When the fall semester opens at Harvard University in just a few short weeks, the campus will still be echoing from the cheating scandal last year that saw the suspension of more than 60 students in a government course.
The scandal grabbed attention because of the shock value of the headline’s pairing: Harvard students and cheating. Most commentators zeroed in on the students—apparently lazy and dishonest, for all their talent—or on the hypercompetitive culture of America’s most prestigious university. Still others suggested that cheating has become commonplace in our schools as the result of the increasingly amoral larger society in which they operate.
What these arguments have in common is the assumption that students are cheating much more than they used to. In fact, the rate of students who admit to cheating at least once in their college careers has held steady at somewhere around 75 percent since the first major survey on cheating in higher education in 1963. But 75 percent is a disheartening number for faculty, future employers, and the parents who are footing hefty tuition bills—not to mention for the five students out of every 20-person seminar who have pursued all their work honestly.
College administrators largely seem to have accepted the notion that the blame for cheating lies either at the feet of morally bankrupt students or within the overall campus climate. As a result, their efforts to reduce cheating have focused on creating first-year orientations or seminars on academic integrity, or on instituting deterrent measures like suspensions or expulsions for cheaters who are caught.
But the stability of cheating rates over the past 50 years suggests that these efforts are not having their desired effect—and an interdisciplinary new line of research in education and psychology may help explain why. Increasingly, these findings point to a radical proposition: that the very nature of the college education we provide to our students, in both its design and delivery, may turn out to be the deepest cause of cheating on campus.
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