produce a thesis statement (a complete sentence) and a brief outline for a critical evaluation essay that will be
Then, discuss how you plan to use the terms ethos, pathos, or logos within your critical evaluation essay. Which of these three types of support does your chosen author employ? Choose one specific example of this support, and explain how effective it was in the essay’s argument.
Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2009
Abstract Since cheating is obviously wrong, arguments against it (it provides an unfair
advantage, it hinders learning) need only be mentioned in passing. But the argument of
unfair advantage absurdly takes education to be essentially a race of all against all;
moreover, it ignores that many cases of unfair (dis)advantages are widely accepted. On the
other hand, the fact that cheating can hamper learning does not mean that punishing
cheating will necessarily favour learning, so that this argument does not obviously justify
Keywords Academic dishonesty Academic integrity Academic misconduct Education Ethics Grades Homework Plagiarism
Asking why cheating is wrong may seem silly or gratuitously provocative. Indeed, since
‘‘just about everyone agrees that cheating is bad and that we need to take steps to prevent
it’’ (Kohn 2007), no such question seems warranted and no argument seems needed
(Bouville 2008, 2009a). Talk about cheating is then a matter of outrage: ‘‘students STOLE
a password and then they used it to CHEAT’’ (Lingen 2006), ‘‘plagiarism is WRONG no
matter what the extent’’ (Parmley 2000). If asked why cheating is wrong, Lingen and
Parmley may reply by using a larger font or boldface—as if cheating were wrong just
because it is capitalized. Yet, if one does not know why cheating is wrong one cannot set
policies that would respond sensibly to it.
When seen as unconnected, problems are often easy to solve: increase retirement age to
reduce the deficit of public pension schemes, and decrease it to reduce unemployment.
Educational policy can be likewise flawed when questions are answered one by one
without paying attention to the inconsistencies in the answers. Cheating is generally treated
as if it were independent of the nature and purpose of exams, independent of grading, etc. I
will try to show that when one takes several questions together instead of answering one
without considering others, what used to be obvious no longer is.
M. Bouville (&)
The research on cheating is empirical and focusses on quantification and correlations—
but finding out how many and which students cheat is of importance only if cheating itself
is important. And cheating is important only if it is wrong. Since everything else depends
on it, the question of the wrongness of cheating is the most important question. It is the
object of this article. (Given that the overwhelming consensus is that cheating is wrong and
should be fought, I will focus on the limitations of this consensus rather than linger on
those cases where it is rather unproblematic.)
A common view is that cheating is forbidden and cheaters break a rule. For instance, the
focus of Burkill and Abbey (2004) on ‘‘regulations’’ and on ‘‘penalties’’ for ‘‘ignoring
academic conventions’’ indicates that to them the main reasons for students to avoid
cheating are obedience to rules and avoidance of penalties. However, Kohn (2007) draws
attention to those ‘‘cases where what is regarded as cheating actually consists of a failure to
abide by restrictions that may be arbitrary and difficult to defend’’. Breaking a rule is
illegitimate only if the rule is legitimate. Either the rule has a rational justification and this
rather than breaking a rule makes cheating wrong, or the rule is arbitrary and there is no
reason to endorse it. In other words, cheating should be forbidden because it is wrong, not
wrong because it is forbidden. Obviously, the wrongness of cheating should not be a
As Drake (1941) pointed out, cheating can be frustrating to the instructors, who may
‘‘interpret such behavior as a direct affront to themselves’’. When Johnston (1991) found
out that her students had cheated she felt betrayed: ‘‘how could they do this to me?’’ While
this may explain better than genuine arguments why teachers dislike cheating it does not
show that cheating is wrong. (Students could just as well say ‘I trusted you and now you
give me a bad grade—how could you do this to me?’ Disappointed expectations may
certainly be frustrating but they are not in themselves an argument.) It is interesting to note
that this is generally not offered as an argument in articles looking at cheating in a ‘cold’
objective way but can be found in more personal papers, such as that of Johnston. While
this is a real reaction of the ‘victims’ of cheaters, it is not taken to be a valid argument
Another possibility is that cheating is morally wrong because cheaters treat their
teachers as mere means, rather than as ends in themselves.1 But this claim does little to
address the important issue—which will be raised again regarding other arguments against
cheating—of the relation between cheating and sanctions: expelling a student for treating a
teacher only as a means seems absurdly disproportionate.2 (Would one dismiss teachers
who treat students as mere means to a salary?)
