Book Review: ‘Cheating Lessons’ Puts Burden on Teachers

If recent headlines on new academic cheating scandals are getting you down, pick up a copy of Cheating Lessons: Learning from Academic Dishonesty by James M. Lang. Lang, an associate professor of English at Assumption College, takes a decidedly optimistic tone in confronting the problem and what can be done to alleviate it.

Lang_jacketLang starts by debunking the myth that cheating is at an all-time high. Citing data and studies going back five decades, he makes a convincing case that students have always cheated when given the opportunity. He complains that too many studies have tried to determine the dispositional factors that influence cheating (gender, fraternity membership, sports) when in fact, it’s clear that “under the right conditions, most people are willing to cheat.” That may not reassure everyone—knowing that 75% of students admit to cheating at one time or another is hardly good news—but it does put a different slant on the nature of the problem. At least it’s not getting worse.

Lang then examines the reasons why students cheat. Students, it turns out, are much more likely to cheat when course emphasis is put on performance, when they feel insecure about what they’ve learned, when they’re less involved in the course, and when they have the opportunity and a good chance of never getting caught and/or punished. There are no surprises here, but knowing why serves as an important step in figuring out how to deal with the issue.
Lang does that to propose some interesting and helpful solutions, putting most of the emphasis on schools and teachers, who, he argues, must change the way classes are presented. And he advocates a wide range of changes: curriculum requirements, course design, daily classroom practices, the nature and administration of assignments and exams, and the students’ relationship with the instructor. He argues for engaging students by asking big questions that will get them to engage with the course material.

One of Lang’s more controversial suggestions is to give students a variety of ways to prove their mastery of the subject matter rather than forcing them all to jump through the same hoops. Students, Lang says, are more likely to cheat when all of the course’s focus is on a big exam at the end; they’re less likely if allowed to show they’ve mastered the material through class discussion, frequent less-important quizzes, essays that can be rewritten after grading, and open-ended exams. Lang goes into considerable detail in offering teachers options and approaches, and this is by far the most useful section of the book, but the advice can only go so far. The techniques he proposes will work a lot more easily in a literary seminar of eight students than in an introductory economics course with an enrollment of 400.

What’s bothersome about Lang’s approach is that he appears to be blaming teachers and schools for cheating, arguing that current approaches to the classroom and a weak approach to punishment foster cheating. While he makes a point of saying that he’s not absolving students of blame—that cheating is always inappropriate behavior—his emphasis on teaching makes it seem that he’s willing to accept and move on from the near-universal willingness to cheat. Yes, we can agree that if teachers are so good that students “see the course material as intrinsically fascinating, useful or beautiful,” they’re more likely to absorb it and less likely to feel a need to cheat, but that’s a lofty goal, not a realistic, universal option. In the meantime, as we work to better education, let’s also work harder to instill ethical values in young people so they know that cheating is wrong. Period.

Cheating Lessons: Learning from Academic Dishonesty, by James M. Lang, Harvard University Press, 2013, 256 pp.

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3 thoughts on “Book Review: ‘Cheating Lessons’ Puts Burden on Teachers

  1. The classic study was by William J. Bowers in 1964. One of the Deans at Richmond Professional Institute lent me his copy and I made a summary that might be useful to those interested in the problem of college cheating:

    Around 1964, a report was published by the Bureau of Applied Social Research at Columbia University under the title “Student Dishonesty and its Control in College”. It documents the results of a survey, conducted by William J. Bowers, of more than 5,000 students selected from 99 colleges.

    The most startling finding was that about half of the students surveyed admitted having cheated at least once while in college. This was three times the average estimate of college deans and twice the estimate of student body presidents.

    Paradoxically, Bowers found that about 90% of the students felt that cheating was morally wrong. And, although personal convictions about cheating was one of the strongest factors in choosing not to cheat, another factor had a higher correlation to cheating. When a student felt that his/her friends and fellow students thought cheating was okay, they were more likely to cheat.

    Bowers was able to classify each college by its “climate of peer disapproval” according to how students thought their friends and other students felt about cheating. At schools where perceived peer disapproval was weak, 3 times as many students had cheated as had at colleges where peer disapproval was felt to be strong.

    Schools where students actively took a stand against cheating were least likely to have high rates of cheating. Only 10% of schools with student run honor systems had cheating rates above 50%, while 66% of schools with faculty centered control and 86% of those that had combined student/faculty judiciaries had cheating rates above 50%.

    Classroom factors were also related to cheating. There was more cheating in large classes than small ones, more cheating in elementary courses than advanced, more cheating in lecture based than discussion based classes, and more cheating in courses using only a textbook than in courses using outside readings. Students were also more likely to cheat on surprise quizzes, in courses graded on the curve, and when exams were closely proctored.

    • Lang spends a fair amount of time recounting Bowers’ studies and trying to build on them, looking for factors that will help create a teaching strategy that will reduce the incentive to cheat. I wonder about the effect of time on this. Bowers numbers are 50 years old. Today it seems that many more kids go to college than did back then, and obviously the Internet makes many forms of cheating a lot easier.

      Lang is also critical of schools for not being tougher on cheating, complaining that schools are reluctant to come down hard on cheaters who are paying such hefty funds and keeping schools above water.

      • Another resource is “Cheating in Academic Institutions: A Decade of Research” by Donald L. McCabe et al. The 75% figure you mentioned is more common in high school than college, I believe.

        Based on Bowers’ assessment, the best approach would be a student run committee that sets the tone of expectations in the student body. An honor council, perhaps, but without the honor court (single sanction). Instead, a student court with flexibility in punishments would be more appropriate. The single sanction of expulsion is hardly ever justified in a first offense of cheating.

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