When the fall semester opens at Harvard University in just a few short weeks, the campus will still be echoing from the cheating scandal last year that saw the suspension of more than 60 students in a government course.
The scandal grabbed attention because of the shock value of the headline’s pairing: Harvard students and cheating. Most commentators zeroed in on the students—apparently lazy and dishonest, for all their talent—or on the hypercompetitive culture of America’s most prestigious university. Still others suggested that cheating has become commonplace in our schools as the result of the increasingly amoral larger society in which they operate.
What these arguments have in common is the assumption that students are cheating much more than they used to. In fact, the rate of students who admit to cheating at least once in their college careers has held steady at somewhere around 75 percent since the first major survey on cheating in higher education in 1963. But 75 percent is a disheartening number for faculty, future employers, and the parents who are footing hefty tuition bills—not to mention for the five students out of every 20-person seminar who have pursued all their work honestly.
College administrators largely seem to have accepted the notion that the blame for cheating lies either at the feet of morally bankrupt students or within the overall campus climate. As a result, their efforts to reduce cheating have focused on creating first-year orientations or seminars on academic integrity, or on instituting deterrent measures like suspensions or expulsions for cheaters who are caught.
But the stability of cheating rates over the past 50 years suggests that these efforts are not having their desired effect—and an interdisciplinary new line of research in education and psychology may help explain why. Increasingly, these findings point to a radical proposition: that the very nature of the college education we provide to our students, in both its design and delivery, may turn out to be the deepest cause of cheating on campus.
In other words, it may be that cheating rates are so high because too many university curriculums and courses are designed for cheating. And, based on current trends in college education, the problem may be about to get worse.
W e like to believe that people engage in dishonest behavior because they are dishonest. But recent research into cheating and dishonesty suggests a different conclusion: Most of us are willing to engage in acts of dishonesty under the right circumstances. As behavioral economist Dan Ariely demonstrated in a fascinating series of experiments and reported in his book “The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty,” the extent to which people are willing to engage in acts of cheating and dishonesty “depends on the structure of their daily environment.” The structure of that environment proves more influential than an individual’s ethical profile or some general cultural milieu.
At the same time, researchers in psychology and education have been slowly gathering evidence that certain features of the college curriculum, course design, and even daily classroom practice can either induce or reduce student cheating. And in gaining a new understanding of the problem, they are opening the door to possible new solutions.
Perhaps most central is the question of how the university and its faculty motivate students to learn. Educational researchers typically distinguish between two broad types of learning motivation: extrinsic and intrinsic. Students who are driven by extrinsic motivation seek external rewards for their learning: They want praise from the teacher, they want good grades, they want honors and awards. Students driven by intrinsic motivation, by contrast, seek to understand the course material for its own sake; they find it fascinating, or useful, or meaningful, and relevant to their lives.
Students driven purely by extrinsic motivation, it turns out, are more likely to cheat. They care about the reward for learning—the grade, the Latin honors—rather than the learning itself, and are willing to cut corners to get that reward. If they don’t see how the course material is relevant to their lives—or if the instructor cannot help them see it—they never develop the intrinsic motivation that leads to deep learning and makes cheating less likely.
At most American universities, it’s traditional to begin the educational process with a type of class that sets up those motivations exactly wrong. Consider your typical introductory college lecture course. A student enters Major University and enrolls in History of Western Civilization. She is told this class is a requirement she must fulfill before she can take the upper-level courses she wants to take in her major. Because of the large size of the class, it consists of weekly lectures, in which the professor covers the key events and trends of a thousand years of western civilization. Grades will be determined by three exams. The professor warns students that those exams are difficult, and that only the best will earn the coveted As.Continued...