Alfie Kohn

Rethinking Teaching
Archive | Biography | Resources | Discussion

Who’s Cheating Whom?

Cheating by students might say more about the nature of the assignment than it does about the students.
by Alfie Kohn

Regular contributor to the Gazette
© 2007 by Alfie Kohn. Reprinted from Phi Delta Kappan October 2007 with the author's permission.
August 1, 2008

{This is Part II of a two-part article. Part I appeared in the July Teachers.Net Gazette}

A deep analysis of cheating may lead us to investigate not only the situations that give rise to it but the process by which we come to decide what will be classified as cheating in the first place. Even a careful examination of the social context usually assumes that cheating, almost by definition, is unethical. But perhaps things are more complicated. If cheating is defined as a violation of the rules, then we’d want to know whether those rules are reasonable, who devised them, and who stands to benefit by them. Yet these questions are rarely asked.

Some kinds of cheating involve actions that are indisputably objectionable. Plagiarism is one example. While it’s not always clear in practice where to draw the line between an idea that has been influenced by the work of other writers and one that clearly originated with someone else (and ought to be identified as such), [23] we should be able to agree that it’s wrong to use a specific concept or a verbatim passage from another source without giving credit if the objective is to deceive the reader about its origin.[24] More interesting, though, and perhaps just as common, are 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. It’s not just that questionable educational practices may cause students to cheat, in other words; it’s that such practices are responsible for defining certain behaviors as cheating. In the absence of those practices and the ideology supporting them, such behaviors would not be regarded as illegitimate.

Cooperative learning, beyond helping students deal with an overwhelming workload, also provides a number of benefits when compared with individual or competitive instructional models. By working together, students not only are able to exchange information and divide up tasks but typically end up engaging in more sophisticated problem-solving strategies…

This unsettling possibility enjoys a prima facie plausibility because there are plenty of other things we regard as facts of life whose existence actually turns out to be dependent on social context. Sportsmanship, for example, is an artificial concept that wouldn’t exist at all except for competition: Only in activities where people are attempting to defeat one another is it meaningful to talk about doing so in a graceful or virtuous fashion. (People who play cooperative games don’t require reminders to be “good sports” because they’re working with one another toward a common goal.) Likewise, theft does not exist in cultures where there is no private property – not because people refrain from stealing but because the idea literally has no meaning if people’s possessions are not off-limit to one another. There is no such thing as leisure unless work is experienced as alienating or unfulfilling. You cannot commit blasphemy unless you believe there is a God to be profaned. And jaywalking is a meaningless concept in Boston, where I live, because there is simply no expectation that pedestrians should cross only at intersections.

On what, then, does the concept of cheating depend for its existence? One answer was supplied by a scandal at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the early 1990s. More than seventy students were punished for “cheating” because they worked in small groups to write computer programs for fear that they would otherwise be unable to keep up with their class assignments. “Many feel that the required work is clearly impossible to do by straightforward” - that is, solitary - “means,” observed the faculty member who chaired MIT’s Committee on Discipline.[25] The broader context in which to understand this episode is that cooperative learning, beyond helping students deal with an overwhelming workload, also provides a number of benefits when compared with individual or competitive instructional models. By working together, students not only are able to exchange information and divide up tasks but typically end up engaging in more sophisticated problem-solving strategies, which, in turn, results in more impressive learning on a range of measures. Structured cooperation in the classroom also proves beneficial in terms of self-esteem, relationships, and motivation to learn.[26]

Students may be disciplined if they consult reference sources during any sort of assessment in which the teacher has forbidden this. But what does it say about the instructor, and the education system, that assessment is geared largely to students’ ability to memorize?

The problem, however, is that, aside from the occasional sanctioned group project, the default condition in most American classrooms – particularly where homework and testing are concerned – is reflected in that familiar injunction heard from elementary school teachers: “I want to see what you can do, not what your neighbor can do.” (Or, if the implications were spelled out more precisely, “I want to see what you can do all by yourself, deprived of the resources and social support that characterize most well-functioning real-world environments, rather than seeing how much more you and your neighbors could accomplish together.”) Whether, and under what circumstances, it might make more sense to have students learn, and to assess their performance, in groups is an issue ripe for analysis and disagreement. Alas, most collaboration is simply classified as cheating. End of discussion.