1 One can notice that all students who seek good grades (even those studying hard) basically see the teacher
as a distributor of grades, not as an end. In fact, it is not clear to me how students can avoid treating teachers
as means: teachers are essentially means to an education. (This is true whatever your job: if you were not a
means to anyone, who would accept to remunerate you?)
2 Even if cheating is wrong, this does not automatically imply that it must be harshly punished. Guyau
(1884, p. 168) even claims that moral judgement ‘‘cannot pass the limits of the moral world to be transformed
into the least kind of coercive and penal action. This affirmation ‘You are good, you are bad’ ought
never to become this: ‘You must be made to enjoy or to suffer’.’’ In any case, the harsher the sanction, the
more uncontroversial the crime should be.
68 M. Bouville
Cheating as Unfair Advantage
In this section, I will focus on a popular argument against cheating: the relationship
between cheating and grades—cheaters receive undeservedly high grades and thus an
unfair advantage over other students.
Grades as a Proxy of How Good a Student is
A fairly common view equates grades and value of the students (how knowledgeable,
talented, competent they are). This may mean that grades are infallible evaluations of how
good a student is, or that grades actually define how good a student is, i.e. there is no
concept of the worth of the student independent of grades. In any case, the issue with such
a view is that it implies that efficient cheaters are good students, since they get good
grades. Plainly, if anything is to be said against cheating, one must recognize that grades
are but a proxy for how good students are, an approximation of what they know, what they
can do. It is thus possible for grades and worth to be different; every teacher has given
grades that did not seem right, that did not correspond to what the students ‘were worth’—
some students are not good at taking tests, a student may have made a silly and costly
mistake, etc. (also see Bouville 2009b). Cheating may be just another source of
Cheating and the Future Success of the Students
Since it is of the nature of grades to describe student performance, a grade that is a poor
description is a poor quality grade. Such a grade is like a map of a city that does not
actually represent the streets of this city. But if no one ever were to use this map, the
problem would be a purely abstract one: inaccurate grades matter only if someone
somehow acts upon them, otherwise I could just as well assign -p as a grade. Naturally
grades are concretely used: they are a proxy for what students know and can do, which is in
turn used as a proxy for what students may be able to do in the future. In other words,
grades are used as predictors of future success: high school grades are used for admission
to universities, law school grades to infer how good a lawyer the student will be, etc. In
admissions, one looks at grades only in order to guess how well students may do in the
future (if there were no correlation between grades in one year and academic success in the
next then the use of grades would plummet). Therefore, any time grades do not correspond
to how well students can be expected to perform a poor decision will be made. Such
decisions can be called unfair since they advantage less deserving students.
The Difficulty to Use Grades
One always uses someone else’s criteria even if they are not relevant. In my experience, the
justifications that high school maths teachers require from students for full credit are often
dismissed in universities as ‘trivial’, yet it is precisely these students who are in agreement
with their future professors who get marked down and are therefore at a disadvantage when
they apply to university. Likewise graduate students, who do research, are supposed to
invent new things, not just learn from others. Being able to digest what others found is
handy but not sufficient to do good research—one may be an excellent undergraduate but a
poor PhD student. Using undergraduate results (beyond proof of adequate knowledge and
Why is Cheating Wrong? 69
understanding) to guess how good a PhD student will be means trying to infer apples from
oranges. Why then would it make any difference that the oranges are rotten? The inference
is flawed even in the absence of cheating.
There is another reason why grades may be of little help to estimate the future success
of students. Hall et al. (1995) found that a deep approach to learning correlated negatively
with SAT scores: students who merely learned by rote and who minimized their
involvement or tried to get good grades without caring about what they learnt obtained
higher scores than students who sought a deeper understanding of what they were taught.
In other words, students who had good work habits and a sound mindset that would help
them succeed in the long run received lower SAT scores—students most likely to succeed
are treated as least desirable.
Unfair Advantage Without Cheating
It is common for teachers to knowingly give a student a grade that is evidently inadequate:
for instance, they commonly give a bad grade to a student they know to be good. If one
does not see a major problem with grades being decorrelated from how good students are
then the fact that the grades of cheaters do not reflect their actual value should not be a
problem either. In other words, there are cases in which no cheating is involved yet a grade
is clearly a bad estimate of how good a student is, i.e. an unfair (dis)advantage. It is then
unclear, if teachers are not bothered by such incongruities, why similar discrepancies
would be problematic when due to cheating.
