Cheating is Institutional

Philip Berne - Jul 14, 2010
Cheating is Institutional

When I was a High School teacher, I pulled a stunt that went against every gut instinct I had, though I wasn’t sure why. I gave my students a quiz, set up a hidden camera, and left the room. It was an Apple iSight camera. Back then, it looked like a tiny telescope from the future.

I stood outside in the hallway, just out of view. When I came back, while they finished the quiz, I watched the tape. Can you guess what I found? I taught small classes, usually less than 20 students. In the three minutes I was gone, how many students did I catch cheating?

All of them. Every student I had. They were sharing answers, calling them out back and forth. Some were looking up answers in their books. All of them were actively engaged in what I would call cheating.

I don’t know if I felt worse about taping them secretly or worse about finding out they all cheated. I told my Principal about it right away. She confirmed my fears that it was a stupid move on my part.

“The real problem is that you don’t have enough trust in your students to believe they wouldn’t cheat if you left the room.”

I asked her if she wanted to see the tape. She said absolutely not. She didn’t want to know which class, nor which students, nothing. She was right, this was my problem, and the way to solve the problem is not to punish an entire class worth of wrongdoers. Still, I couldn’t imagine how deep the problem really went.

The New York Times had an interesting story about how colleges are using modern technology and new surveillance techniques to stop cheating. None of the techniques are so surprising. Schools are wary of students using tiny cameras embedded in pens to copy and sell tests. There are online services, like, that will certify term papers as original work, not plagiarized, and those services are catching on in popularity. Still, the Times only scratches the surface of the real problem.

Students don’t see cheating in the problematic way they should. At best, it’s a minor offense, and there are far worse offenses in school. At worst, it’s completely ignored. But the problem comes more from the way students see themselves, and the messages that educators feed them.

What is the problem with cheating, anyway? As an English teacher, the biggest problem I saw was plagiarism. In terms of cheating, plagiarism doesn’t give credit where credit is due. But that’s not a problem students can relate to. They need to internalize a reason why cheating is a problem. When students cheat, they aren’t following the best path to learning. Cheating is usually the easy way out. Even the most resourceful cheaters still know the mental energy and time committed to cheating is a fair trade to avoid real, deep thought.

Cheating is a way of making work easier, but work needs to be difficult to be rewarding. This is a problem that haunts our digital culture. We try to make everything easier for ourselves, and because of this, we’ve lost touch with the value we find in solving a difficult task, or putting in the extra effort required. Research papers in English and History classes have become no more than a cut and paste job. With so many online repositories of good information, it’s no wonder students feel no compunction about snipping a paragraph here and there.

They don’t understand why this is a problem. Our Web culture hardly rewards celebrity status. Anonymity is often far more prized. Students search Google for information, then hardly notice the URL where they end up. Are they cribbing the New York Times, or the Huffington Post? Was the story original work, or just a copy from another site? I can’t tell you how often I read papers that blatantly quoted the most incendiary left and right wing propaganda sites without any understanding of context.

We’ve created such a Web of authorship and attribution, it’s often difficult to understand just where the information is coming from, let alone the agenda that might be behind it. I grew up in a time that straddled this change. My students grew up in a world of anonymity. They had no problem borrowing someone else’s words because they see it done all the time. It isn’t a problem, it’s the way information is conveyed. In fact, it’s a better way, to them. Why chew up the information and spit it out in their own words, when their words can muddy the issue? Better to reprint the right words, the words that have already been successful.

Chalk it up to post-modernity. A culture that believes sampling is its own legitimate musical form, and rightly so, should have no problem making the leap to sampling as a technique for building intellectual ideas.

We can’t combat this issue by cracking down. We can’t just feed papers through automatic plagiarism checking machines. We can’t video tape students and scrutinize their every move. As the New York Time points out, some schools, like Washington and Lee University, believe such extreme measure violates the trust established with the school’s honor code. Personally, I am all in favor of honor, but there are better reasons to convince students to not cheat.

Students, especially college students, need to be taught why they are being educated in the first place. We educate our students to train them, and also to build their mental acuity. We present them with challenges; they solve them; it makes them smarter. If I present challenges that are clever and interesting, my students will want to solve them. If I can show them the benefit of working hard to solve a challenge, they will not want to circumvent the process.

My students all cheated because, as a teacher, I had subconsciously instructed them that cheating was okay. The grade was more important that the work itself, that’s the message they were hearing. I was only giving them work to offer the smart ones good grades, and to trick the less clever into flunking out. They should be clever in return. They should work together. How could that be wrong?

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