By the same token, students may be disciplined if they consult reference sources during any sort of assessment in which the teacher has forbidden this. But what does it say about the instructor, and the education system, that assessment is geared largely to students’ ability to memorize? What pedagogical purpose is served by declaring that students will be judged on this capacity and must therefore spend a disproportionate amount of time attempting to cram dates, definitions, and other facts into their short-term memories? How else might we have encouraged them to spend that time? And what is the purpose of this sort of assessment? Is information being collected about students’ capacity to remember what they’ve read or heard for the purpose of helping them to learn more effectively -- or is the exercise more about sorting them (comparing students to one another) or controlling them (by using assessment to elicit compliance)?

It may well be that students who use “unauthorized” materials or assistance thereby compromise the teacher’s preferred method of assessment. But perhaps this should lead us to question the legitimacy of that plan and ask why those materials have been excluded. Similarly, if “cheating hinders standardization,” as one group of academics warned,[27] should we condemn the cheaters or question the value of a standardized education? Again, we can expect lively debate on these questions; but again, what is troubling is the absence of such debate -- the result of uncritically accepting conventional definitions and assumptions. Consulting a reference source during an exam (or working with one’s peers on an assignment) will be classified as cheating in one classroom, with all the grave implications and practical repercussions attendant on that label, while it will be seen as appropriate, even admirable, in another. Students unlucky enough to find themselves in the first classroom stand condemned of cheating, with little attention paid to the nature of the rules they broke. To that extent, their actions have violated a purely conventional set of prohibitions but they are treated as though guilty of a moral infraction.

“Maybe a bigger problem is that teachers require students to memorize instead of teaching them how to think.”

Moreover, any student who offered just such a defense, perhaps arguing that her action was actually less problematic than the instructor’s requirements, or that what she did was more analogous to entering a lecture hall through a door marked “exit” than to lying or stealing, would likely be accused of engaging in denial, attempting to displace responsibility for what she has done, or trying to rationalize her behavior. Once we’ve decided that someone’s action is morally wrong, her efforts to challenge that premise, no matter how well-reasoned, merely serve to confirm our view of her immorality.

In 2006, a front-page story in the New York Times described how instructors and administrators are struggling to catch college students who use ingenious high-tech methods of cheating. In every example cited in the article, the students were figuring out ways to consult their notes during exams; in one case, a student was caught using a computer spell-check program. The implication here, which is that students even at the university level are being tested primarily on their capacity to memorize, was noted neither by the reporter nor by any of his sources. Only a single sentence dealt with the nature of the assessments: “Several professors said they tried to write exams on which it was hard to cheat, posing questions that outside resources would not help answer.”[28] Even here, the intent appeared to be foiling cheaters rather than improving the quality of assessment and instruction. Or, to put it differently, the goal was to find ways to prevent students from being able to cheat rather than addressing the reasons they wanted to cheat -- or what the instructors regarded as cheating (and why).

These distinctions are important. An Alabama student, quoted in another article, pointed out that “you can cheat if all you are going to be tested on are facts, but it is much harder to cheat when you are asked to . . . write an essay.” However, this student went on to make a much more significant point: “Maybe a bigger problem is that teachers require students to memorize instead of teaching them how to think.”[29] The deficiencies of the curriculum, in other words, go well beyond whether they facilitate or discourage cheating.

Detecting or deterring cheating more effectively fails to address the “educational damage” caused by whatever systemic forces have taught students that “the final product takes precedence over learning.

Dudley Barlow, a retired high school teacher and education columnist, recalled assigning a research paper about El Salvador. One student began with some facts about the country and then went on to describe how General William Booth and his band of followers worked diligently to help the downtrodden by spreading the gospel of Christ. I was absolutely stumped about the paper until I realized the student had sat in a library copying from an encyclopedia about El Salvador, and he had inadvertently turned two pages at one time. Without even realizing it, he began copying text about the Salvation Army.

