromising your honor and integrity. But when you cheat, you’re not a soldier for justice, not a freedom-fighter struggling against an oppressive system. You’re a liar, mean and base. (You might also be a freedom fighter, but you’re a mean and base freedom fighter, not a towering bastion of virtue like you think.)

The truth is that most students are going to have some terrible teachers — just like most people will, at some point in their careers, have a supervisor, boss, or employer who is a jerk. The fact that you’re stuck in the sphere of influence of a total tool is not a reason to throw morality out the window and decide that you can do no wrong.

So yes, teachers should focus on substantive learning rather than formalistic assessment. Yes, tests shouldn’t be do-or-die affairs (at least not at the high school level). And yes, we should be nice to and supportive of students.

But that has just about nothing to do with the problem of cheating, which is at base an ethical problem — not a practical one.

UPDATE: In the Comments, Lahey herself has taken issue with my characterization of her use of the student’s letter as “approving.” Obviously, as a matter of intentio auctoris, either she’s a liar or I’m in the wrong. She’s probably not a liar, and so I sincerely apologize for mischaracterizing her intention. Although as a matter of intentio operis (if you believe in such things) the issue is a little murkier. The letter is posted in the context of the Atlantic piece, which seems to endorse the view that teachers bear some responsibility for student cheating. The letter seems to confirm and echo those views to an extent. Anyway, I don’t place a lot of weight on intentio operis interpretation, and even if I did, my use of the word “approvingly” would be at best misleading.