Carrot & Stick: How Universities Encourage Cheating

Katie Livingston
Staff Writer

According to The Boston Globe, about 75% of university students admit to cheating, in some form or another, during their academic careers.

The consequences for those caught are harsh. Deterrents against academic misconduct are iterated repeatedly: how morally reprehensible cheating is, how students are only hurting themselves, how the consequences are dire.

The assumption is that all of the responsibility for solving this problem rests upon the shoulders of the individual student. Students who cheat must be amoral, must not take their education seriously, must be in the wrong.

Consequently, all of the university’s energy goes into trying to change students’ behavior by convincing them not to cheat.

All the while, cheating is being encouraged by the universities themselves.

At first, this might not seem to be the case. With all the pomp and flair about how morally bankrupt cheating is, it does not seem possible that these institutions are encouraging it.

But it is their actions that encourage academic dishonesty, not their policies against it.

Studies conducted by behavioral economist Dan Ariely suggest that all of us are willing to cheat under the right circumstances, no matter how pious we might seem.

As it turns out, the structure of universities make them prime breeding grounds for dishonesty.

Chief among these structures is the motivational system for academic success.

There are two kinds of motivators in life: intrinsic and extrinsic. Both are inherent in the university setting.

Students who have intrinsic motivation find their motivation for doing well on course content internally. Their motivation usually stems from an interest in or love of the subject.

These students seek to do well not because they will receive an “A”, be considered a smart student or be liked by their teacher.

They do well because they are interested and personally invested enough in the course to have the motivation to study and absorb the material.

This is the preferable form of motivation.

It is also not the motivation that most students adopt, and it is certainly not the motivation that universities encourage.

The format that most schools use to incentivize learning is a simple reward system.

Students who master the material well enough to make good grades are rewarded with a high GPA, passing the class and sometimes receiving awards or scholarships.

Students who do not make good grades suffer the consequences.

This system teaches students to use external motivators as their driving force.

However, when students are using extrinsic motivators, there is no real incentive for truly learning the material, because the result (good grades) is valued over the process (actually learning material).

In this system, it does not matter whether the student truly understands the material as long as their final grade is high.

On the flip side, while good grades are treated as reward, bad grades are treated as punishment.

This teaches students that failure itself is negative and something that is meant to be avoided.

This mentality is in stark opposition to the learning process, which relies on failure in order to achieve mastery.

Failure is a fundamental part of learning. It is through the process of trying, failing, analyzing the failure to see what went wrong, and attempting again after understanding the mistake, that we truly learn.

School, then, does not actually value learning. It values perfection.

This can create a powerful fear of failure in students, yet another incentive to cheat in order to hedge their bets.

In the mind of the student, as long as they get that “A” it does not matter.

The solution to the problem, then, must go deeper than lecturing students on how important it is to refrain from cheating.

The answer we need may lie in how school was taught before the education system as we know it sprung up.

Though there is much debate over whether school was directly influenced by or modeled after the assembly line system that marked the Industrial Revolution, there is no doubt that standardized education became more relevant during this period of time.

The reason for this was that, before the Industrial Revolution, there was little need for a standardized education for the masses. Education was, instead, handled by families or tradesmen and their apprentices.

The whole education system was based around the craftsmanship model.

It was unnecessary for students or apprentices to learn the myriad of skills required today. Instead, it was only necessary that they learn one skill and learn it very well.

The interesting thing about this methodology is that there was no grading scale needed.

The merit of an apprentice was not based on how well they performed their task the first time around, but on how much they improved in said task over time.

Perfection was not expected immediately. In fact, it was not expected for a very long time.

Apprentices would often practice their craft for decades before they could perform it masterfully.

The suggestion here is not that we dismantle the entire education system and go back to hammering metal in blacksmith shops, but that we take a hint from how people worked back when mastery of a skill was the most important thing needed to survive and thrive in the job market.

Let us take the emphasis off of the grade itself and instead emphasize the process of failure, analysis and, ultimately, learning that will truly help students succeed.

Some practical suggestions for doing this include classes and workshops focused around answering big questions, along with more independent study classes.

Some universities, such as Worcester Polytechnic Institute, have done small scale testing on a new style of classes, yielding great results.

Rather than focusing on memorizing facts and information to do well on tests, these classes focus on getting the student to try and find answers or solutions to big problems that the world is facing.

A question is posed and then the class is guided by students’ research and ideas.

Instructors guide students through the trial and error process necessary to understand what might work and what would not.

This approach actively engages students in the learning process, teaching them much more than the dry memorization of facts would.

Another suggestion might be increasing independent study courses.

The structure of independent study is fundamentally different than that of classroom learning.

It gives the students the power and responsibility to take the learning process in their own hands with the help of a professor to guide them in exploring their own ideas and insights.

This kind of control might be more reasonable for the student, but greater responsibility and ownership of the learning process will also facilitate a greater mastery of the material.

Unfortunately, the way the education system is set up does not favor these methods of teaching.

Monetarily speaking, universities run on the revenue derived from general education courses that herd in masses of students and do little to help them effectively comprehend the subject matter.

Tampering with these systems would also tamper with revenue streams.

This makes it easier for university administrators to tackle the problem of cheating by simply reinforcing the carrot and stick method: increasing the incentives for making good grades, and likewise the punishments for those who are caught cheating.

However, until university administrators face the heart of what is driving students to cheat, and address the faulty values at the core of our education system, they can be sure that nothing will change.

Students who cheat will continue to cheat, and all students’ educational experiences will continue to suffer.


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