This story presents us with a kind of projective test, notable for what our reactions to it reveal about us. It’s not just that some will be appalled and others will find it funny; it’s that some will regard it as a reflection on the student while others will zero in on what the teacher had assigned the student (and his classmates) to do. Fortunately, Barlow himself had the courage to adopt the latter point of view. “That student,” he concluded, “finally convinced me that the kinds of research papers I had customarily assigned were not accomplishing what I had in mind.”[30] What he had in mind, presumably, was helping students to learn as well as to take pleasure in doing so. And detecting or deterring cheating more effectively, as one language arts teacher explains, fails to address the “educational damage” caused by whatever systemic forces have taught students that “the final product takes precedence over learning.”[31]

Thus, suppose that cheating could be at least partly curtailed by tightly monitoring and regulating students or by repeatedly announcing the dire penalties that await anyone who breaks the rules. Would this result be worth the cost of creating a climate of mistrust, undermining a sense of community, and perhaps leading students to become less enthusiastic about learning? Rebecca Moore Howard, who teaches writing at Syracuse University, put it this way: “In our stampede to fight what some call a ‘plague’ of plagiarism, we risk becoming the enemies rather than the mentors of our students; we are replacing the student-teacher relationship with the criminal-police relationship… Worst of all, we risk not recognizing that our own pedagogy needs reform. . . [if it] encourages plagiarism because it discourages learning.”[32]

Outraged condemnations of cheating, at least in such instances, may turn out to have more to do with power than with either ethics or pedagogy.

It is sometimes said that students who take forbidden shortcuts with their homework will just end up “cheating themselves” because they will not derive any intellectual benefits from doing the assignment. This assertion, too, is often accepted on faith rather than prompting us to ask just how likely it is that the assignment really would prove valuable if it had been completed in accordance with instructions. A review of the available evidence on the effects of homework fails to support widely held beliefs about its benefits.[33] To that extent, we’re forced to confront the possibility that students’ violation of the instructor’s rules not only may fail to constitute a moral infraction but also may not lead to any diminution of learning. Outraged condemnations of cheating, at least in such instances, may turn out to have more to do with power than with either ethics or pedagogy. Perhaps what actually elicits that outrage is not a lack of integrity on the part of students so much as a lack of conformity.[34]

A penetrating analysis of cheating will at least raise these possibilities even if it may not always lead to these conclusions. It will invite us to re-examine what comes to be called cheating and to understand the concept as a function of the context in which the label is used. Even if the reality of cheating is unquestioned, however, its causes will lead us to look at the actions of teachers as well as the (re)actions of students, and at classroom and cultural structures as well as individual behaviors. Such a perspective reminds us that how we educate students is the dog; cheating is just the tail.


