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Education Matters: Cheating in the Classroom

Brian Thomas of Lafayette's Bentley School discusses why students cheat, and how you can help them keep their honor

Brian Thomas: Associate head of school / head of the upper school at Bentley.

This past summer I went on a “thank you” tour to visit colleges in the Midwest and on the East Coast that had accepted our students into their ranks over the last four years. I wanted to visit places where our students were thriving especially well and current students might want to go in the future. The University of Chicago and DePaul University in Chicago, my former hometown, were on the list. Oberlin College in Ohio also has been resonating with a lot of our students. Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., was on my list. I visited Yale, my own alma mater in New Haven, Conn., to deliver Bentley’s “thank you” notes. I meandered all the way to Cambridge, Mass., to visit Harvard, my final stop. No one in the Harvard Admissions Office was around to receive me, because they were renovating their offices and had moved into temporary quarters in an old Radcliffe building. After wandering around Harvard Yard for a few hours trying to deliver their note, I ended up having a self-guided tour, which seemed to show an institution full of diverse programs fulfilling its mission of educational excellence.

So, imagine my surprise when Harvard appeared in the pages of the New York Times a few weeks later, a cheating scandal having rocked its core. By now you have probably heard about this outrageous incident last spring, which occurred in an undergraduate course called “Introduction to Congress.” The allegations of academic dishonesty and the subsequent investigation sent ripples throughout the academic world (see the New York Times article, “Harvard Student in Cheating Scandal Say Collaboration Was Accepted”).

Cheating scandal rocks Harvard // nytimes.comAccording to the charges, nearly half of the students in the class, around 125 in all, collaborated on a take-home exam, which was expressly forbidden by the assistant professor who taught the class. Students in this class included two of the co-captains of the top-rated Harvard Men’s Basketball Team (see ESPN.com article). Ironically, the motto of 300-year-old Harvard celebrates the pursuit of truth with the Latin word  “Veritas.”

Some media accounts have been virulent in pointing a finger at the students. In addition, the professor has been criticized in the media—as well as by a few students at Harvard—for changing the course from previous years. According to past students, the course was considered an “easy to get an A” undergraduate course until this professor decided to make the course more rigorous and in keeping with Harvard’s high standards.

What shocked me was not that cheating would have been prevalent at an institution as august as Harvard, but rather that students would risk their reputations and academic futures while facing the specter of being asked to leave after working so hard to get in. It had me thinking about my own students and what I might say to their parents and students as a lesson in the aftermath of one of the most visible cheating cases to come along in a long time.

Also, in thinking through the scandal’s effect on the reputation of one of the best-known colleges in the world, and perhaps considering a fundamental flaw in the system (where half a class of students cheat!), more than a few questions, and perhaps even a couple of answers, emerge for the typical middle-school and high-school student. Why do students cheat? Is there a flaw in the system? On the other hand, cheating is cheating. Right?

As parents and educators, we never want our students to make a move that can get them sent packing. As the adults in their lives, we have also instilled ideas and values in our students along the way that make them into the kind of people that we know that they are capable of becoming. That’s what school is supposed to do. Yet at a certain point, copying and pasting Wikipedia entries into an English or social studies paper or even copying a math assignment from a friend before the start of the next period can get a student into hot water with the school and even expelled—not just from Harvard but from any school that upholds the values of academic honesty. 

Students cheat for a variety of reasons. Here are four to consider, with ideas for possible solutions:


1.) Children do not want to disappoint their parents: Even though you have given them your value system and spoken to them about right and wrong, students cheat because they don’t want to bring home bad grades to the people they care about the most: their parents and guardians. When you emphasize to your sons and daughters that you want them to get good grades, they take those conversations to heart. One parent I spoke to said that she often gives her children moderately expensive rewards for “earning” good grades. That’s a slippery slope. As much as some folks might have you believe, learning at school is not like doing business where students receive bonuses for a job well done. Some kids are definitely motivated by extrinsic influences, like money or a new iPad. However, instilling internal mile markers in your student for a job well done, like creating written goals that they can feel the pleasure of ticking off, always sets them up better for success later in life (more on behavior modification techniques in a later blog).

One possible solution: Tell your student that effort is more important than anything. Even though few schools past elementary school grade effort (largely because it’s hard to quantify), effort—not just time spent on task—stands as the most important determining factor in overall success in students. Success should be determined by meeting a challenge head on. For instance, having your students take the harder math class and working to the edges of his/her limits, knowing they might get a B or C, may be better than coasting in the lesser math class where an A is more than possible but not much learning takes place.

