Is Academic Dishonesty Optimal?

Marshall Boyd 1184615

There is an opinion held in the world of academia that academic dishonesty should never occur. This opinion is held on ethical and economic grounds. It is widely held that cheating in any form is unethical and as such academic dishonesty is also considered unethical. In this paper I will not discuss the ethical grounds other than to say that I agree; I do not condone cheating nor advise anyone to engage in academic dishonesty. In this paper I will examine the economic grounds of the argument that academic dishonesty is never optimal for a student. Many students engage in academic dishonesty and many others are sorely tempted with only their conscience preventing them. I cannot believe that so many intelligent individuals who otherwise act

rationally in most regards decide to behave so irrationally when it comes to academic dishonesty. To begin I will lay out some assumptions regarding the types of students that attend postsecondary institutions; there are two types that encompass most students and a third which I believe exists but constitutes such a small number of students as to be largely negligible. The first type of student is one who attends university or college to acquire particular credentials; these credentials could be to qualify for a job (such as a BMSc) or to qualify for further credentials (such as being able to attend graduate school). The second type of student is the one who is there to learn, to further an education for the sake of an education. The third type of student again is a tiny portion of the student population is that type of student who attends at another¶s behest; he or she has no interest in being there but is required to be, perhaps by a domineering parent. I am satisfied that this third type is largely negligible and even were they to engage in academic dishonesty would not make up the number of instances found on postsecondary campuses.


Having now seen the types of students that attend post-secondary I will turn to the argument as to why cheating is an irrational activity commonly put forth by the faculty of institutions. It is widely held that cheating is never an optimal choice; the payoff for such a choice is small compared to the risks incurred. If one is caught cheating they will be severely punished, a failing grade on the assignment, a failing grade on the class, expulsion from the institution, and a permanent note on one¶s academic record. In regards to our student types, all students are intimidated by such punishments; it would mean not receiving the required credentials, an end to all future formal learning. If one is not caught there are still potential negatives; one does not learn the material by cheating and risks future academic engagements by not having a thorough understanding of the matter. The threat is made even more potent by the promise of professors that they are able to tell almost instantly, in nearly every instance that a student is cheating. Professors vehemently and regularly warn students of the consequences and ask students on both ethical and rational grounds to not engage in academic dishonesty and yet, many students still cheat. There is, I believe, a rational explanation for why students cheat. They want better grades. Undoubtedly the best option to achieving higher grades is to learn the course material thoroughly; by having an excellent understanding of what is being taught in class a student should be able to excel and achieve the grades they desire. Obviously, students only cheat when they don¶t have a proper understanding of course material; as such I will continue in this paper to only discuss those students who do not have a complete and thorough understanding of course material. Academic dishonesty is an attempt by students to convince professors that they have an understanding, or a more thorough understanding than they actually do, of the subject matter;


if the professor is deceived by the dishonesty the students will be successful in their bid for higher grades. These reasons between the two groups of students are quite similar but have slight differences between the two types of students and so I will examine each in turn. The first type of student, those that are seeking credentials, is, perhaps, the more likely of the two groups to engage in academic dishonesty. The pressure on this student is often high to score grades higher than their classmates; not only is this student expected to understand the course material, he or she is expected to know it better than his or her peers. The student forms expectations about their ability and also the ability of their classmates; as the student does not know the matter well his or her expectations on his or her own ability is quite low, lower than his or her expectations about his or her peers. The student is faced with two options: he or she can cheat and attempt to get the grade needed to achieve particular credentials or the student can do poorly in the class, possibly failing but surely not achieving the necessary grades. Either option presents the same worst case scenario: failing to achieve end goals. An argument will often be made that it is better to fail honestly than to be failed for a breach of ethics. This is an argument that appeals only to ego, though; a student can only fail so often before the university does not allow him or her to enrol in any more classes, the same result as the harshest penalty for academic dishonesty. The student can be drummed out of the university putting an end to his or her academic career. However, the best case scenario is different for each option. The student already knows that they do not have the honest ability to achieve the grades he or she needs so to be honest will result in the failure to reach one¶s goals. The best case scenario for committing academic dishonesty is to get away


