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In the fight against cheating, character counts (essay)

My first political philosophy teacher was the great Joseph Cropsey who, when we came to a difficult problem in Plato, would sometimes exhort us.

“Courage,” he would say, knowing that we were tempted to quit, not only  because Plato was a hard read but also because there was much in us, from vanity to laziness to fear, that resisted education.

Like Cropsey, Mark Edmundson thinks that education makes demands on a student’s character. In his 1997 Harper’s essay, “On The Uses of A Liberal Education: As Lite Entertainment for Bored College Students,” he retells the story of a professor who supposedly issued “a harsh two-part question. One: What book did you most dislike in the course? Two: What intellectual or characterological flaws in you does that dislike point to?” Edmundson admits that the question is heavy-handed but approves of the idea that teachers summon students to an encounter they may want to dodge. Students so challenged may skip the reading, or close themselves to what they read, or engage in other kinds of cheating.

I use “cheating” in the extended sense we use when we say our students are “cheating themselves.” James Lang, for the most part, means it more narrowly in in Cheating Lessons: Learning from Academic Dishonesty. But I thought of Cropsey and Edmundson as I read Cheating Lessons because Lang shies away from the question of character. Instead, his book is about helping “faculty members to respond more effectively to academic dishonesty by modifying the learning environments they [have] constructed.”

Lang, an associate professor of English at Assumption College, advances a “theory about how specific features of a learning environment can play an important role in determining whether or not students cheat.”  Students who think learning is a means to an end take shortcuts. So a learning environment discourages cheating when it fosters “intrinsic motivation in our students,” rather than “relying on extrinsic motivators such as grades.”

Students encouraged to outperform each other on high-stakes assessments feel pressure to cheat. So a learning environment discourages cheating  when it invites students to attain  “learning objectives” and permits them to show that attainment in a variety of ways, with low-stakes assessments preparing the way for high-stakes assessments. Students who think assignments are impossible will find it easy to justify cheating. So a learning environment discourages cheating when it instills a “strong but realistic sense of self-efficacy.”

But Lang does not want teachers to think of themselves as academic honesty cops. The most “exciting discovery [he] made while writing” Cheating Lessons is this: “environments which reduce the incentive and opportunity to cheat are the very ones that, according to the most current information we have about how human beings learn, will lead to greater and deeper learning.” 

Lang made this discovery, he writes, by looking at the “problem of cheating through the lens of cognitive theory.” For example, a teacher may think that giving frequent low-stakes assessments is a distraction from learning. Lang himself thought so until he found out “how little [he] knew about the basic workings of the brain.” The well-documented “testing effect” suggests that such assessments are not merely measures of learning but an effective means of helping students retain what they have learned.

Yet I balk at the very term “learning environment,” with its faint odor of antiseptic. Educators may use the term out of humility, placing themselves in the background and seeking not so much to teach as to place students in a situation in which they can learn. But the idea of a teacher as a constructor and modifier of learning environments merely shifts the teacher’s role from the front of the room to inside the control room, flipping switches and twisting dials, modifying conditions in the same way one might modify “the conditions of a laboratory,” in accordance with the latest learning theory. It is not obvious that this approach is humbler than that of Cropsey, who, while he stood in front of the room, nonetheless was visibly engaged in the same set of difficult and fascinating problems in which he sought to engage us. If we think of our students as subjects in our laboratory, to be manipulated and nudged toward desirable behaviors, how can we develop in them the qualities of character they will need to govern themselves in environments we do not control?

To be fair, Lang, who offers several exemplars of great teaching, is well aware that teachers are models, or even coaches, not just environmental technicians. But even when he profiles a teacher, Jim Hoyle, who plainly exemplifies for students both the joys and demands of work in his field, Lang is interested in how “the ways in which we communicate with students can also help them develop an appropriately gauged sense of self-efficacy.”

Hoyle, who has written his own book on teaching, indicates that there is something more going on when he describes his own role model, Vince Lombardi. Lombardi exemplified not only a way of communicating with athletes but a message, about “courage,” “determination,” “dedication,” and “sacrifice,” that Hoyle thinks “excellent ... for both teachers and students.”

Lang’s target readers “might feel uncertain about their ability to cultivate virtues in their students.” Lang himself reminds the reader that “you are not an ethics professor” and warns against haranguing. I assume Hoyle, like most sensible people, takes for granted neither his own virtues nor his capacity to foster them in others, and he does not, on Lang’s account, do much haranguing.

But Hoyle also seems to think that he need not be an American Philosophical Association certified moral expert to try to impart to students, as well as the readers of his book on teaching, the virtues that attend the best learning and teaching. The cultivation of such virtues may be a more effective spur to learning and antidote to cheating in its narrow and broad senses than the strategies, all of them useful, on which Lang focuses. As Peter Lawler has recently argued, teachers may do well to recall the “Aristotelian point” that “intellectual virtue depends on moral virtue.”

Admittedly, I cannot appeal to the social science literature on cheating that Lang has acquainted himself with to support that last set of claims. And I agree with him that teachers and administrators must not ignore what experiments can tell us about learning. It would be foolish to spend a dime on an academic integrity orientation before you have processed Dan Ariely’s finding that Princeton’s academic integrity orientation showed absolutely no effect on the likelihood that Princeton students would cheat on a math test two weeks after it ended. It would be foolish to ignore the results of the MIT experiment with a “studio model” for teaching physics, which dramatically reduced both cheating and the rate of failure in the course.

But Lang oversells what social science can tell us at present. For example, to support his argument that “performance oriented classrooms,” which emphasize “grades and competition among students,” encourage cheating, Lang cites a paper by Eric Anderman and Tamara Murdock. But Anderman and Murdock are more cautious than Lang because while “students report cheating more if they perceive the presence of a performance goal structure,” two studies find that “goal structure appears to be unrelated to cheating when a more objective method of assessing context is utilized.” The “extent to which teachers can reduce cheating by implementing” practices of the sort Lang recommends “is still unclear.”

Consider also Lang’s doubt that “hard punishments deter potential cheaters.” While Lang supports this claim in part by citing the work of Donald McCabe, Kenneth Butterfield, and Linda Trevino, they themselves have concluded, drawing on their own and others’ research, that  “academic dishonesty is negatively associated with  the perceived certainty of being reported and the perceived severity of penalties.” Similarly, Anderman and Murdock, in the same paper we have been considering, assume that “[f]ears of being caught and the perceived severity of the consequences for being caught are two of the most important deterrents to potential cheaters.”

Lang is still right to emphasize that “we have no incontrovertible evidence that harsh penalties deter cheating.” Moreover, I agree with him that an anti-cheating regime that focuses primarily on threats is unlikely to succeed. On the other hand, there is hardly a groundswell of support for harsh punishments. McCabe and his co-authors argue that the opposite is true: many faculty members have concluded that confronting cheating isn’t worth the trouble. How, they ask, “can we expect students to believe that cheating is a serious problem when faculty and others are reluctant to deal with cheaters ... when cheating receives minor consequences and, worst of all, when faculty look the other way?”

However that may be, Lang, as his discussion of the performance classroom shows, does not typically insist that evidence be incontrovertible before one acts on it. It is fine to set a high bar for accepting and acting on the results of social science research. But you can’t set a higher bar for approaches you are already inclined to disagree with than you set for approaches you are otherwise inclined to favor.

That’s cheating.

Jonathan Marks, author of Perfection and Disharmony in the Thought of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (Cambridge University Press, 2005), is associate professor of politics at Ursinus College. He tweets at


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