Picture a student who has an essay proofread by his parents or a personal tutor; the
student did all the writing but received help that contributed to improving his work (e.g.
that section is unclear, this book should be of help). He will get a better grade than a
student of equal intelligence and talent who cannot receive or afford any such help. This is
an unfair advantage but one would not call it cheating (whatever one thinks of the
unfairness of the situation, the favoured student did nothing wrong). If grades are used to
decide who should be admitted to a top university, a smart and talented student, a student
with a tutor, and a cheater will look the same even though the first is superior to the other
two. Cheating and tutoring both create an unfair advantage.
Cheating May Be a Trifle
Cheating can give an unfair advantage only in cases of direct competition between students.
Entrance exams and other ‘high stake’ tests are an example. Homework is not.
Paradoxically there is more empirical work on cheating on homework than on high stake
exams, i.e. the greatest knowledge about the extent of cheating lies where it is of least
importance from the viewpoint of unfair advantage. A consequence is that, for all we
know, there may not be a single situation where cheating does massively occur and
provides an important edge: homework is irrelevant to this competition and the most
important exams are also the most heavily proctored. In other words, it is quite possible
that cheating may not in fact provide a major advantage.
What Teachers Say, What Teachers Do
It is not uncommon for teachers to give a good student a bad grade, fully aware that the
student deserves better—but the grade that came out of the exam is the grade that came out
70 M. Bouville
of the exam. And they do not really mind doing so. When a grade is a poor assessment of
the value of the student, it is the grade that wins; for instance, it is this faulty assessment
that will be part of transcripts, not the actual worth of the student.3 Regardless of what they
say, teachers who do not see a major problem with grades not matching how good students
are—i.e. grades that give an unfair (dis)advantage—should not either mind the fact that the
grades of cheaters do not reflect their actual value.
How teachers see cheating is an interesting clue of how they see education. Taking
cheating to be essentially a matter of unfair advantage means that education is seen as a
race of all against all—discipulus discipulo lupus. If asked, the vast majority of teachers
would shun such an idea, but treating cheating as a matter of unfair competition speaks for
itself. For instance, the goal of homework is not the assignment of grades but rather to have
students learn a lesson by putting it to practice; the main reason for grading homework is
that some students may need such a carrot. Treating cheating on homework as essentially a
matter of a student getting an unfair advantage means losing sight of what one is trying to
accomplish. Not only is the focus generally on grades rather than on learning, grades rather
than learning are seen as the issue in cases where grades are mostly irrelevant.
Cheating and Learning
Of course there is no need to act as if school were just a race of all against all (even when
one claims that school is precisely not that). One could instead point out that students
copying from others or a book do not learn anything in the process. In other words,
cheating interferes with education.
Cheating Undermines Feedback
Passow et al. (2006) argue that ‘‘acts of academic dishonesty undermine the validity of
measures of student learning’’: if teachers do not know that there is something the students
do not understand (if they cheat it may seem that they understand) then it is impossible for
them to know whether to accelerate or slow down, on what to focus, or how to re-design
their lectures next year—in the long term, cheating hurts the students. It also prevents
teachers from providing students with relevant feedback.
One should remark that this argument is more relevant to homework than to exams
(especially final exams) because the latter are used more for grading or ranking and less for
feedback, making cheating on homework worse than cheating on finals. Moreover,
cheating on entrance exams would not be wrong at all since these are not meant to provide
any feedback at all. In other words, this argument forces us to hold as worst the instances of
cheating that would generally be seen as mildest. This is not surprising since feedback
(either way) is not genuinely seen as of prime importance; that grades matter more is
clearly reflected in the far greater importance given (by both students and teachers) to
exams compared to homework. Finally, one should point out that if the only problem with
3 The reason why grades trump one’s intuition of the value of students is probably that they are objective
and thus deemed superior to the subjective opinion of a teacher. But if grades claim that good students are
bad, of what exactly are they an objective measure? Grading based on the number of points the student’s
name would get in Scrabble is objective as well; it is also completely silly (also see Bouville 2009b). Saying
that the objectivity of grades is their main quality means that what they actually measure is of secondary
importance. ‘‘What grades offer is spurious precision’’ (Kohn 1994). This, again, undermines the meaning of
grades as measure of the value of the students.
Why is Cheating Wrong? 71
cheating is merely that it hinders feedback then it is a very venial detail, and would not
justify the outrage and dismissals one witnesses.
The applicability of this argument depends deeply on the actual practice of the teachers.
In particular, it is not a universal truth that teachers use graded assignments for feedback to
the students. Were it so, grades would be less ubiquitous and written comments far more
numerous and extensive. Also, many teachers have taught the same class the same way for
decades without ever changing their course based on the specifics of their current audience;
so the fact that cheaters create noise on the feedback is irrelevant when this feedback is not
taken into account anyway. In other words, not all instructors can claim that cheating
interferes with their teaching. In fact, this argument could also be used against these
instructors who do not provide students with useful information on how they are doing or
who do not make use of the information they receive from their students.
