So much effort to police college cheating has to do with requiring students to submit their work to online cheating databases. If technology can catch their cheating, they’ll quickly learn to do a better job, right?

Well that might be the cheapest and most efficient way to catch cheaters, but if the goal is to get students to really learn, there might be a more effective strategy.

According to a new book, Cheating Lessons: Learning From Academic Dishonesty, by Assumption College English professor James M. Lang, we might be going about cheating policing the wrong way.


As he explains:

Much of the recent research and advice on cheating in higher education focuses on the learner, and on how we can better police students or modify their behavior. A vast array of published surveys, for example, have sought to identify the demographics of cheating students. Do men cheat more than women? Do fraternity members cheat more than athletes? Do older students cheat more than younger students? Researchers have also sought to identify the types of institutions and courses that seem to be plagued by higher rates of cheating. Do Ivy League students cheat more than community-college students? How about students in online courses versus traditional ones?

But the reality, he says, is that “under the right conditions, most people are willing to cheat….” Maybe we shouldn’t focus on the students, but the classes.

The amount of cheating that takes place on our campuses may well depend on the structures of the learning environment. The curriculum requirements, the course design, the daily classroom practices, the nature and administration of assignments and exams, and the students’ relationship with the instructor—all of those can be modified in order to reduce (or induce, if we so wanted) cheating.

There are two ways students see college classes. Lang explains that “we can characterize some students as mastery-oriented in their learning, and some as performance-oriented.” Basically, do they know the information or have they simply checked off the boxes to get a good grade and move on?

This is that point that I’ve made before. It sees to me that students cheat because in large part because they take classes where cheating is rewarded, or cheating is easy. If you make students write papers by proposing ideas, submitting multiple drafts, they won’t cheat on the papers. Likewise, if you give examinations that are based on answers to essay questions (rather than Scantron multiple choice tests), students can’t cheat.

This isn’t to say students aren’t 100 percent responsible for the moral error of cheating, but if you want them to learn that requires more effort on the part of the teachers. This higher quality examination strategy is not just good for preventing cheating; it’s also a better way for students to learn.

A long-running joke of one my high school friends was to say “teacher’s gone; let’s cheat” whenever a teacher left the room during a test. But this was ridiculous. They were all essay exams. The only way to cheat would be to discuss the material, which we’d already been doing for a whole term.

It is, of course, harder (and on some level more expensive) for professors to examine students this way, but we shouldn’t really be surprised. A real education means it’s not just students who have to work harder, but colleges themselves.

Sure, students shouldn’t be cheating on their work, but colleges shouldn’t be cheating on their examination strategies, either. It should be time-consuming to assess student learning.

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