  1. Lee Ross, “The Intuitive Psychologist and His Shortcomings: Distortions in the Attribution Process,” Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, vol. 10, edited by Leonard Berkowitz. New York: Academic Press, 1977, p. 183.
  2. Philip Zimbardo quoted in Claudia Dreifus, “Finding Hope in Knowing the Universal Capacity for Evil,” New York Times, April 3, 2007: D2.
  3. Marlowe teaches at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island. Personal communication, August 2006.
  4. Character Education Inquiry, Studies in the Nature of Character. Volume 1: Studies in Deceit (New York: Macmillan, 1928), Book 1, pp. 381, 400.
  5. See the research conducted with undergraduates and high school students by Gregory Schraw, Lori Olafson, Fred Kuch, Trish Lehman, Stephen Lehman, and Matthew T. McCrudden, “Interest and Academic Cheating,” in Psychology of Academic Cheating, edited by Eric M. Anderman and Tamera B. Murdock (Burlington, MA: Elsevier Academic Press, 2007).
  6. Tamera B. Murdock, Angela Miller, and Julie Kohlhardt, “Effects of Classroom Context Variables on High School Students’ Judgments of the Acceptability and Likelihood of Cheating,” Journal of Educational Psychology 96 (2004): 775. Also see the research reviewed by Schraw et al., op cit., pp. 60-65.
  7. This finding by Kay Johnston at Colgate University was described in Lynley H. Anderman, Tierra M. Freeman, and Christian E. Mueller, “The ‘Social’ Side of Social Context: Interpersonal and Affiliative Dimensions of Students’ Experiences and Academic Dishonesty,” in Anderman and Murdock, eds., op. cit., p. 207.
  8. Character Education Inquiry, op. cit., Book 2, p. 184.
  9. This paraphrase of a conclusion by Rutgers professor Donald McCabe and his colleagues in an article called “Cheating in Academic Institutions: A Decade of Research,” is offered by Eric M. Anderman, “The Effects of Personal, Classroom, and School Goal Structures on Academic Cheating,” in Anderman and Murdock, eds., op. cit., p. 95.
  10. Schraw et al., op. cit., p. 69.
  11. Jason M. Stephens and Hunter Gehlbach, “Under Pressure and Underengaged: Motivational Profiles and Academic Cheating in High School,” in Anderman and Murdock, eds., op. cit. Quotation appears on p. 127. Also see the review of other research in Eric M. Anderman, op. cit.
  12. For more on the research behind this distinction, and the detrimental effects of overemphasizing academic performance, see Alfie Kohn, The Schools Our Children Deserve (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999), chapter 2.
  13. Eric M. Anderman, Tripp Griesinger, and Gloria Westerfield, “Motivation and Cheating During Early Adolescence,” Journal of Educational Psychology 90 (1998): 84-93; and Eric M. Anderman and Carol Midgley, “Changes in Self-Reported Academic Cheating Across the Transition from Middle School to High School,” Contemporary Educational Psychology 29 (2004): 499-517.
  14. On this point, see Anderman, op. cit., p. 93.
  15. For example, see Anderman et al. 1998; and Angela D. Miller, Tamera B. Murdock, Eric M. Anderman, and Amy L. Poindexter, “Who Are All These Cheaters?: Characteristics of Academically Dishonest Students,” in Anderman and Murdock, eds., op. cit., p. 20.
  16. Alfie Kohn, Punished by Rewards. Rev. ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999).
  17. This is also true of international rankings of student performance. Even putting aside the question of whether standardized tests should be accepted as valid indicators, when competence in math or literacy is framed in competitive terms, the goal is for American students to triumph over their peers. The accomplishments of children who happen to live in other lands are therefore viewed as troubling; we are encouraged to want those children to fail, at least in relative terms. For this reason alone, educational “competitiveness” is a deeply flawed goal. See Kohn, “Against Competitiveness,” Education Week, September 19, 2007: 32, 26.
  18. Alfie Kohn, No Contest: The Case Against Competition. Rev. ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1992).
  19. Martin Covington, Making the Grade: A Self-Worth Perspective on Motivation and School Reform (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1992), p. 91.
  20. See Susan Gilbert, “Scientists Explore the Molding of Children’s Morals,” New York Times, March 18, 2003, p. D5.
  21. For an excellent review of the prevalence of, reasons for, and moral ambiguity surrounding cheating by educators in the context of high-stakes testing, see Sharon L. Nichols and David C. Berliner, Collateral Damage: How High-Stakes Testing Corrupts America’s Schools (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2007), esp. chapter 2. Also see Thomas M. Haladyna, Susan Bobbit Nolen, and Nancy S. Haas, “Raising Standardized Achievement Test Scores and the Origins of Test Pollution,” Educational Researcher 20, 5 (June-July 1991), pp. 2-7; and Claudia Kolker, “Texas Offers Hard Lessons on School Accountability,” Los Angeles Times, April 14, 1999.
  22. David F. Labaree, How to Succeed in School Without Really Learning: The Credentials Race in American Education (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), pp. 258, 32, 259.
  23. “Encouraged by digital dualisms, we forget that plagiarism means many different things: downloading a term paper, failing to give proper credit to the source of an idea, copying extensive passages without attribution, inserting someone else’s phrases or sentences – perhaps with small changes – into your own prose, and forgetting to supply a set of quotation marks. If we ignore these distinctions, we fail to see that most of us have violated the plagiarism injunctions in one way or another, large or small, intentionally or inadvertently, at one time or another. The distinctions are just not that crisp” (Rebecca Moore Howard, “Forget About Policing Plagiarism. Just teach,” Chronicle of Higher Education, November 16, 2001, p. B24).
  24. The intent to deceive is critical because plagiarism is sometimes unconscious. It’s not uncommon for people to borrow someone else’s work while genuinely believing it’s their own. In fact, this happens often enough that it’s been given a name (“cryptomnesia”) and become a subject for social psychological research. See, for example, Alan S. Brown and Dana R. Murphy, “Cryptomnesia: Delineating Inadvertent Plagiarism,” Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, vol. 15 (1989): 432-42; and Jesse Preston and Daniel M. Wegner, “The Eureka Error: Inadvertent Plagiarism by Misattributions of Effort,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 92 (2007): 575-84.
  25. Quoted in Fox Butterfield, “Scandal over Cheating at M.I.T. Stirs Debate on Limits of Teamwork,” New York Times, May 22, 1991, p. A23.
  26. For example, see the research reviewed in David W. Johnson and Roger T. Johnson, Cooperation and Competition: Theory and Research (Edina, MN: Interaction Books, 1989); and in Kohn, 1992, op. cit. For a recent meta-analysis of the effects of cooperative learning and peer tutoring in elementary school, see Marika D. Ginsburg-Block, Cynthia A. Rohrbeck, and John W. Fantuzzo, “A Meta-Analytic Review of Social, Self-Concept, and Behavioral Outcomes of Peer-Assisted Learning,” Journal of Educational Psychology, vol. 98 (2006): 732-49.
  27. Linda Garavalia, Elizabeth Olson, Emily Russell, and Leslie Christensen, “How Do Students Cheat?” in Anderman and Murdock, eds., op. cit., p. 35.
  28. Jonathan D. Glater, “Colleges Chase as Cheats Shift to Higher Tech,” New York Times, May 18, 2006, pp. A1, A24.
  29. This student is quoted in Paris S. Strom and Robert D. Strom, “Cheating in Middle School and High School,” Educational Forum, Winter 2007, p. 112.
  30. Dudley Barlow, “Cut, Paste, and Get Caught: Plagiarism and the Internet,” Education Digest, May 2006, p. 40.
  31. Lisa Renard, “Cut and Paste 101: Plagiarism and the Net,” Educational Leadership, December 1999/January 2000, p. 41.
  32. Howard, op. cit..
  33. Alfie Kohn, The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2006).
  34. The same motive appears to be on display when students who clearly have mastered the material in a course are nevertheless given a lower grade because they failed to complete all the homework. Here the student has implicitly disconfirmed the hypothesis that homework is necessary for successful learning, and the teacher responds by saying, in effect, that the point isn’t to learn so much as it is to do what one is told.

