As Harvard students stand trial for the cheating scandal that shook their campus this spring, leaders of the Hockaday Honor Council examine the influence of cultural norms on a nationwide rise in reported cheating.
The summer was marked by high-profile cheating and plagiarism accusations against CNN show host Fareed Zakaria and New York Times Best-selling author Jonah Lehrer. Since the start of the academic year, accusations of the same chord have rocked America’s oldest university.
Cheating is on the rise.
But not only at Harvard are more students taking shortcuts, plagiarizing papers and collaborating when they should not. The increase has infiltrated all levels of the American education system.
According to the Educational Testing Service Academic Cheating Fact Sheet, cheating among high school students has risen dramatically throughout the past 50 years. And, while in the past the struggling student was more likely to cheat just to get by, today the above-average, college-bound student is more prone to cheating.
“I don’t think Hockaday is exempt from what is going on in the real world,” Dean for Student Affairs Meshea Matthews said. “As you start to look at the research and statistics you see that even the smartest students report cheating today because they’re trying to get that next highest grade as they sense this competition between their peers to get that spot in school.”
Matthews attributed the rise in cheating, at least in part, to a modern culture characterized by instant gratification. News is delivered minute by minute. Texts are returned in seconds. Homework answers can be found online with just a few clicks of a button.
“I think when we have so much instant gratification today, cheating doesn’t feel as wrong because, well, it was just going to come out anyway or I was just going to be able to review that anyway,” she said.
In light of the scandal involving 125 Harvard students, University President Drew G. Faust said students’ desire for success in an increasingly competitive environment may cause them to miss out on the full benefits of an education.
“I think the world puts those pressures so clearly on students that we need to think of ways to counteract that with an emphasis on how important the act of learning and the substance of learning is in itself,” Faust said in an interview with the Harvard Crimson student newspaper.
Matthews said she hopes Hockaday students come to the school for the unique experience of being part of a diverse, close-knit community—rather than the end result of college. If students focus more on the process of learning than the grade, cheating will become a less attractive option.
Matthews said she worries, however, that the competitive environment of a school such as Hockaday lends itself to increased cheating for the sake of getting ahead. When Matthews attends honor council conferences with other schools, she compares notes with institutions that may not have as rigorous of a curriculum as Hockaday does.
“To some degree, they don’t report as much stress or people cheating for that purpose,” she said.
Senior Tiffany, Honor Council Chair, said that the Council works to reduce cheating at Hockaday, not through punitive measures, but by guiding students through the trial and reconciliation process.
After a first time offense, students undergo a day of reflection, a time which allows them to reflect on the incident so that they are prepared to make a different choice the next time they are faced with the same set of circumstances.
Tiffany added that the Honor Council strives to demonstrate empathy with the student’s situation. She said that she recognizes the immense pressure to perform highly at Hockaday and its potential negative consequences.
“I think the pressure comes from Hockaday as a whole. It’s a very competitive place and you want to succeed,” she said. “I feel like it could be any of us sitting there with a violation, because we’re under all this pressure.”
History teacher and Honor Council sponsor Lucio Benedetto said that many students brought before the Honor Council cite overscheduling and a piling up of school work as their reason for taking a shortcut to complete an assignment or study for a test.
Benedetto said he hopes that teachers let their students know from day one that they are approachable and open to granting extensions if students do not have time to complete their work. In the same right, Benedetto said that students ought to approach their teachers for help when they feel it is necessary.
“We’re not going to think less of a student for coming in and telling us they’re having trouble getting something done,” he said.
Benedetto said he worries, however, that incidents such as the Harvard cheating scandal suggest a larger cultural phenomenon of cheating’s increased acceptance in a more competitive world.
“The class that about 125 students cheated in was seen as one of the so-called easy classes at Harvard, which is why people like to take it. So it wasn’t a particularly stressful class, but they cheated anyway,” he said. “That’s a little worrisome from an Honor Council perspective.”