There was a time when cheating in school was equated to peeking at a classmate’s test answers or copying their homework before class. Flash-forward to the present day and the buzz around cheating is now highly associated with online plagiarism aided by the notorious Photo“copy-paste.” With the growth in Internet usage in educational institutions the definition of academic dishonesty has greatly broadened. But this definition becomes even broader when it comes to the huge variety in teaching methods and assignments. While some educators monitor their students’ honesty by requiring the use of plagiarism checkers and extensive citations, others let their students grade their own quizzes or take unmonitored, closed-note tests.

This leads to the controversial question: how much should students be trusted?

In high school, it was rare to write a paper without submitting it to turnitin.com, a website that checks for plagiarism. In fact, forgetting to submit to this website would often lead to a deduction in the grade for the actual assignment. Additionally, teachers monitored cheating in the classroom, and there was almost always someone supervising tests and quizzes. With this high school experience, it came as a shock to me when in one of my first college classes, we self-corrected our daily quizzes (no red pen required!) and turned them in as part of our grade. I was even more surprised when in another class we were required to take all of our tests online outside of class without the use of notes or reference materials. This made me wonder, are we placing too much trust in students?

One Wheaton professor has his students self-report the amount of reading they completed by writing what percent of the assignment they read versus skimmed. I asked him why he chose this method of grading, and he said that it is more convenient because it takes up less class time and that he trusts the students at Wheaton.

“I don’t worry about cheating, though I would not be surprised if there were isolated incidents of it,” he wrote. He also added, “The reading is not worth enough that it would jeopardize the integrity of the pedagogy. Students would have to live with the consciences. Being at a Christian college does make a difference.”

According to Jessica Lahey’s article on The Atlantic, around 60 to 70 percent of students in high school admit to having cheated. While part of this may be attributed to “easy opportunities” for cheating, there may be other larger causes. In another article, the author unpacks the book, Cheating Lessons: Learning from Academic Dishonesty by Dr. James M. Lang from Assumption College. The article states that one cause of cheating is “high-stakes testing” and that one of the ways to combat this is by “encouraging mastery rather than performance on assessments.” This suggests that placing the emphasis more on the quality of learning than on the grade can actually help reduce the amount of cheating that occurs.  Perhaps the methods of self-reporting and correcting help take the focus away from the grade itself and place it instead on the actual learning.

On the other hand, the open window for potential cheating can be a pitfall for students especially in a culture where numbers and results are often highly valued. One article on why students should cheat lays out a hypothetical scenario in which you have been kidnapped and must answer (correctly or incorrectly) ten questions on flashcards to be released. Unfortunately, the captor, who is holding the flashcards, will cut off one of your fingers for every question you miss. You notice that your captor has failed to notice a mirror behind him in which you can see all the answers on the backs of the flashcards. Do you cheat?

Of course, in this case it is obvious that the benefits of cheating outweigh the consequences of notifying your captor and facing the possibility of losing fingers. But in a classroom setting, this connection is sometimes less clear. For many students, getting a bad grade or failing a class is the (close) equivalent of having a finger chopped off. In these cases, a clear opportunity to bend the truth without direct consequences can be very difficult to handle, even for high achieving, good students. Could the lack of accountability, even if with good intention, cause students to stumble?

As Professor Lang notes, the issue of trust and academic cheating can be tied to a larger issue of the relationship between grades and actual learning in the classroom. This leads to another question about the definition that culture has placed on success and whether or not that is conducive to the ways in which students have been trained to reach it. As Lahey writes, “while we waste our time attempting to catch cheaters in the act of deception, we are distracted from our higher goal: catching students in the act of learning.”

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