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Academic Cheating: No Simple Explanations

Harvard recently required 60 students to withdraw for up to two years, after being found responsible for cheating on a take-home final essay exam last spring.  (The students will be eligible to re-enroll after the forced withdrawal period is over.)  Is it surprising that Harvard students cheat?  Or surprising that 125 students, about half the total government class were accused of cheating?  Some may be wondering, “What possessed 125 students, who surmounted a single digit college admissions rate, who’re seemingly at the top of the top of the top to possibly jeopardize that coveted spot by not doing their own work?”  While the tendency can be to believe cheating is a straight-forward “this, then that” equation,  I’d posit that the choice to cheat may be more complicated.

Cheating can be a sore subject.  “Eyes on your own paper” is a lesson I remember hearing from a young age.  I especially remember the homemade, cardboard, contact paper covered “shields” that would cover 3/4’s of my desk in elementary school during tests, to discourage wandering eyes.  Plus, I’d theorize that the majority of us want to believe that our individual merit alone earned us the promotion or high grades or rewards, and that when someone uses a seemingly unfair advantage to gain the same results, we’re a bit steamed.   And, to extend that theory further, perhaps we want those at the top of the top of the top to be exemplary models of the meritocracy–earning your just rewards on inherent talent and effort–not human beings like the rest of us tempted by unsavory behavior.  However, perhaps those at the top of the top of the top have more to lose, SO they cut corners, in order to stay in their positions.  The thought of falling from their positions may seem more detrimental than the consequences of cheating.  So, while not acceptable, there may be more to the story of choosing to cheat than we’ll know.

In my own experience, the pressures to achieve can be difficult to manage.  The being able to easily complete work and rise to the highest academic levels can become comfortable.  Any challenge to that position can be difficult at first, as is anything new.  For some, the idea of having to work can be exhilarating, finally being challenged.  For others, the experience can seem more humiliating than humbling.  Usually, people’s reactions fall somewhere in between.  The maturing that comes with having to roll up ones sleeves and work a bit is one of those “you’ll thank me later” kind of experiences.  In an academic situation, with multiple classes, students can be making difficult choices about allocating their time and mind-space, when one subject is more challenging than another and will require additional work to achieve at the expected level.  The ideal situation is surrounding students with supportive teachers, parents and others with a bit of wisdom to help manage the situation, and be a sounding board to refine for their solutions to manage the stress.   Teenagers can gain needed perspective on what is a concern and what is not a concern.  Then, the student can make the wisest choices possible.  Plus, in learning to problem solve–identifying the issue and appropriate help to resolve the concern, students learn a valuable skill that will serve them long after they forget who won the War of 1812.

The complexities that lead one to cheat are only compounded if one chooses to cheat.  Even if the student is never caught, s/he knows what s/he did; that secret can become complicated to carry over time.  While there are no easy or quick answers to cheating, understanding one’s vision, being able to weather adversity and challenges are helpful for students to resist the temptation to cheat.  And, even if one does choose to cheat, then the student needs, even more, to be supported by those strong, reliable individuals to help them understand and take responsibility for the consequences of their actions, then move forward.  We all fall short of our own expectations sometimes; its human.  The strengthening of our character comes in our response and ability to amend our behavior in the future.

Inspired by the New York Times, February 2, 2013