Cheating Undermines Learning
A more important issue with cheating is that it can directly get in the way of learning. For
instance, students who copy homework assignments instead of doing them themselves will
not learn what they should. Likewise, having a book on one’s lap does not have the same
didactic impact as having studied for the exam. For cheaters to be punished because
cheating hinders learning, the following four conditions are necessary (the last of them—
that sanctioning cheaters must actually have a positive consequence—will be addressed in
the next section).
First, the assignment on which the student cheated must teach this student something
worthwhile. The best students may have little need for homework, some teachers assign
work which has little pedagogical value, etc. Can students who would not learn anything
by doing the homework copy it? It makes no sense to make certain students fail a class
because they were so good that they did not need homework (also see Kohn 2007).
Moreover, if the problem is that the teacher assigns work that does not contribute much to
student learning one may wonder why the students are punished rather than the teacher.
A second condition is that cheating on this assignment must hinder learning. One should
remark that it may be the absence of cheating, rather than cheating, that is bad. For
instance, Stephens (2005) found that ‘‘only 18% [of high school students] believed that
‘working on an assignment with other students when the teacher asked for individual work’
was cheating’’. This is because ‘‘students regarded this forbidden collaboration as furthering
their knowledge and understanding, and therefore saw it as an act of learning rather
than a form of cheating’’ (also see Kohn 2007).
Third, anything that hinders learning as much as cheating does must be sanctioned as
much as cheating. Since, in terms of learning, not doing one’s homework at all and copying
it are on a par, the argument of hindrance to learning cannot justify treating cheaters more
harshly than those who simply ignore their homework. One can also remark that hobbies,
working for tuition money, etc. can adversely affect learning as well—yet one would not
expel students just because they have a part-time job or a boyfriend.4 (Those who exhibit
4 One should also remark that grades (which one so dearly wants to protect from cheating) are bad for
education as well. Ruth Butler (1988) found that students who received feedback in the form of grades did
worse than those who received written comments but no grade. Butler and Nissan (1986) note that ‘‘grades
may encourage an emphasis on quantitative aspects of learning, depress creativity, foster fear of failure, and
undermine interest’’. According to Anderman et al. (1998), ‘‘students who reported cheating in science
perceived their classrooms as being extrinsically focused and perceived their schools as being focused on
performance and ability’’—i.e. the emphasis on grades favours cheating.
72 M. Bouville
moral outrage at cheaters but not at students who study little are not reacting against a
hindrance to learning. The same is true when one takes cheating on exams as far worse
than cheating on homework.) Take three students. One is bright and learns nothing from
doing a given assignment, another did not do the assignment and the last one copied it from
a friend. One broke the ‘‘Thou shalt not cheat’’ commandment and two the commandment
that ‘‘Thou shalt do the assignment’’, yet none of these three students got anything out of
the assignment. From the viewpoint of learning there is no difference between them—why
should one of them be sanctioned?
Should One Reduce Cheating?
Cheating has a negative impact on education inasmuch as students cheat rather than study.
But this justifies trying to curb cheating only if doing so actually has a positive impact on
learning. In particular, the sanction must not hamper learning more than cheating does.
Sanctions can be quite dramatic (e.g. the University of Virginia expelled nearly fifty
students for plagiarism in 2002). Expelling students so they do not fail later classes and
eventually drop out is as meaningless as making suicide liable to death penalty because
suicide is wrong.
Does Less Cheating Mean Better Education?
Jensen et al. (2002) quote a high school student: ‘‘I’m a dedicated student, but when my
history teacher bombards me with 50 questions due tomorrow or when a teacher gives me a
fill-in-the-blanks worksheet on a night when I have swim practice, church, aerobics—and
other homework—I’m going to copy from a friend!’’. Similarly, Cole and Kiss (2000)
found that ‘‘students are most likely to cheat when they think their assignments are
pointless, and less likely to cheat when they admire and respect their teachers and are
excited about what they are learning’’ (also see Collier et al. 2004; McCabe 1997;
McKeachie 2002; Murdock et al. 2004). Some students are not motivated by what they are
taught and they copy the assignments so they do not waste their time on something of no
interest to them—while at the same time getting good enough grades to stay out of trouble:
cheaters may ‘‘feel really bad but it is better than being yelled at for bad grades’’
(Covington 1992, p. 91).