2.) Students are pressed for time: Some students will sometimes take short cuts. However, shortcuts often become even more complicated when they become habits. Sometimes it is important for your children to find ways to become more efficient, but shortcuts that lead to dubious habits and procrastination usually will have students looking for quick fixes that don’t always end up saving time in the long run. In college and in high school, it is the rare student indeed who can do all of the assigned reading and homework. Whether it’s because their brains process information more slowly than other kids or because they had a late soccer game the night before, students will need to learn how to skim or peruse so that they can manage their lives more effectively. On the other hand, there is another category of student who get into the habit of always taking the shortest road to any given assignment. Many students in this camp report that they could have completed the problem set, lab report, or essay themselves, but they just were too overloaded with commitments and the reward (of finishing) outweighed the risk of getting caught cheating.

One possible solution: Talk to your son or daughter about time management and try to help strategize about how to schedule work, and then work more efficiently. Learning time management techniques and looking for ways to help your student streamline their work may be one of the best gifts you can give them. Tell your student that you expect their best effort always, even including time-saving (not career-ending)—detours. Remind them that copying off of another student or plagiarizing off the Internet could turn around and bite them—hard. Plagiarizing and cheating can be career ending. Your children need to know that.

3.) Students feel peer pressure: Sometimes students feel that if they can help someone else in the class, or even a different class who has the same assignment, they may be more popular, or at the very least not disliked. Students fear that if they don’t allow another student to copy from them, they may become the odd person out with a classmate or the group. Maybe your son or daughter is already the one who sits alone and would very much like to have friends, and by letting someone see the answers to work they completed themselves, it will make them feel less alone—especially if the copier is more socially accepted.

One possible solution: Tell your son or daughter that allowing someone else to cheat can actually make the feeling of isolation even worse, as he or she is being used by the student with more social status and power. Point out that cheaters tend not to cheat off of people with a good self-image. Again, some students understand this, but the temptation of having a friend even for a brief moment is too great. Allowing someone to cheat from one’s own hard won work does not really win friends, and what kind of true friend likes to cheat? Encourage your student to find others at school who share their values about integrity and hard work, which becomes a virtuous circle in the end.

4.) Students may not understand the assignment: As hard as it is for teachers to admit, students do not always understand what they are being asked to do. Oftentimes a classroom or even discipline-specific teacher like an English or math teacher will assume that all students understand the nuances they are trying to convey. Yet, when you speak to students, they run into trouble in trying to interpret or infer what teachers actually want from a particular topic, problem, or essay, especially when they are at home trying to complete what was assigned for the next school day.  Good educators will often go around the room to check for understanding, which is a way to informally assess whether the majority of students understand. Those teachers may have students write down or say aloud the key components of a given assignment before students are given permission to leave the class. These highly effective teachers will also have those key components of an assignment written on a board or on an online syllabus.

One possible solution: Have your son or daughter ask questions about assignments before leaving class or even after class (via email from home) so that they can better understand what the teacher expects from him or her. Have them repeat it back to the teacher, if informally, to make sure the communication is clear. This is a good skill to develop generally.

It's not just the students at Harvard who are struggling to keep up, but our own children, too. // ideas.time.comAs schools in the United States try to improve their standing globally (think of the current administration’s initiative Race to the Top or the bi-partisan legislation of No Child Left Behind, or even the standardized tests, like the SAT, ACT, AP, etc.), the number of cheating episodes will continue to rise (see “Cheating in Academic Institutions: A Decade of Research”). It’s not just the kids at Harvard, but our own children, too, who are struggling to keep up and wanting to please.

Reflecting on my cross-country journey from Lafayette to Cambridge, I know that there is much we can do together—parents, guardians, and educators—to raise children who understand right from wrong. As the author Wendy Mogel says, “We raise our children to leave us.” And, we want them to leave us with a value system that they can be proud of looking back over long, productive lives. 

The most important thing to instill in all of our students is a sense of wonder and a passion for learning, not strategies for getting around high-stakes tests and assignments. We’d like for our students, resilient and confident in every way, to always be grateful for the things they have and to understand the things they need to achieve in this world. Lastly, it’s vital that our students develop a passion for giving a good solid effort, always. 

Brian Thomas is the associate head of school and head of the upper school at Bentley School in Lafayette. He's the former head of school of Presidio Hill School, San Francisco, and the executive director/high school designer at the Andre Agassi College Preparatory School in Las Vegas. He has a 23-year career as a teacher and administrator in independent and public schools. Thomas is also an Emmy-winning actor (1988) and is the author of articles and a speaker about education and parenting issues.

Articles and resources cited:

NY Times: “Harvard Student in Cheating Scandal Say Collaboration Was Accepted”

Time: “Harvard Cheating Scandal: Is Academic Dishonesty on the Rise?

“Cheating in Academic Institutions: A Decade of Research”

ESPN: “Harvard co-captains could withdraw”


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