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Retrospective: Four reasons why academic dishonesty is bad (2.24.2006)

October 29, 2007, 2:21 pm

Editorial: Here’s the third article in the weeklong retrospective I am running this week. This article was, I think, the very first one I posted at CO9s about academic dishonesty (cheating, plagiarism, etc.) and might be the clearest statement I’ve made on this painful subject. Academic dishonesty remains one of the biggest personal issues for me in my work as a college professor.

Four Reasons Why Academic Dishonesty is Bad

Originally posted: February 24, 2006

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I’ve had to deal with my first academic dishonesty (AD) case of the semester this week. I won’t blog about the details, but suffice to say that this time it was plagiarism; a student copied some examples from a couple of web sites and submitted it as his/her own work. (I am now in the habit of typing any suspicious written work into Google to check for plagiarism, and that’s how I caught it this time.) In the recent past, I’ve also had to deal with larger plagiarism cases, situations where students copy each other’s homework, and catching a student with cheat notes on a test.

Every semester for the past few years, I’ve had at least one case of AD that I have to adminster. It is unfailingly a disappointing, saddening, time-consuming process. Even though my college takes a pretty hard line on AD, and so do I, some students still do it.

Why is academic dishonesty considered bad? Why do we in higher ed place such harsh sanctions against it? I’ve had to ask myself that this week, and here are a few ideas:

  1. Academic dishonesty makes student assessment unreliable. When I give a piece of work to be graded, the reason I do so is that the grades I get back constitute data — data from which can extract information about how students are doing and adujst my teaching accordingly. If a student fakes his or her own work, through plagiarism or cheat notes or whatever, the data that I get don’t tell me truthful information that I can act upon. More importantly, the intellectual needs of students go unmet because according to the data, everything is going well, when everything is not going well. One corollary of this idea: It is not the case that academic dishonesty hurts only the students involved. It hurts all the students in the class who have the same needs as the cheater.
  2. Academic dishonesty erodes the mutual trust between students and faculty that is at the core of higher ed. Students trust faculty to be knowledgeable in their fields and truthful in their teaching. Faculty trust students to give true information about their progress via graded work. In other words, I’ll teach you what you truly need to know, and you tell me truly how you’re doing in your work. That combination of truthfulness and trust should create a sort of spiral where one by one, student misunderstandings are removed and true mastery is attained. A breakdown on either end corrupts the entire process. And it only takes one instance of a breach of trust. If a student cheats or plagiarizes, that student’s work is suspect for the duration — even if the student learned his/her lesson and the suspicion is misplaced.
  3. Academic dishonesty assumes that the end justifies the means and that the grade is the most important thing. In other words, the mind of the cheater is like this: “What really matters in college is my GPA. There is a lot of pressure to have a high GPA. Therefore I will do whatever is necessary to have a high GPA, whether or not it’s honest.” Well, it’s not the case that the ends justify the means, nor is it the case that grades are all-important. There’s a lot more to say about that maybe in another post.
  4. Academic dishonesty is not in the long-term best interests of students. Or the short-term best interests, for that matter. The question is really one of economics. If you cheat on a quiz, for instance, and “earn” yourself five points by short-cutting mastery of some material — and then go and take a test that has 20 points of questions on the same material, and you lose all 20 because you didn’t master that material — then you are 15 points in the hole. There is a net loss in the process of cheating or plagiarizing, even if you don’t get caught. And if you do get caught, the stakes go that much higher. It’s rational choice theory applied to the classroom.
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