Cheating in college is a lot bigger than the latest admissions scandal

A teacher working with students in a library
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Reports of a massive college admissions fraud ring has come to light in which wealthy parents hand over large bribes to get their children into elite schools.

The scheme’s reported architect, William “Rick” Singer, allegedly took large payoffs to rig the system to get college athletic admissions slots for rich non-athletic students, sometimes hired people with a track-record of scoring high on college entrance exams to take exams in the name of his “clients’” children, had other test scores raised to give applicants a better chance of being accepted, and other dishonest means.

This deception presents yet another example of the pervasive inequities in the educational system between the rich and everyone else. It also glaringly exposes the lie on which this country was founded: that in the United States, one can succeed on talent, motivation, and ambition alone regardless of background or social identity.

But the inequities in the system do not begin and end with this incident.

Related: A gay teacher who was harassed by students got a $110,000 settlement

The Overarching System

She is attempting to complete her undergraduate degree at a large Midwestern university in the United States, and she needs only two additional courses before she will graduate. She accepts a great summer intern position in her chosen field, which will become permanent and full-time contingent upon completion of her degree.

He is a brilliant graduate student completing his Master’s degree at her university. They negotiate a deal whereby she will enroll in two online courses to fulfill her remaining requirements, and he will do all the work — the assigned readings, written assignments, online discussions, communications with the course instructor — and upon receipt of two passing grades, she will pay him the amount of $2000 for each course, or a total of $4000.

As it turned out, not only did he pass both classes for her, he scored the grade of “A” in each. She, in turn, received a higher cumulative grade point average and “earned” her undergraduate degree, which allowed her to walk to the stage to pick up her diploma at her graduation festivities to the beaming excitement of family and friends assembled on that momentous day. The following week, her company offered her a full-time position with a superb benefits package.

Over the years as serving as a university professor, I have discovered a number of students in my courses lifting entire essays from the internet and turning them in as their own. An entire industry catering to students provides fully completed works, including term papers, at a relatively low cost. And the chances of being caught are generally on the students’ side.

Though I prefer to teach courses of 35 students or less to better facilitate the learning process, recently on the first day of my 320-student undergraduate Educational Psychology course, I informed students that I believe in the efficacy of small-group cooperative and interactive classroom structures.

I announced, therefore, that I would consider our class as constituting a small seminar in which I expected each student to take responsibility for their learning by coming to class having read the required materials, to join into study groups outside class with other students to share understandings of the concepts, and to undertake active and consistent responsibility for their learning by attending class sessions and engaging in class activities, since I would not simply stand in front of the class with PowerPoint presentations projected upon a screen while merely summarizing what they will read in our course materials.

I stated, however, that I will provide students on our course online sites with my more-than-extensive PowerPoint presentations replete with embedded videos, which cover the concepts in detail, plus chapter notes, and examination study guides. This, I continued, would provide us the time and space to engage in classroom discussions and activities so we can make the materials more meaningful and real to them.

“You might not remember a year from now everything we read about Piaget or Vygotsky or Kohlberg or Gilligan,” I told them that first class session, “but chances are that you will remember working with your peers in charting your own trajectory of the cognitive, emotional, moral, and identity development processes.”

While a few students got to their feet at this point and departed the room, the overwhelming majority stayed seated. Over the next few weeks, most students seemed to find the format to their liking. I facilitated some lively and multi-layered discussions, and I noticed an intensive level of engagement by many who remarked that though our class included hundreds of students, they nonetheless felt as though they were working within a smaller class.

Several students contacted me stating that though they usually had difficulty remaining awake for an hour-and-fifteen-minute class twice per week, they were amazed by how swiftly the clock passes during our classes.

I informed students that for our weekly online quizzes throughout the semester, they could join with one partner if they wished when taking these quizzes. And for our two in-class midterm examinations and one final examination, though it was to be a closed book, closed notes, closed PowerPoints, closed electronic devises of any kind, and opened mind process, they could also take examinations with one partner if they preferred.

I then informed students that I expect that no one will cheat, and, therefore, told them that since there were approximately 300 students in this course, since this number could possibly create a relatively loud din as pairs engaged in discussion within our acoustically-challenged classroom, they could either stay in the room, or, if they wished, could sit in the hallway, or find an empty classroom, or take the exam under the lovely sunshine if we had a beautiful New England afternoon.

However, the option of either taking the exam alone or in a pair still held with no exceptions. In addition, this remained a closed book, closed notes, closed PowerPoints, and closed electronic devises examination, again without exception.

