Why Do College Students Cheat?

by Catherine Ramsdell

19 September 2013

James M. Lang gives anyone who teaches a lot to think about.
cover art

Cheating Lessons: Learning from Academic Dishonesty

James M. Lang

(Harvard University Press)
US: Sep 2013

Don’t be deceived by the title or the book blurbs; James M. Lang’s Cheating Lessons: Learning from Academic Dishonesty is about a lot more than cheating. The book jacket states “Cheating Lessons is a practical guide to tackling academic dishonesty at its roots”, and technically, this is what the book is about. However much of this book (and arguably the best part of the book) is simply about good teaching. Lang just believes, as many do, that good (and creative) teaching makes students less likely to cheat.

Most likely all college graduates (and the book does focus primarily on college) have many professors they remember fondly, but most likely there is also at least one professor (or class) that, even years later, elicits a slight shudder. Perhaps it was a teacher who droned on for the entire class, or the professor who based 100 percent of the class grade on the final paper, or someone who hadn’t updated the course content since mimeograph machines went out of style. Most likely no one learned a lot in these types of classes; most likely a good number of students cheated, too.

And this is where Lang begins: by explaining who is cheating and why. He concludes that students are more likely to cheat in certain situations (or classes)— like when an exam or two determines the entire grade, when cheating is socially accepted by the student body, or when students (or teachers) are extrinsically motivated (i.e., they don’t care as much about learning as they do the outcome or reward/grade). Lang includes some positive news, too. Despite media accounts to the contrary, students aren’t cheating much more today than they did in previous generations. Still the overall number of students who confess to cheating—it’s well over 50 percent—is hardly reason to celebrate.
In the second section, Lang, a college professor himself, turns to educators. For these examples, Lang purposefully selected subjects students might not naturally flock to: literature, accounting, geography. One example: a World Regions class at Virginia Tech that averages 2,670 students and fills so quickly that students often must wait several semesters before they nab one of the “coveted” seats. How does the instructor do it? He does some really cool things.

Not surprisingly, most of the educators Lang includes have won awards for their teaching; after all, it’s not easy to get over 2500 young people rushing to a geography course. Some of these faculty do seemingly little things to improve the quality of their courses—such as having lots of quizzes students can take multiple times. With others, the changes are larger—such as letting students pick and choose which assignments they complete. Lang provides plenty of examples to pick and choose from, and any educator looking to change up their course should find some ideas here.

While Lang contends educators can do a great deal to decrease cheating, he also suggests that one reason why students cheat—too much self-efficacy or what Lang calls “good jobbing”—probably starts long before college. He notes that he is often guilty of this himself—praising his children for going down swinging or diving for a pass (that they ended up dropping). Lang states that “no matter what a kid on one of my teams does, I find myself saying ‘Good job!’” For little kids, as Lang notes, this isn’t that big of deal. But with college kids: “it can create a significant problem… in that poorly gauged overconfidence in their knowledge of course material can lead them to understudy” and then to cheating.
Props to Lang for poking a little fun at some of the more technical language (like the word “metacognition”) and at himself for using the word. He works hard to keep the tone of the book conversational and to keep the material accessible. Academic titles (and this book is published by Harvard University Press) tend to be wordy and inflated. Lang tries, and for the most part succeeds, in avoiding both.

Lang should also be congratulated for admitting a hard truth: no matter how good a class or professor, some students are simply going to cheat. And nothing is going to be able to stop this. Colleges can have honor codes (which Lang doesn’t really seem to think work anyway), they can threaten to fail students for plagiarism, make them retake the class, or put a permanent blot on their records. Professors can create brilliant syllabi, help students see the value of the material, and provide low stakes assignments. Some students are still going to cheat.

So Lang includes information about talking with students about academic dishonesty and what should happen if a student does cheat. Some of his thoughts here—such as looking at each case individually and not automatically failing a student for plagiarism—may make administrators cringe and have faculty shaking their heads. Automatic failure is the norm at many institutions and has been for quite some time. Others may find Lang’s idea of giving students a do over if they admit to cheating a little too generous—even though Lang believes students will learn more this way.

Some (many?) may not agree with Lang’s ways of dealing with cheating after the fact. Others may argue that the decision of whether or not to cheat rests in the hands of the student and that faculty shouldn’t have to create cheat-resistant courses. However, the section on why students cheat is interesting, and throughout the book, Lang gives anyone who teaches a lot to think about. Plus, all educators who are looking for ways to shake things up in their classes should enjoy the second section of the book and walk away with some new perspectives on teaching.

Cheating Lessons: Learning from Academic Dishonesty


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