More Gazette articles...

About Alfie Kohn...

Alfie Kohn writes and speaks widely on human behavior, education, and parenting. The latest of his eleven books are THE HOMEWORK MYTH: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing (2006) and UNCONDITIONAL PARENTING: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason (2005). Of his earlier titles, the best known are PUNISHED BY REWARDS: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A's, Praise, and Other Bribes (1993), NO CONTEST: The Case Against Competition (1986), and THE SCHOOLS OUR CHILDREN DESERVE: Moving Beyond Traditional Classrooms and "Tougher Standards" (1999).

Kohn has been described in Time magazine as "perhaps the country's most outspoken critic of education's fixation on grades [and] test scores." His criticisms of competition and rewards have helped to shape the thinking of educators -- as well as parents and managers -- across the country and abroad. Kohn has been featured on hundreds of TV and radio programs, including the "Today" show and two appearances on "Oprah"; he has been profiled in the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, while his work has been described and debated in many other leading publications.

Kohn lectures widely at universities and to school faculties, parent groups, and corporations. In addition to speaking at staff development seminars and keynoting national education conferences on a regular basis, he conducts workshops for teachers and administrators on various topics. Among them: "Motivation from the Inside Out: Rethinking Rewards, Assessment, and Learning" and "Beyond Bribes and Threats: Realistic Alternatives to Controlling Students' Behavior." The latter corresponds to his book BEYOND DISCIPLINE: From Compliance to Community (ASCD, 1996), which he describes as "a modest attempt to overthrow the entire field of classroom management."

Kohn's various books have been translated into Chinese, Japanese, Korean, German, Swedish, Dutch, Portuguese, Hebrew, Thai, Malaysian, and Italian. He has also contributed to publications ranging from the Journal of Education to Ladies Home Journal, and from the Nation to the Harvard Business Review ("Why Incentive Plans Cannot Work"). His efforts to make research in human behavior accessible to a general audience have also been published in the Atlantic Monthly, Parents, and Psychology Today.

His many articles on education include eleven widely reprinted cover essays in Phi Delta Kappan: "Caring Kids: The Role of the Schools" (March 1991), "Choices for Children: Why and How to Let Students Decide" (Sept. 1993), "The Truth About Self-Esteem" (Dec. 1994), "How Not to Teach Values: A Critical Look at Character Education" (Feb. 1997), "Only for My Kid: How Privileged Parents Undermine School Reform" (April 1998), "Fighting the Tests" (Jan. 2001), "The 500-Pound Gorilla" (Oct. 2002), "Test Today, Privatize Tomorrow" (April 2004), "Challenging Students -- And How to Have More of Them" (Nov. 2004), "Abusing Research" (Sept. 2006), and "Who's Cheating Whom?" (Oct. 2007).

Kohn lives (actually) in the Boston area with his wife and two children, and (virtually) at

Alfie Kohn Columns on Teachers.Net...
Related Resources & Discussions on Teachers.Net...

# 294209