When cheating is — and isn’t — a character issue

September 14, 2020

UM-Dearborn’s new student government president weighs in on our evolving understanding of cheating — and what to do about it.

A college graphic representing cheating, featuring a pointing hand of a professor shooting out a darkened laptop screen, calling out students for cheating.
A college graphic representing cheating, featuring a pointing hand of a professor shooting out a darkened laptop screen, calling out students for cheating.
Graphic by Violet Dashi

Cheating in higher education certainly isn’t new, nor have the rates at which students cheat changed much in the four decades that researchers have been studying the problem. But the conversation around what colleges and universities can do to quell cheating are changing rapidly. In particular, faculty and administrators are attempting to determine if redesigned learning experiences that minimize student stress and maximize student fulfillment can undercut cheating at the roots. Not only that, students are lending their voices to the debate — including UM-Dearborn’s new student government president Mitchell Dobson-Green, who joined us to talk about why students cheat and what can be done about it.

A portrait of student government president Mitchel Dobson-Green, clad in head-to-toe maize and blue gear.
A portrait of student government president Mitchel Dobson-Green, clad in head-to-toe maize and blue gear.
Mitchell Dobson-Green

So we typically think of cheating as a disciplinary issue. And that makes it kind of interesting territory for a student government president to wade into, since your role usually revolves around student advocacy. I’m curious how you got interested in working in this area.

Well, shortly after I was elected this past spring, I got a chance to meet with Provost Sue Alcock and cheating was one of the topics we discussed. Just like at universities across the country, we saw an increase in cheating here on our campus with the sudden switch to remote learning. The faculty were obviously scrambling to figure out how to make their classes completely online, and on the flip side, it was really confusing for the students. So I think there was a sense that the kind of chaotic environment contributed to that spike in cheating, and everyone was interested to figure out ways we could address that before the fall semester. 

From there, I started by talking to students in some of my personal circles, just to get a feel for the student perspective on this. And it turned out people were pretty vocal about it — whether they had cheated themselves or knew someone who did. Hearing that wasn’t exactly good. As student body president, I know I’m supposed to advocate for what’s best for students. But at the same time, you can’t be complacent when students are doing something wrong. 

Actually let’s talk about that a little bit. Earlier this year, we did a story about cheating and one of the topics we explored was new research that suggests that cheating isn’t simply a bad thing that bad people do. It’s something that just about anyone could be tempted to do when under extreme pressure, whether in their academic or personal lives or both. What do you think about that?

Well, I definitely think there’s something to that. This is just based on individual testimony from students, but I did hear people say they cheated specifically because of how stressful the situation was in the spring. I think the way it was framed in your article was in terms of the gap between how prepared a student feels and their expectations for themselves. So the more prepared someone feels for an exam, the less likely they are to cheat. In that sense, I think you could say the unusual circumstances this spring, where there was a lot of opportunity for stress and confusion, created a kind of a breeding ground for more cheating.

So if we view cheating as a kind of stress response to environmental conditions, and not just a moral indiscretion, does that change how we should approach disciplinary actions for cheating?

That’s a really hard one. So often in our institutions, and across our culture in general, we continue to see cheating as an immoral act. And I don’t think we should completely dismiss that. There are some people who cheat because they don’t want to put in the time and effort, and that’s not right. But if we’re framing this as an institutional problem — as a problem that can arise out of certain environmental pressures that we have the opportunity to change — then I think there does need to be some discretion when it comes to discipline, depending on the situation. You can’t have a one-size-fits-all policy precisely because the reality of cheating is individual and complicated. There are situations where students get in over their heads and turn to cheating as a last resort. I’m not saying that’s right either, but is it right to treat that person the same as the person who cheats just because they don’t want to put in the time and feels like they can get away with it?

Well, let me float something that comes from the student success space. There’s this idea that if we can better monitor students’ academic experiences for red flags, we could have early interventions to make sure things don’t get worse. How do you feel about something like that for cheating? Like, if a student is caught cheating, we, as an institution, would try to get to the bottom of why it’s happening and take steps to get the student back on track.

I think that’s a beautiful idea, and I can think of several people personally who would have benefited from that kind of intervention. Of course, it’s often a question of resources. But given this new investment from President Schlissel in student success programs on our campus, I would hope we are able to explore ideas like that.

I know you’re still new on the job, but let’s talk about the work you personally want to do on this front. What’s the message you want to put out to faculty and students when it comes to cheating?

Well, one of the issues we’ve pressed faculty on are these sort of “gotcha” questions or entrapment situations that some faculty were using to catch cheaters. Essentially, some students were using online communities to get answers, and some faculty were creating their own accounts and posting fake answers to questions. If a student took the bait, then the faculty would know the student was cheating. But I think that’s not a productive way to approach the problem, because it’s basically just furthering the cheating “arms race.” If an instructor does something like that, students who are motivated to cheat are just going to find a new strategy. The relationship remains antagonistic, and I think it’s exactly the opposite of the trust-based relationship we want to see develop between students and faculty. That’s the kind of environment we need for students to feel comfortable reaching out for help when they need it.

With students, I think part of the message still has to have a moral dimension. One of the things I heard a few times from students is that they don’t see a problem with cheating in classes that have nothing to do with their majors, because they’re never going to use that in the future. On some level, it’s really hard to argue with that. Like, if you’re an English major, do you really need to know everything about mitochondria? Maybe not. So the approach has to be that we should all be willing to hold ourselves to a higher standard. That’s kind of the reason you go to a university in the first place — to be held to a higher standard and achieve those standards. And to try to personally get around that is still wrong on some level.

Finally, how are you feeling about the situation for fall? For most students, their classes will still be online, but have we gotten ourselves in a better place to deal with academic integrity issues?

I think so. One of the things you wrote about in your previous article is this idea of creating learning experiences that are really engaging, so students feel more motivated to do the work, and that helps them stay out of those high-stress situations that can lead to cheating. In talking with faculty this summer, I see a lot of effort in that area. They’re really trying to teach content in fun, new ways. They’re creating shorter lectures that are easier for students to pay attention to. They’re incorporating things like videos or TED talks into the class. And they’re using more small, lower-stakes assignments and quizzes so everything isn’t riding on a big exam. Not everyone is doing that, but a lot of faculty are. I think that’s a huge improvement over the taped, two-hour long lectures that students were seeing in the spring. For nine students out of 10, that’s not a great way to learn. So I’m hopeful what we’re trying this fall is going to work out much better for everyone.

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