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 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.