Schools and the media have lately gotten all worked up about the dreadful, epic academic dishonestly going on in the Republic’s hallowed institutions of higher learning. The worry, of course, is about students cheating, not professors. Let’s find a way to stop to those bad students, perhaps by using expensive private companies.

But as one writer explains in the New York Times’s Room for Debate section, maybe colleges are worried about the wrong thing. As Alfie Kohn writes:

Rather than counting the number of students who cheat, or figuring out how to catch (or deter) them, I’d prefer to ask two questions that rarely figure in these discussions: What kinds of teaching elicit cheating? And what assumptions and values lead us to define some acts as cheating in the first place?

As Kohn explains, students are more likely to cheat if teachers don’t have much valid interaction with students and in situations where the grade appears to matter more than the learning. If students see actual work as pointless and the grade as the only reason for work, of course they’ll be more likely to cheat and find their way around actually doing the work. “Taken seriously, these results invite us to stop playing “gotcha” or focusing on the mechanics of cheating and trying to stay a step ahead of the students,” said Kohn.

Kohn offers one of the most interesting perspectives on academic dishonestly available right now. What he invites us to ask is, essentially, do you want to just catch academic dishonesty or do you want to curtail it?

The truth is if instructors assign projects on which students can’t cheat, or can’t very easily cheat (essay exams, problem sets, term papers requiring outlines, bibliographies, and multiple drafts) they won’t. More importantly, they’ll learn the information better.

This obviously isn’t possible with all information and all subjects but it’s important to understand why people feel compelled to cut corners.

Cheating doesn’t happen because students are particularly bad or lazy. It doesn’t even really happen because of the ease of gathering electronic information; it happens because the way students are expected to demonstrate understanding makes cheating worth it. [Image via]

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Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer