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Who Loses with Cheating?

by Eli H. Newberger, M.D. (6 December 2003)

(This lesson is based on an excerpt of the book "The Men They Will Become: The Nature and Nurture of the Male Character" by Dr. Newberger.)

Chapter 19 in my book "The Men They Will Become" addresses the problem of cheating, especially by boys in the academic setting. This section discusses who loses in cheating. It follows the section on Attitudes Toward Cheating.

Literature inconclusive

The literature on cheating is surprisingly inconclusive on what constitutes its moral offense. Some writers, viewing academic cheating as a "victimless" act, argue that the damage is mainly self-inflicted. The cheater appears to know more, or be more competent, than is actually the case. A weakness is being papered over, and sooner or later it will harm the cheater when he can't perform as expected at a higher academic level, or professionally, and is made to suffer the consequences.

The argument that cheating harms the cheater is learning-based in a grading-dominated environment. When grades are the defining element and the competition is intense, many students will employ every means they can to stay afloat as long as they can. The very prevalence of academic cheating suggests to cheating students that their bubble of deception might never burst.

Others writers view cheating as a form of stealing. Academic cheating does involve stealing recognition and grades that are undeserved, and that others are earning meritoriously. Cheating is always fraudulent, and shows disrespect for the people directly affected by it. In academic cheating, fellow students are the ones treated disrespectfully by cheaters. What keeps the issue of respect from powerfully deterring student cheaters is that they often don't stop to think of other students as being hurt. Their focus is on cheating as an issue between the cheater and the faculty and administration. In an analogous case, people who file false tax returns don't think of themselves as hurting their neighbors who are reporting accurately; the tax cheaters think of it as an issue strictly between themselves and the government or the IRS. Or, again, people who make false insurance claims don't think of themselves as raising everyone else's insurance rates; they regard their cheating as an issue between them and the insurance company. This blindness to the consequences of cheating for one's peers is, I believe, very widespread.

Example with bright students

Patricia Hersch has described a forum in which several bright high school seniors were asked to comment on the hypothetical situation of a college basketball star back on campus, exhausted, after performing well in a game, and looking forward to the next night's game when a professional scout would be watching him. But tomorrow he also has a calculus test in a course he must pass to keep his scholarship. Should he study as best he can and give it a try; hire a tutor and study most of the night in order to get a passing grade; or get the answer key to the exam, memorize it, then rest up for the game? There was nearly unanimous agreement that the student athlete should cheat. "Ethically, I would cheat," says an honor student. Only one boy, named Jonathan, disagrees: "We have to take responsibility for our actions and if he screwed up, it is his problem and he has to accept the consequences. If he cheats, it is not taking responsibility. If he stays up all night studying, he does."

Honor codes

Theft as the essence of cheating is particularly stressed in academic honor codes, for there the student has the double responsibility of being beyond reproach himself in the integrity of his academic work, and also of coming forward to accuse anyone whom he sees cheating; in fact, he is guilty of a violation of the code if he knows of cheating by others and does not report it to the judicial system.

A professor of business at the University of Kansas has built an honor code and other deterrents into his sophomore course with an enrollment of three hundred to four hundred students. Each student is assigned a seat. A dozen or so vigilant teaching assistants patrol blocks of fifty seats. At the bottom of each test are two statements with signature lines by them. One statement says: "I have not received nor given unauthorized aid during this exam. I have not observed any other students receiving or giving such aid." The other says, "I cannot in good faith sign the above statement."

To get credit for the exam, every student has to sign one of the statements. If it is the second one, he gets an interview with the professor; most of those who sign the second statement think that others may have been looking at their answers. The teaching assistants also always compare the exams of people sitting side by side. Only about 5 percent of the class get caught bucking this very vigilant system.


There is some evidence that cheating occurs less under honor code systems than other codes. It is unclear whether the honor code promotes superior character formation where it is employed. Punishment is much surer and harsher, and more evenly applied, when it is based on a proven violation of an honor code; in addition to the penalty, which might well rise to the level of expulsion, there is dishonor or shaming for the person found guilty of cheating. The environment where an honor code is in effect doesn't tolerate cheating to the extent it is tolerated in most high schools.

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