Why cheat?

I really have to try and write this blog more than once a month.

I was talking to some colleagues today who were discussing how to administer a vocabulary quiz to their students and keep said students from cheating. It led me to thinking about the whole concept of cheating in school and what it really accomplishes.

In the short term, cheating gets one a possibly good grade for doing little work. Besides the fact that this is clearly a product of our reward-based culture (i.e. the grade is more important than the learning), it really winds up being more detrimental to the student than beneficial, so I say: “Let them cheat!”

Teachers spend so much time and energy trying to work out systems that are “uncheatable” as well as scouring student work to see if they cheated. I know. I do it. But the truth is, if one follows the logical path of the cheater, it’s not worth it. Watch:

A student gets the answers to a reading quiz on a chapter of To Kill a Mockingbird because he didn’t read last night, but wants to get a good grade. The teacher gives the quiz, the student cheats on it, the teacher doesn’t notice, the student gets an A. Most people would stop there and say, “He doesn’t deserve an A! He didn’t learn the material!” You’re right! But the path doesn’t stop there.

The student gets away with getting an A on one quiz. The result, since we emphasize grades over learning, is he will cheat again. Why work when you can get an A without it? He continues not to read the book, cheats on reading quizzes, gets A’s. But then comes the essay. Now, the teacher assigns an essay that utilizes the knowledge of the text and asks the students to think critically about a message that comes out of that text that has been discussed in class. The cheater cannot do this, because he did not read the book. So, again, he has to cheat to get a good grade, which he definitely will not get if he doesn’t cheat, and that would look suspicious since he clearly read and understood all the details of the book based on the quiz scores he achieved. Oh, wait, he cheated on the quizzes…

So, the student asks a friend for “help” and cheats on the essay. Does this cause anxiety? In some of my actual students, yes, because I often catch plagiarizers, but, I don’t catch them all. At least, I don’t think so. Statistics are not on my side. Which means:

The student gets a good grade on the essay. Remember basic psychology: reward leads to repeated action. It’s how we train dogs. Student cheats, gets good grades. Easy to follow right?

I bet by now you are still wondering when this is all going to turn around. Where’s the justice? Where’s the punishment for cheating? There isn’t yet. Because he keeps getting good grades, the student continues to cheat. Perhaps he tries this in other classes too, trying to minimize the amount of homework he actually has to do since he normally would have about 4-5 hours of it. Kid’s got to sleep, right?

This goes on all the way to graduation from high school. He gets good grades, he builds a nice transcript, he gets into a good college like everyone has told him he has to do. No one that he would have listened to earlier has pushed him to learn, only to get good grades to get into a good college. Well, he succeeded. He got into a good college! Success, right?

But it is much harder to cheat in college, especially at a good, highly-competitive one. Here’s the first possible retribution for cheating: he fails out of college because he never learned what he needed to learn in high school. But let’s say he makes it through college, cheating where he can and taking poor grades where he can’t. Remember habits are formed through repetitive actions and cheating has become a habit. So, he graduates from college. No honors or fantastic transcript, but the college has a good name that will open some doors for him in the working world. So, he’ll get job interviews, and, eventually, a job.

Didn’t get caught in college? You can’t cheat a job. No one else is doing what you do, usually. You have to have the skills that your college degree implies you have. Cheater loses job, learns to say, “Would you like fries with that?”

Okay, the end is a bit of an exaggeration, but the point is made. Cheaters ALWAYS lose. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow, but someday. So, let them cheat. It’s what our society has trained them to do. The few students who have been raised to value education and learning will not cheat, work hard, and truly succeed. And sure, statistically speaking, some of the cheaters make it through and get ahead in life and could even become, say, president. But, eventually, maybe even many, many years down the line, they all get caught.

I cannot change American culture. I cannot convince students that learning is more important than grades. I can barely convince them that reading and writing are necessary to their lives at all. I can, however, teach MY child the value of learning and praise her efforts over her rewards and show her that success comes from the doing, not the receiving.


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