with the dishonesty and be able to achieve one¶s goals. These students now have a rational motivation for academic dishonesty The argument is much the same for those students that attend post-secondary simply for the sake of learning; the major difference will be that they do not have to do better than their peers they need only reach the minimal level of competence to pass the class, in this way they are less likely to cheat than their peers in the first category. Their reasoning will run much the same course; a student will judge his or her ability in the class and form an expectation of whether or not he or she has the skill required to pass the class while maintaining a GPA sufficient to remain enrolled in post-secondary education. If the student expects to fail the class he or she will have the motivation to commit academic dishonesty. Again the student will have two options: cheat or not cheat. The worst case scenario involves failing the class or being removed from the institution in either instance while the best case scenarios are different; not cheating the student expects to fail but by cheating the student has a better chance of being able to continue his or her education and has another chance at learning the material. There are, as can be seen, several factors that affect a student¶s choice to cheat; they could include, but are definitely not limited to: the expectation of personal performance, the expectation of peers¶ performance, the expectation of the ability of the professor to detect academic dishonesty, the number of times a particular class has been attempted, and program requirements. If these factors align in certain ways it is definitely in the student¶s best interest to commit academic dishonesty. It is definitely an immoral activity but if viewed in purely rational terms it is the action which offers the highest payout with the same level of risk as not cheating. There are, however, changes that post-secondary institutions could put in place to reduce the occurrences of academic dishonesty. The conventional methods include warning students of


the consequences of academic dishonesty, increasing the severity of punishment for academic dishonesty, and training professors in ways to detect academic dishonesty among students. All of these methods are effective and will have some influence in deterring academic dishonesty. As these methods are already put in place in most institutions and widely used I will raise some less conventional options for making academic dishonesty less favourable. The reasons that students cheat are typically related to standing in classes and result from the current organization and policies at academic institutions. If this organization and the

policies could be changed cheating would become a far less optimal choice for students. The two changes that I will propose are very simple sounding but will face opposition from many people and from the university in general as it is, by and large, a conservative body that does not change quickly. My two proposals are to allow students to take a course an unlimited number of times until he or she becomes competent in the subject matter and to replace the current four (or perhaps more correctly five) point grading system with a simple pass/fail grading system. As universities and colleges exist primarily as places of education they should be geared towards effectively passing on knowledge to students. There should be no limit on the number of times a student can take a course. The point is not to test how quickly a student can learn a subject but to ensure that they have a lasting understanding of the concepts. If a student does not gain an understanding immediately he or she should not be required to withdraw from an institution but rather he or she should be encouraged to take the class again if he or she is still interested or to take another class if he or she is no longer interested. The student would still be required to pay any applicable fees and so would have incentive to do well in classes but could be assured that even if he or she does not pass on the first attempt he or she could take the class


again until an acceptable level of competence is reached. The message at post-secondary should not be one of failure but rather an encouragement to learn. This system could still encourage some few students to engage in academic dishonesty as the cost of schooling would not have decreased but it does remove the incentive to cheat to ensure that one is not removed from the institution. If there is no threat in being required to withdraw from studies fewer students would cheat. It does not entirely remove the incentive to cheat but it does remove another factor from the equation. The second recommendation is to replace the current four point grading system with a pass/fail grading system. There is little reason to rate students against their peers. This allows for situations in which few or no students actually learn the concepts well but some students are assigned grades of excellence on the four point scale or alternatively if an entire class learns the concepts well some students must be scored lower and so despite having a thorough understanding are given grades of satisfactory or minimal pass. Passing a class should reflect the fact that one has the required competence in the subject not that one is simply more or less competent than a classmate. A pass/fail system would allow for a much more objective

assessment of students¶ competencies. There would no longer be an emphasis on doing better than others but simply an emphasis on doing the best one can to ensure competency. The level of competency expected from students could increase with the seniority of the class to ensure that students in higher level classes have higher levels of competency in the subject area. Again this places more emphasis on learning in post-secondary institutions and less on competition. This system could still have flaws in the subjectivity of professors or others who assign grades. It could appear that a student is more competent as the assessment of ability will vary from person to person but this flaw also already exists in the current grading system. The only


way to remove this flaw would be to have a single person grade every assignment by every student in a course or even faculty and this is entirely impossible. Students could still have the incentive to cheat to appear to be more competent and receive a pass rather than a fail. The incentive to appear better will always be present as long as a person is being judged but if one is judged solely on one¶s own ability rather than compared to another¶s ability the incentive is lessened. It matters less if one does better than another and more if one can simply demonstrate competency. In closing there are times that rationally, economically it makes sense for a student to cheat. This does not mean there are no morals surrounding cheating and students should refrain from cheating simply because it is wrong. However, many of the incentives for cheating are created by the institution and by changing policies regarding student performance the incentives for academic dishonesty could be reduced, though never removed altogether. Post-secondary institutions could without extensive changes to current practice refocus on education and help to ensure that students are more thoroughly educated and less likely to engage in academic dishonesty. Negative consequences should still exist to deter academic dishonesty but by

removing the negative consequences for not cheating institutions would be much more successful in deterring would-be cheaters.


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