The Types Of Students Who Cheat
Erika Christakis and Nicholas A. Christakis are “house masters” of one of the 12 undergraduate residential-academic communities at Harvard College, a perch that gives them “a bird’s-eye view of the pressures that can drive students to [the] temptation” to cheat. “We’ve observed two types of students who are especially vulnerable,” they write on Time Ideas:
“The first type is prone to panic and self-doubt. Feeling the weight of family or societal expectations, these students become so worried about failure that they lose perspective and fail to see obvious alternatives to cheating like asking for help before things get out of control, making up a failed class over the summer, taking time off, being honest with their parents or learning to cope with a plan B.
Because of their youth and immaturity, these students don’t realize that bombing a class isn’t a permanent blot on their record as a human being and will not likely affect their long-term capacity to find a job or get into graduate school. The tunnel vision of late adolescence, which can be so energizing in other arenas, takes on a toxicity that inhibits resilience in the face of disappointment.
The second type of student at risk for cheating belongs to one or more social networks like fraternities, “final clubs,” athletic teams or cultural-affinity groups, where barriers to cheating (like social opprobrium) are lower and the logistic means to cheat (like sharing study materials) is more common.
Membership in these networks often comes with a high degree of loyalty and social pressure to perpetuate cheating or protect cheaters from discovery. In fact, there is evidence that peer attitudes to cheating help predict who will engage in academic dishonesty.
But on some level, everyone is at risk for academic dishonesty, no matter who or where they are. Nowadays, we seem to live in a culture of lies. Should we really be surprised that high schoolers cheat on standardized tests when they grow up among adults — Olympic cyclists, politicians, money managers, high school administrators, journalists, professors and even their own parents — who may be thrifty, at best, with the truth?
It doesn’t help to whisk away such a widespread phenomenon by dividing the world into good and bad people or insisting that the whole business is simply beyond our control.
The right response to cheating involves not just adjudicating the individual cases but also exploring and addressing the structural determinants and risk factors for academic dishonesty. For guidance, academic institutions can look within their own community. Many scholars are already at the vanguard of understanding how decent people fall prey to the pressures of groupthink and poor decisionmaking.
For example, Dan Ariely, a behavioral economist at Duke University, describes some of the science behind the contagion of cheating norms in his recent book, “The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty.” We need to learn more about the learning environments that either promote or inhibit academic integrity.” Read more here.
This approach strikes me as very sensible and constructive: instead of wringing our hands over the corrupt morals of this generation of students, let’s figure out the situations and conditions that lead some students to cheat and address those. And let’s use rigorous, evidence-based approaches to make those findings, instead of engaging in a moral witch hunt.