How the “culture of assessment” fuels academic dishonesty

by Emrys Westacott

According to a number of studies done over several years, cheating is rife in US high schools and colleges. More than 60% of students report having cheated at least once, and it is quite likely that findings based on self-reporting understate rather than overstate the incidence of cheating.[1] IMG_4843Understandably, most educators view this as a serious problem. At the college where I work, the issue has been discussed at length in faculty meetings, and policies have been carefully crafted to try to discourage academic dishonesty. But in my experience these discussions are overly self-righteous and insufficiently self-critical. We hear the phrase “academic dishonesty” and we immediately whistle for our moral high horse. But too much moralistic tongue-clicking can blind us to the ways in which we who constitute the system contribute to the very malady we lament. For if academic dishonesty is like a disease—and we repeatedly hear it described as an “epidemic”—we may all be carriers, even cultivators, of the virus that causes it. Let me explain.

Socrates sought to understand the essence of a thing by asking what all instances of it have in common. This approach is open to well-known objections, but it can have its uses. In the present case, for example, I think it leads to the following important observation: all instances of academic dishonesty are attempts to appear cleverer, more knowledgeable, more skillful, or more industrious than one really is. Buying or copying a term paper, plagiarizing from the Internet, using a crib sheet on an exam, accessing external assistance from beyond the exam room by means of a cell phone, fabricating a lab report, having another student sign one's name on an attendance sheet—all such practices serve this same purpose. The goal is to produce an appearance that is more impressive than the reality.

So far, so obvious, you might say. But what is not so obvious—and this is a key point in the argument I am making—is that this same prioritizing of appearance over reality permeates much of our education system. It is endorsed by parents, teachers, and administrators, and it is encouraged by many of our well-intentioned pedagogical practices. Students absorb this ordering of values over many years, especially in high school; so by the time they reach college they have been marinating in the toxin for a long time. Here are some examples of what I mean.

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