How K-12 teachers can help win the battle against college cheating

Detecting and deterring misconduct is getting more complicated and expensive
By: | December 14, 2021
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Ashley Norris

Ashley Norris

I am sorry to be the one to tell you this, but the job description for middle and high school teachers is about to get longer and more complicated.

The problem is that America’s colleges and universities need help. Soon, chancellors will be asking—perhaps begging—school districts and states to do much more to teach academic ethics. Colleges have an increasingly pressing need for students to understand the why of good academic conduct, and to push beyond the value of the earning of a grade.

That’s not to say that study values and habits and ethical decision-making are not being taught now. I know they are. Even so, I strongly suspect that their relative position in the instructional cannon will be significantly and rapidly elevated because our colleges and universities are nearly overwhelmed by cheating.

This past year alone, reported cheating incidents have increased significantly at every school that’s released its data publicly. USC, Stanford, the University of California, Cal Poly, Princeton, North Carolina State, Fordham, CSU Los Angeles, and dozens of others have all reported significant increases in academic misconduct. At most schools, cases have doubled, even tripled. The United States Air Force Academy and the Military Academy at West Point and the United States Naval Academy were also bruised by cheating incidents this year.

Cheating habits are formed early

Colleges simply cannot deal with this tidal wave of misconduct. Detecting and deterring misconduct is getting more complicated and expensive. Inquiry and adjudication processes have become overwhelmed and increasingly complicated.

At some schools, even an initial hearing on misconduct can take months to schedule. On the teaching side, monitoring, detecting and reporting misconduct has replaced instruction as the most time-consuming part of the job. At this pace, the institutional consequences of cheating are unsustainable, as is the reputational damage of misconduct and the corresponding devaluation of awarded credentials and degrees.

This cheating surge was driven by and became more noticeable when the pandemic forced us into remote learning. But it’s not that simple nor is it going away now that students are in classrooms. A digital, collaborative culture of younger learners also contributes as has the transactional nature of an academic degree. It seems more and more to be a system where we value only the quantified outcome of a lesson, not the process of learning.

Very few cheaters cheat the first time in college. Academic research concludes that the shortcut study habits that drive college cheating are formed early, as early as middle school.

Colleges are losing this fight

Clearly, colleges will have to do more, including investing heavily in education and academic support. But I sense already that K-12 schools and districts and states are likewise going to be asked to do more to instill the early values of correct academic conduct, to build a culture of trust around good learning practices. This includes being more vigilant, taking early signs of misconduct more seriously, and understanding that misconduct in early academic settings is common and habit-forming.

Doing so won’t be easy. Discipline, for example, isn’t always possible or even appropriate in such settings. Instead, the challenge will be more complex and more nuanced—teaching students when collaboration is helpful and appropriate as well as when collaboration is not. We also need to make it clear that failure with honest effort is not fatal but instead is a valued part of learning. We need to limit the practice of “curving” grades and stress that cheating does not just hurt the cheater, it hurts peers and classmates and teachers.

These increased expectations may not be fair to heap upon our K-12 system, but it’s difficult to overstate how important these concepts are. Colleges are losing this fight.

And yet, even if individuals don’t agree that helping colleges with this issue is compelling, we—indeed everyone engaged in teaching and learning—need to make adjustments. We must be clear that being a good student is not only about the grade; honest work and ethical conduct are just as significant a part of being a good student. Those lessons have their own value and they start early.

Ashley Norris is an expert in academic integrity, regulatory and accreditation compliance, and assessment. She spent nearly 15 years in higher education as both a faculty member and administrator and is currently the chief academic officer and chief compliance officer at Meazure Learning.