Cheating at Harvard? Say it ain’t so!
Uhm… just ask the IRS about cheaters… never mind, let’s not go there. But cheating in school?
Half the incoming Harvard freshmen admitted to cheating, and last year the school expelled 70 students for academic dishonesty. Many of those students claim that they “collaborated” in preparation for an exam and were unfairly accused. Either way, it highlights the problem with academic honesty: who you gonna trust? and who gets hurt the most, anyway?
My favorite cheater was the kid in my 4th grade class who copied his neighbor’s test word for word — including her name. As a teacher I have no favorite cheaters, and I know it went on all the time. There’s no good way to stop it, frankly, except…
Except for this: cheating isn’t so much academic dishonesty as it is a signal, albeit an immoral one, of not knowing. We need to stop treating cheating as simply dishonest and address instead its causes. I’d like to applaud those half of Harvard freshmen for being honest about cheating. I don’t know the exact questions of the survey, but we can be assured that some or more of the supposedly honest other half lied. Faced with the enormous challenge of getting into Harvard, you can be damned sure that many a kid with Harvard aspirations pulled an ace out of the sleeve on occasion in order to get that extra advantage. Let’s be honest here: the reasons for cheating are larger than the moral code against it.
Students who don’t cheat are of two species, both of them rare. The first is an obtusely honest and moral person. Wow, and God bless ’em for they shall inherit the earth. The other type doesn’t need to cheat: they did what they had to do to learn and understand what’s expected of them by their teacher. They don’t need it.
One of the most amazing students who ever blessed my classroom reports a horrible cheating event she endured at college. A very, very difficult engineering professor whom, quite literally, no student understands, scheduled a test as usual, and the students showed up as usual ready to get killed. This day, however, this rather tenured prof didn’t show, and the students were not only on their own in taking the exam, the TA who proctored it encouraged them to cheat. My former student who never, ever needed to cheat is also that other type of rare, obtuse species who refuses to cheat. She failed miserably while the other students managed to pass with their extraordinary “collaboration,” as the Harvard cheaters called it. My honest and good former student was bent and nearly destroyed by it all: she had studied, she had prepared, she had kept her oath of honesty. And the cheaters were rewarded.
How do we sort this one out? The cheaters were not only allowed but were encouraged to cheat. The sole honest student was stuck with a poor grade that really hurt. (In Engineering, the difference between a .1 and .2 grade increment is the difference between jobs). Is this life? Do successful people need to cheat for success? Do good guys really finish last?
All I can say is that cheating will never stop. I get it when teachers want to “teach a lesson” (I love that phrase coming from teachers) and crush academic dishonesty. But please know that cheating is a cry for help as much as it is dishonesty. Punish the cheating, yes, but deliver compassion and severe, constant, and direct attention to the learning that has gone missing.
Cheating on tests is simply wrong and should be stamped out. But cheating on prepared work is an entirely other problem that cries for a different solution.
In our student support service, we review student writing in advance of handing it in for a couple reasons. Primarily, if the student gets a draft done in time for us to review it, that student is more likely to hand it in on time. Secondly, our review feedback builds student writing skills. But we also test every paper for plagiarism, and we highlight (“BING, BANG, FLASHING, FLASHING) plagiarism. Sometimes the plagiarism is the result of simple laziness. If so, fix it and get it done right. Other times, it’s just a dart thrown blindly at the wall, an attempt to get something in, anything, because the student is lost and doesn’t know how or what to write. Usually, though, it’s a skill deficiency and all that is needed is practice and guidance for the student to get past using someone else’s words and to develop ownership of ideas.
When it comes to plagiarizing on papers, I strongly recommend that teachers not simply fail a kid; they’re failing themselves at the same time. Work with and not against the student. Cheating is not murder, it is not rape, and it is only a very mild kind of theft. It is wrong, but its cure must be taught and not bashed. If the kid knows it, there will be no cheating. If the kid is confused, unprepared, lost, cheating will likely follow.
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