By: Shlomo Frishman  | 

To Cheat or Not to Cheat

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We have all been there before - exam day. You need a high score on the exam or risk getting a low term grade. Looking up, you notice that the professor’s back is turned slightly. What do you do? Do you lift your head, glance at your neighbor’s answers, quickly fill the bubbles in and think to yourself: “Job well done!” I’ll get an A in the course for sure now. Or, do you choose the route of integrity, ignore the instinct to cheat, and get the grade that reflects what you know?

If you identified with the first choice, you’re far from alone. A 2009 study in Ethics & Behavior (Vol. 19, No. 1) found that over 80 percent of college alumni acknowledged they cheated in some form as undergraduates. Researchers and psychologists have tried to understand why this number is so high and what it is that makes cheating so common within college campuses. What makes people do it? Below are three of the common rationales to cheating which researchers and psychologists have identified.

Why do students cheat?

Competitive academic pressure often pushes students to cheat. This holds true especially in small, tight-knit universities, an example being Yeshiva University. Since many of the students in small universities have mutual friends, it is safe to say that everyone basically knows everyone. As a result of this, students may feel more pressured to receive a high GPA so as to not be looked down upon by their peers.  

Student's justification perpetuates cheating. According to Rabbi Ozer Glickman, Rosh Yeshiva at RIETS, former Senior Vice President of Strategic Risk Management at Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, and current professor of Business and Jewish Law at Sy Syms, "Students feel justified in cheating when their instructors create tests that seem designed to trap them rather than demonstrate what they have learned." Basically, students rationalize that since the teacher made an unfair test, it is okay to cheat.

Self interest is a major driver behind cheating. Even with all the scholarships that universities distribute, attendance is still costly. Whether the students themselves are paying the tuition costs or their parents are, students want a good return on the investment. By cheating, students believe that they will be able to land a good job, thus making college a worthy venture.

What is wrong with cheating?

Halachic prohibitions are certainly violated by cheating. Rabbi Glickman points out that "there is a widespread agreement among poskim (rabbinic scholars) that cheating on an exam or other assignment violates multiple prohibitions. It is, firstly, g’neivat daat (dishonest misrepresentation) since it creates a false impression upon the students, teachers, employers etc. Secondly, as the act of cheating may affect a fellow student’s prospects for employment or graduate school, it can constitute the transgression of actual g’neiva (theft). In a broad sense, it violates the Torah's admonition to ‘do what is right and good.’"

Academic dishonesty perverts the central mission of an education: to gain relevant knowledge that will aid a student in his future endeavors. By cheating, a student is cheating himself. The goal of college is to learn and gain valuable information. When a student cheats on an exam, he is not properly learning the information needed to succeed.

Long-term detrimental effects can often occur from cheating. When students graduate and apply for jobs, employers may be hesitant to accept someone due to their prior academic dishonesty. Rabbi Glickman remembers having to rescind a job offer to an executive when it was revealed on a personality check that he had been expelled from school many years before. However, it goes deeper than that. Even if a cheater is not caught, there are serious implications on his future habits. When one uses cheating as a means of getting from point A to point B and becomes dependent upon bending the rules, it can lead to cheating in work which can lead to criminal activity.

Given that cheating seems to present some serious issues, what can be done to curb cheating?

1) Students must answer the question of why they are in college. Is the sole purpose of college to receive a piece of paper that shows they successfully attended school, (an extrinsic motivation) or is it in order to gain valuable information? If students believe that the sole purpose of college is to receive a diploma at the end of their cycle, then cheating is just an easy (albeit lazy) way to get there. However, if students believe that the reason they are in a university is to attain a greater level of knowledge, then grades are not as important as the gain of insight.

2) Instructors and institutions as a whole need to address the issue of cheating. Students may know that there is something morally wrong with cheating; however, they may not know the severity of their transgressions. The issues and ramifications of cheating should be addressed early on in a student’s education in order to curb the inclination at the very beginning.

3) Academic dishonesty must be taken seriously by faculty and administration. If schools are not strict on ensuring academic integrity, or worse - disregard it, then students will have little reason to respect the rules. A college student recently confessed that the reason she often cheated in college was because “the rules were not upheld by the faculty. If they were, I would have been less inclined to cheat".

There is no question: college is hard. The stress of getting a good grade and landing a good job is immense regardless of the university. That is likely why when it comes down to acting dishonestly to score a higher mark versus listening to one’s moral inclination, studies show an astounding 80 percent of students have, at least once, chosen the former. However, as Albus Dumbledore, Headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, once famously said, "We must choose between doing what is right and what is easy.” What will you choose?