The Effort Myth and Cheating

Plagiarism, cheating, and other academic dishonesty are rightly taken very seriously by schools and universities.  The problem is not new, of course, though plagiarism is easier in a digital world. Students often don’t make the connection between using information (which is what they do with apps and the internet quite seamlessly) and being academically dishonest.

Because they are so used to cutting, pasting, sharing and reposting, students often have a hard time telling what is their own thinking versus what is re-presenting other people’s ideas.

Unless they are copying it out of that ancient technology, the book, some struggle to know what is copying and therefore unacceptable, despite hefty hand-out packets (which they may find overwhelming and not read) which define acceptable use of sources. Then there is cheating, the willful and premeditated use of information (answers) to save time (and, assuming that you are not caught, embarrassment).

Older students often have a sophisticated moral checklist when it comes to copying, sharing, and collaborating, even when it is “clearly” forbidden by school policies.

To get around the sharing of answers, educators can use time-stamped social media-style response boards to help know who posted what when. The research paper, previously an “independent” assignment, can be written at school or within a software environment. However, it can sometimes be difficult to tell whether the student is intentional or instead “inattentional” with their misuse of information.  Moreover, research shows that fear of punishment is not much of a deterrent. Students who would cheat are more likely to imagine themselves cheating and not getting caught than be “scared straight”. And like speeding, if there is no apparent victim, it may seem ok to cheat.

Passing off work of others as one’s own, if it does not appear that anyone (translate: people I know) will be harmed, is reinforced by the perception of social norms.

In schools and universities with a strict honor code, students are less likely to believe that others cheat, and less likely to cheat themselves. If instead of an honor code, there are policies with hefty consequences, students are more likely to cheat. “Cheating themselves” may be what students are really doing, but being kids, they don’t yet have the perspective strength to see it that way.

When academic dishonesty is about avoiding punishment, students don’t learn why it is good to think and learn for yourself.

When honor and learning have intrinsic value, we can teach students to give credit to others. We can model classrooms with gratitude–gratefulness for materials and ideas and colleagues that stretch our thinking and doing. As educators  and parents we can also ask ourselves if students lack background knowledge, study, research or composition skills needed to do what we assign, and support them to do authentic work rather than cutting and pasting. 

Harsh punishments often backfire because they do not recognize the complexities and impact of social norms on student behavior. Students may only learn that punishment is unreasonable or inconsistently applied. Remember the Varsity Blues Scandal? When the stakes are high and competition appears stiff, even parents may cheat to achieve a desired goal.

Should there be consequences to cheating and academic dishonesty? Yes. And we must also explore reasons beyond laziness and privilege that would drive students to cheat or plagiarize in the first place.





About the author

Sherri Fisher, MEd, MAPP, executive coach and learning specialist, uncovers client motivation and focus for perseverance. She has decades of successful experience working with students, parents, and professionals who face learning, attention, and executive function challenges at school, home, and work.

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