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Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Why Students Cheat

Lately there has been a great deal written about student cheating. Today there was an editorial in the New York Times, which as always gets education wrong. Why do students cheat is usually answered by mentioning that it is the fault of the internet or else by listing the big three reasons which are:

The pressure to get good grades

They are lazy and didn’t do the required work

They thought they could get away with it

The Times editorial quotes a professor who says: “This represents a shift away from the view of education as the process of intellectual engagement through which we learn to think critically and toward the view of education as mere training. In training, you are trying to find the right answer at any cost, not trying to improve your mind.”

The editorial goes on to mention “more than half the colleges in the country have retained services that check student papers for material lifted from the Internet and elsewhere.” And then the writer adds: “parents, teachers and policy makers need to understand that this is not just a matter of personal style or generational expression. It’s a question of whether we can preserve the methods through which education at its best teaches people to think critically and originally.”

I wonder if there could be a better explanation of why students cheat? Perhaps the answer is that the professors and their universities encourage students to cheat. Let me explain:

Consider the Motor Vehicle bureau’s approach to education. Why aren't we hearing about rampant student cheating in driver’s license exams? Perhaps there is cheating on the written tests, I don’t know. But I am pretty sure there isn’t cheating on the actual driving test. Why not? Because that test is a test of performance ability, not competence. The driver’s test tests to see if you can actually do something and there is a person looking to see if you can do it.

Now let’s think about the university model of education. Universities don't actually ask professors to see if their students can do anything in a one on one encounter as the motor vehicle bureau does. Why not?

Because the universities are cheating. They are cheating in two way. First they are claiming that education consists of one professor talking to 100 students in a series of lectures and then passing a test. That is not education. That is a way that universities can have 50,00 students while only hiring 2000 professors, a model that really doesn’t work for the students at all. Listening and regurgitating is not education. Suppose we actually tried to teach every student to think for themselves. Wouldn’t we have to individually assess their actual thinking, by engaging them in a real conversation, to see if they can think clearly?

But way more important here is the plain fact that for the most part, we aren't teaching students to do actually do anything. We are teaching them to write papers about what they know which is very different than actually doing something. You can’t cheat in a an engineering class if your job is to build plane that flies and the professor’s job is to watch it fly. You can’t cheat in a music class if your job is play the piano and the teacher’s job is to listen to you. You can only cheat if your job is read and write and the professor’s job is to grade essays as fast as he can.

As long as doing is subjugated to a secondary role in education, cheating will occur regularly. As long as being educated means being able to write an academic essay or being able to fill in dots on a multiple choice test, students should cheat. They are being cheated of an education and they know it, so they should cheat in response.

This is all a silly game and all students know it. What do they have to do to get a degree is their question. No one is really providing them an education. Professors can claim that they are teaching students to think but they are more typically teaching them how to look at the world in the way the professor looks at it.

Perhaps it is time to start producing people who can do things and to stop worrying if students rip off essays from the internet. The simple solution: stop having them write essays. But then someone might have to actually teach someone to do something and then watch and see if they can do it. That thought is horrifying to universities because it implies a different economic basis for the university, one not based on research contracts, as well as a de-emphasis on academic research for students who will never do it as adults.

When professors stop cheating students of an education perhaps students will stop cheating as well.

As an aside, in 35 years as a professor I never once assigned a research essay or gave a multiple choice test. I did, however ask students to think and write about things that had no right answer. And I asked them to build things. I actually expected them to think.