Students should realize cheating is impractical
November 17, 2010
Two hundred and fifteen students.
That’s the number accused of cheating in a single business class at the University of Central Florida earlier this semester. The news went viral when the professor’s ultimatum to his students hit YouTube earlier this month: fess up and take a course on ethics, or face the possibility of expulsion.
The professor in question is not without blame, but when I first saw this on the news, the more intriguing part came from two interviews: One student who felt every student caught cheating deserved whatever they got and more, and another who said everyone cheats all the time and the professor was overly harsh.
I see similarly varied responses to cheating among professors themselves. One of my favorite teachers came in to each midterm and the final accompanied by a stuffed puffin, who would sit facing us on the front desk “to keep an eye on us” while the professor graded homework.
And last semester, I taught for the most ardently anti-cheating instructor I have ever met, Tom Carty. He’s heard so many stories, seen so many ways of cheating, and has come up with rules to combat most all of it: For example, no hats are to be worn on during his tests, students have written notes under the brim before. His thoroughness has even caught students cheating … for an entirely different class.
My own response is muted. I have on multiple occasions held two quizzes, completed by students who sit next to each other every day, with the exact same problem done the exact same — unusual and incorrect — way. Almost certain cheating involved, yes, but I just put a zero at the top of the page (the answer was quite wrong, after all.)
While the University punishes students caught cheating rather strongly, it makes the accusation of cheating a rather involved process for the teachers. I’m thankful for that; it does not send the right message to students to punish them for even the smallest of infractions. Sure, I could take students to task for copying a quiz answer off a neighbor, but I think a zero says “Cheating isn’t helpful,” in a far more meaningful way. All the UCF students who admitted to cheating will have to retake their test, which gets the point across far better than expulsion.
I just can’t help but get cynical about cheating; if someone needs to cheat to get by in my class then they are setting themselves up for massive trouble two semesters down the road.
Could someone cheat even in Tom’s classes? Sure. But by the time the student has found a way to cheat, lucked out in not getting caught, and managed to get a formula actually useful for the test hidden on their person, wouldn’t it just have been easier to study in the first place?
I think Tom gets one thing quite right: He makes cheating a hard thing to do. We could talk about ethics until we’re blue in the face, but people will still act unethically. We can talk about heinous punishments, but people will still earn them.
The student in the interview who said that everyone cheats is right, to an extent. Students cut corners all the time, and that’s basically what cheating is. I don’t think there’s been a student yet in the history of the modern education system who didn’t B.S. their way through at least one paragraph on at least one report.
But even as everyone is cutting corners, we as educators work to find ways to prevent that, or at least to make learning happen regardless of what corners are cut. Making cheating impractical serves that purpose better than just punishing those who do cheat.
And once the impracticality of cheating ingrains itself into students, the hard-line rules can be backed off.
During one final I took for an advanced class, the professor stood up a few minutes in and left the classroom for over an hour. We had all the opportunity needed to cheat, but we simply looked at each other, laughed nervously and went back to the test.
At the end, we all turned it in, one by one, and it felt good.
Not because we had done something ethical. Not because we had done something right.
Simply because we had been trusted.
Joseph is a graduate student.