Stephens and Nicholson (2008) interviewed a student who is ‘‘simply not very interested
in learning (or working hard at it) and he isn’t much emotionally affected by his
cheating, which he acknowledges is wrong’’. It is far from obvious that if this student
stopped cheating he would study hard instead. When you can get something for free, you
just take it; if it is no longer free, either you pay for it or you give it up. What would
students do if they could no longer get good grades for free? Some would certainly do the
homework assignments and study for the exams (to maintain their high grades), but other
students would not study more (to maintain their low workload). Curbing cheating may not
necessarily make students study more, i.e. it may not have a positive impact on learning.
It is obvious that certain forms of cheating can get in the way of learning. It is obvious
that education is about learning. So it is obvious that cheating can go against the very
essence of education. However, even though interference with learning should be the most
obvious problem with cheating, it is not the one that most straightforwardly leads to
efficient policies, i.e. policies that would protect learning from the threat of cheating.
Why is Cheating Wrong? 73
Cheating in School Correlates with Cheating Later On
Drake (1941) hoped that ‘‘the dishonesty so learned is specific and does not carry over to
other activities’’. In fact, recent studies show that cheating as student correlates with
cheating in one’s professional life and with other misbehaviours (e.g. Blankenship and
Whitley 2000; Roig and Caso 2005). One should first notice that this correlation does not
seem to exist for all students: for instance, Mustaine and Tewksbury (2005) found that
‘‘cheating may be part of a larger problem behavior orientation for males but not females.’’
Furthermore, this correlation is of importance only if lowering rates of cheating in school
has consequences later in life. McCabe et al. (1996) found ‘‘no significant differences
between Code (M = 0.95) and No-code College (M = 1.00) alumnae/i on self-reported
unethical behavior (t(281) = .95, p = .61)’’ so that the hypothesis ‘‘individuals who
experienced an honor code environment in college will self-report less unethical behavior
in the workplace than individuals who did not experience an honor code environment’’ is
‘‘not supported’’. In other words, even though honour codes decrease rates of cheating in
university (Roth and McCabe 1995), they do not seem to have a lasting effect. This is
another example of a negative consequence of cheating that is not removed simply by
directly removing the cheating.
Cheating is disliked to a great extent because it breaks a rule and because teachers take it as
a personal offence. However, for cheating to be wrong one must justify the rule forbidding
cheating. And the fact that the teacher dislikes what a student did does not necessarily
mean that the student did something wrong or something that legitimized harsh sanctions.
This article looked at two kinds of arguments against cheating: unfair advantage and
hindrance to learning. One cannot but notice that claims against cheating have something
utopian about them: they would probably be forceful if grades always reflected how good
students are and always enabled the prediction of their future success, and if teachers
always used assignments to get information on the students as well as to provide them with
relevant feedback on their performance. How convincing these arguments are in the real
world is quite a different matter. Of particular interest is the discrepancy between the
reasons invoked for sanctioning cheating and actual practice: if teachers acted logically and
consistently based on these reasons, a number of things that are widely done and widely
accepted would have to be given up.
Several issues have been raised repeatedly in the course of the discussion. One is
whether cheating on homework is worse than cheating on exams (especially the ‘high
stake’ kind). Homework are meant to contribute to learning, unlike entrance exams, but the
latter are more important in the competition for admissions. Since most teachers and
students take cheating on exams to be far worse, they must take cheating to be about
competition rather than about education.
A second issue is that of sanctions. In particular, if the fight against cheating is a fight
for education then expelling cheaters is wrong because this hurts their education far more
than cheating itself. Once more it appears that, no matter what teachers would claim, their
usual policies do not focus on education.
Another issue regarding the prevention of cheating is that the fact that cheating hinders
education does not mean that putting an end to it will automatically improve education.
Those students who want to get passable grades with as little work as possible are unlikely
74 M. Bouville
to start studying hard just because they can no longer cheat. What hinders education is not
cheating but the underlying lack of motivation: fighting cheating may only address a
superficial symptom. And if curbing cheating does not have a major positive impact on
learning then the fact that cheating hinders learning cannot justify fighting it.
A last problem is consistency. This is especially clear with the claim that cheating
provides an unfair advantage. Indeed, cheating is not the only way to dissolve the link
between grades and future success, so that one cannot take it for granted that a given
instance of cheating will get a student something undeserved in a way chance or some
widely accepted practice could not. For instance, it is common for teachers to knowingly
give a good student a bad grade. But if they are not bothered by such incongruities, why
would similar discrepancies be problematic when due to cheating? It would also make
sense that, if the problem with cheating is that it prevents learning, then anything that
hampers learning (not just cheating) be likewise sanctioned.
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