Professors, stop pretending that you never cheat

Academics should drop the holier-than-thou attitude and look at cheating from a student’s perspective if we want to understand and eradicate it, says Hamish Binns

Hamish Binns's avatar
Saint Louis University
10 Jun 2021
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Preacher man. Academics need to drop the holier-than-thou attitude and sees themselves in their students when it comes to cheating

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I recently read Cheating Lessons by James Lang, and this article is a by-product − that is to say, not plagiarism − of that book.

Professors have always complained about cheating. We know this. And with the sudden boom in online teaching, these complaints have multiplied. But before getting upset at their cheating students, professors should first stop and recall when they themselves have cheated. And, more importantly, what led them to cheat.

 I’m honest enough to admit to being an occasional cheat, but I don’t think I’m alone, so let’s look at three hypothetical – or not so hypothetical – examples of academic cheating and how they might be paralleled to students.

Scenario 1: You accept an under-the-table payment from a publisher in return for editing a text 

In this case, you’re cheating the tax office by not declaring your earnings. You may justify it by claiming it was the publisher’s choice or that it’s a negligible amount that won’t affect the country’s economy or even that the tax laws are unfairly weighted against low-income earners.

What makes it so easy to cheat here is that you’re cheating a system and not an individual person. The question is: do your students feel this way about your class? Student cheating isn’t a personal attack on the professor; it’s often just a way to get around the system.

The remedy? Make your class student-centred. Get to know them and make it evident that you’ve invested time and energy into designing this course specifically for them. You have to constantly renew content and personalise it, and do not reuse the same assignments you’ve been giving for the past 10 years.

Scenario 2: You cheat on a mandatory workplace health and safety training test

You have better things to do than sit through 20 hours of mind-blowingly boring videos to then answer a few ridiculous questions, right? So you mute the videos and continue with your grading. When it comes to the final test, you consult a colleague or use the internet to ensure you get enough answers correct to pass.

We cheat on such courses because we see zero use or interest in the content; our only goal is to get the certificate needed to keep HR happy.

Our students may feel the same way about our courses, especially if they form part of a liberal arts core and are not apparently relevant to their majors. Why should a business major have to study literature? It’s a mere obstacle to their academic progress, and their sole interest is the final grade.

The remedy? Be practical and explain how what you teach is applicable to the students’ studies and lives. Be passionate and infect the class with your enthusiasm. If students enjoy what they’re learning, they’re less likely to want to cheat.

Scenario 3: You cheat on your partner

In this case, you’re breaking an implicit agreement in a relationship. You’re likely very conscious of your cheating and know that the cost of being discovered could be extremely high.

Analogies in higher education could be a student copying a neighbour’s exam, plagiarising information from the internet or turning in someone else’s essay and claiming it as their own. The student clearly knows what they’re doing is wrong and that, if they’re caught, the consequences could be very serious.

The remedy? Ensure an effective testing environment, remind students of the penalties for being caught cheating and, most importantly, keep test stakes low. If you base a grade on one final exam, you’re setting incredibly high stakes and students may think the possible benefits of cheating outweigh the risks of being caught. However, if you use continuous assessment involving several low-grade assignments or assess the steps in a process and not just the result, then students will not gain any significant benefit from cheating, so they’ll be less likely to risk it.

Maybe some people reading this are guilty of cheating in one or more of the above scenarios − I certainly am. And if you think that cheating can ever be acceptable, whether it be fudging a deserving student’s grade or stealing an extra move in a game of Monopoly, then instead of complaining, think about when you’ve cheated and how you justified it to yourself.

One more problem for educators is the reality that cheating often does bring benefits, and in certain professions it may even be encouraged. Don’t forget, Bell gained fame having plagiarised Antonio Meucci and Maradona won a World Cup quarter-final with his hand.

If we truly want to prevent cheating and motivate our students to succeed as ethically sound citizens, then we need to take basic precautions.

We need to – as Lang says – instil in our students a vested interest for the course content and respect their intellectual journey by not demanding immediate excellence. We need to remove the high stakes resting on single exam results. We need to emphasise the importance of consistency, application and process rather than that of results and regurgitated knowledge. We need to passionately personalise our teaching. We need to focus on the beauty of learning and on the rewards that discovery can bring, not on short-term goals and grades.

And when we catch students cheating in our classes, instead of getting angry, we need to understand why they are cheating and how we’ve allowed or even encouraged them to do so. If we can do this, we may find that the learning environment of our classes, and our teaching experience, improve dramatically.

Hamish Binns is programme director for ESL, modern languages and education at Saint Louis University, Madrid.


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