A New Approach: Understanding the Cheating Dilemma

By Staff Writers Jessica Jen & Vicki Xu
There’s no doubt about it: cheating is connected to the MSJ identity as strongly as the Bell Tower is.
From the Stanford Survey of Adolescent School Experiences, a whopping 90 percent of MSJ students have cheated at least once in the past year. This figure, though gigantic, isn’t so surprising. After all, the clusters of students who gather during Read, passing periods, and lunch to copy homework and solicit test questions have nearly become a part of MSJ’s scenery. Stories of test-laundering rings and calculator trafficking from years ago linger in hallways and on Snapchat, with not so much disgust as reverence for accomplishing such elaborately dishonest feats — or pity for getting caught.
However, this is not specific to MSJ, nor is it anything new. The Educational Testing Service found in the late 1990s that high school cheating increased by more than 50 percent since the 1940s, and judging by our current results, the number hasn’t gone down. Indeed, in 2015, Rutgers Business School Professor Donald McCabe found that 95 percent of more than 70,000 high school students surveyed participated in some form of cheating. But there’s no dearth of initiatives created to combat this phenomenon. McCabe founded the International Center for Academic Integrity in 1992 to promote academic honesty among students. Honor pledges abound in colleges and now high school. Districts have considered setting up surveillance cameras to monitor students’ academic behaviors. Still, none of these seem to have efficiently combated the problem. Why, for all our good intentions, does cheating persist?
The answer is that we’ve become a society that prioritizes prestige and achievement above all else. Only look around at the Silicon Valley, with its myriad millionaires and ambitious entrepreneurs, to see how much we value wealth and fame. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it becomes an issue when integrity is sacrificed. At MSJ, courseload difficulty and grades are near fetishized in an abstract pursuit of a highly-ranked college. Honesty is dispensable if achievement, however petty, is at stake. If honesty is as important to us as we may like to believe, there should be far fewer cheaters, and the act itself should not be considered so lucrative.
Just denouncing cheaters as hurting other people is a feeble appeal to cheaters’ consciences. They already know they hurt others. In curved classes, their ill-acquired grades skew the curve unfairly each time. In the world at large, they function to the detriment of people around them — the uber-wealthy dodge taxes and avoid contributing to society; corrupt politicians siphon money from campaign donations for personal use; and, infamously, Bernie Madoff swindled millions from investors in his Ponzi scheme. These are conscious decisions to make, and cheaters know the outcome. In committing to dishonesty, cheaters accept their impact on society, so appealing to their ethics will not work.
Thus, more important than trying to guide cheaters from their errant ways is to treat the root causes of cheating, not the cheaters themselves, who are merely products of a larger culture. Students cheat believing they can save energy on assignments or assessments while still achieving satisfactory results. By not putting forth maximum effort, they send the message that they are not engaged in the assignments, or the assignments are not worth their time. This leads to a toxic cycle in which normally honest students are drawn to dishonesty, feeling their efforts are undervalued or otherwise simply trying to catch up to the impossible bar set by cheaters.  At its core, this sense of entitlement to a grade is tangled up with insecurity. What other way to succeed in a community where academic achievement seems to be the currency of social standing? After all, a plurality of Stanford Survey respondents indicated that they were most proud of their academics.
Clearly, the problem lies in mindset. Surveillance cameras and stringent rules do not solve this problem — they may suppress cheating, but cheating does not go away, because the environment remains unchanged outside of the classroom. Students and teachers must work together to solve the underlying issue. One strategy involves the students’ and teachers’ concentrated effort towards increasing the relevancy of classroom material. For example, continually making connections between classroom material and the outside world improves engagement, and more engaged students see a renewed sense of purpose in their educational pursuits. They are then less likely to forego that sense of purpose by cheating. Also, respect for teachers and instruction is  important — it lowers the likelihood of sacrificing academic integrity.
For the long term, we must start thinking  about awarding mastery over performance, progress over achievement. But ultimately, until we stop justifying the ends by the means, our culture of cheating isn’t going anywhere.
Graphic by Opinion Editor Anthony Chen

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