On the day of the first midterm, most students chose to pair up, and many took the examination outside our classroom. Soon after students returned their completed examination forms to me, and I checked my email while I waited for any remaining stragglers, word came by two separate sources that many students had been found blatantly abusing my trust by cheating on the midterm examination, even though I was exceedingly clear about the parameters under which the test was to be taken.

Reports came in that approximately 15-20 students gathered all together in a room with books and class notes wide open as they filled out their examination sheets. In addition, other students in varying numbers over the pair permitted for this test were seen together in locations in various sites on campus in rooms and out of doors, some with books open as well.

I contacted the entire class by email that evening relating that I was aware of a number of cases of cheating on the examination, which ironically focused on theories of Moral Development. Being an adherent of democratic education, I stated that I prefer we make the decision how to proceed together cooperatively as a class, and that I viewed this as very serious, but also as a teachable and learnable opportunity.

For our next class session, I asked whether anyone would like to share any reflections on the process we undertook in taking the examination and my notification of cheating.

Comments ranged from “I am so sorry that some people chose to betray the rules and ruined it for the rest of us,” to “I don’t think that cheating on this test in any way reflects how people live other parts of their lives,” to “Cheating on a test does in fact represent how people behave in other aspect of their lives,” to “Well, everyone does it,” to “Dr. Blumenfeld, it was your fault that people cheated. You set them up to cheat by letting them go outside the room,” while others rejected this accusation.

Following a vigorous discussion, the majority of students voted to continue taking future examinations using a similar format. I told them, however, that they were not to bring their books or other course materials to the examinations.

Larger Issues

During my academic career, in the role as student and then as educator, I have engaged in numerous conversations with people at all levels of the university who talked about what they termed “the culture of cheating” that permeates educational institutions, from grade school through higher education, and into the workplace.

I certainly do not have solutions. I have experienced, though, an alternate paradigm, one that emphasizes collectivism over simply individualism, collaboration over separatism, cooperation over competition, intrinsic incentives over extrinsic rewards and punishments, education that is meaningful for education and learning rather than education giving out gold stars, token rewards, pretty colored stickers of all possible shapes and sizes, and of course, grades.

I follow and can relate to educational philosopher and author Alfie Kohn, who, in his forward-thinking books, No Contest: The Case against Competition, and Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes, argues that the Behavioral school of psychology, as theorized by such pioneering researchers as Edward L. Thorndike and B. F. Skinner, while certainly showing short-term learning effects, in the long-run results in lowered outcomes and reduced interest in learning.

Kohn contends that what we consider as rewards are actually punishments in the sense that after a short while, the student will not express an interest in learning unless and until the potential of receiving an external reward has been shown, and that the rewards need to get larger and more enticing as the young person ages.

Throughout his work, Kohn demonstrates that when rewards are involved, a person’s academic and job performance actually declines in quality while inhibiting individuality. He calls for a radical rethinking of the competitive structure on which our educational system is based, what he calls the “I win, therefore, you lose” philosophy.

Kohn refers to competition as a “disease,” an “addiction,” a “poison” on which we are raised, something trained and not born into us. He argues that students and workers can enjoy, learn, and produce with other people rather than against them, and advocates for cooperative education.

In Our Neoliberal Age

Though I will never justify any student engaging in cheating, I also must ask what we as educators and educational policy maker are doing that lowers students’ zest for learning.

While there have always been familial and social pressures to perform academically, and while some people have always attempted to get or attain something with the least amount of energy expended, I would ask what effects has our age of standardization, corporatization, globalization, privatization, and deregulation of the business, banking, and corporate sectors have on learning?

According to the so-called “Allocation Theory” of education, schooling has turned into a status competition, which confers success on some and failure on others. Our schools have morphed into assembly-line factories transforming students into workers, and then sorting these workers into jobs commanded by industry and business.

In so doing, educational institutions legitimize and maintain the social order (read as the status quo). Schools drive individuals to fill certain roles or positions in society, which are not always based on the individuals’ talents or interests.

I have never forgotten one essential point my educational psychology professor related to my class back at San José State University when I was working toward my Secondary Education Teacher’s Certification.

His point crystallized for me the intent of true and meaningful learning. My professor explained that the term “education” is derived from two Latin roots: “e,” meaning “out of,” and “ducere,” meaning “to lead” or “to draw.”

“Education,” he said, “is the process of drawing knowledge out of the student or leading the student toward knowledge, rather than putting or depositing information into what some educator’s perceive as the student’s waiting and docile mind” — what the Brazilian philosopher and educator Peter Reglus Neves Freire termed “the banking system of education.”

Somehow, we must get back to that true intent and meaning of education.

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