Published in Teaching Philosophy
(26:2 June 2003 pp. 131-145)
What is the point of teaching about abortion, euthanasia, and capital punishment, if the students are cheating in the course?1 As much as eighty per cent of our students cheat.2 Cheating is the norm. Furthermore, ethics courses are not immune. What was at first perhaps considered only a joke about cheating in an ethics class3 turned out to be a reality.4 A decade ago, therefore, I decided to seize the bull by the horns and challenge my ethics students not to cheat.5 Herein I report on the results of this ten-year experiment.
My own education in this subject began in the late-1980s. One day I gave a "pop quiz" to my students in an ethics course, simply asking for a one-sentence summary of the assigned homework (to see how many had completed it on time). When I was grading the quizzes, I came upon two identical answers. Then I read another answer which sounded familiar, and, sure enough, I found the same sentence when I looked back at a quiz I had already reviewed. This kept happening. By the time I had finished with the whole set, I was able to bunch almost all of the answers into five groups of four or so each. Then, on a hunch, I checked my seating chart (which I used to help me learn my students' names): The groups corresponded exactly to the seating arrangement. My conclusion: The majority of my ethics students had copied from their neighbors!
Welcome to the Real World, as they say. Evidently I had been one of a minuscule minority (although maybe it was different "when I grew up"?) for whom cheating was not even a mental option -- no more so than stealing or killing was -- although of course I knew that some people did cheat (as some people did steal or kill). So this came as a shock to me that most of my students were cheating. When I next looked at them, I saw a roomful of people who were trying to deceive me. A prescription for paranoia? You bet. Nonetheless, a perception of reality.6 What was I to do now?
Pondering the problem, I soon realized that any of the "obvious" solutions could have disastrous consequences for learning. First, given its pervasiveness, my coming down hard on cheating would likely foster a me-against-them (and them-against-me) mentality. Teacher and student would become like cat and mouse; we would be adversaries in crime and detection (and punishment), not partners in learning. Furthermore, I already knew that there was no institutional support for doing this. On a previous occasion when I had caught three of the back-of-the-room boys in the act and, as per the student handbook, reported them to the dean for students, he had somewhat dismissively informed me that no other faculty member had ever done such a thing; and my own academic dean intervened when, as per the student handbook, I gave the three a grade of F. So students might simply avoid signing up for my courses if I gained a reputation for being out-of-step with the permissive environment.7
Another standard approach would be to try to prevent cheating in the first place, by the use of various techniques, such as limiting the writing of essays to in-class examinations (all the better for the rod-wielding don to monitor as he paces the aisles). But this inhibits truly reflective work, which a student can do better when composing papers outside of class. More sophisticated methods of deterring cheating, such as having students write multiple drafts, is simply not realistic for those of us who teach several sections of fully-enrolled general education courses (and are also expected to do research, etc.). At best, implementing such a strategy would mean that the number of distinct assignments, and hence again the opportunities for learning, would have to be drastically curtailed.
But there is an even more pertinent drawback of both punishment and preclusion for an ethics course in particular: What is the point of trying to impose honesty? The form of the course would be contradicting its content. Here I would be, attempting to foster a rational appreciation of right conduct among my students, while at the same time I was implicitly acknowledging my failure to do so, by policing or otherwise manipulating their behavior. It's ludicrous, and counter-productive. My students would see that my actions spoke louder than my (and Socrates') words.
That insight was the key to the method I did finally come up with: What better way to address the subject matter of an ethics course than to have the course itself serve as its own laboratory? Cheating 101 (my nickname for my sections of Introductory Ethics) was born.8
Here is how it works in a nutshell. Students are graded on how much time they spend on the course (distributed among specific assignments of reading and writing and class participation), and not on an assessment of the quality of the work they do (other than its having to meet a certain minimum standard). More precisely, students are graded on how much time they tell me they have spent on the course, even including keeping tab of their own attendance. Thus, as the syllabus states: "There is nothing standing between you and an easy A except your own integrity." The responsibility for honesty has been placed squarely on the students' shoulders. I honestly don't know where else it could be placed and still be worthy of the name honesty!
The material covered in the course is standard for introductory ethics, except that I occasionally steer the classroom discussion and paper assignments to the topic of cheating. I take a theoretical approach to ethics, so I explicitly apply each theory in turn to the issue of cheating; for example, "Would an Epicurean cheat in this course?" I also spend the first two or three classes discussing the rationale of the system and the detailed syllabus, including administering a written "quiz" (reviewed, but not graded), which the student must also sign to indicate that he or she understands and agrees to the terms.
Such a grading system is sometimes called contract grading, although, unlike in my course, the "contract" need not rule out graded assessments by the teacher.9 Also, contract grading is typically based on a different measure of quantity from mine, such as number of projects completed or number of pages produced; I have chosen hours as the relevant unit because I want to remove all incentive to prattle rather than study. The student is faced with the following choice: "I have to study for n hours to achieve the grade I want honestly. I can therefore (a) not do the work at all and just lie about how much time I have spent, (b) fill the hours with half-hearted efforts, or (c) conscientiously work for the full time." My idea is that while a is the pure test of honesty, b is a test of good faith (since I make it abundantly clear that I expect my students to pay full attention to their classwork and homework); finally, c provides a double incentive of demonstrating total integrity and avoiding the boredom implicit in just "punching the clock" as in b.
All grading, of course, involves a contract, whether tacit or explicit,10 but I mention the terminology because the literature is relevant to the method I chose. Yet even the variety I employed is a standard item in the teacher's tool kit. Whenever a teacher docks a student's grade for poor attendance, or gives a student extra credit for doing an additional assignment, some part of the grade has been detached from a direct evaluation of the student's understanding of the course material. The justification for such practices is obvious: Grades are a powerful motivator, and many aspects of the academic environment other than tests and assessments, such as good attendance and extra work, are strongly correlated with learning; hence, it makes perfect academic sense to use grades to motivate such activities.
My grading system is more radical in that it dispenses with assessment altogether. But when you think about it, any employment of contract grading has the feature of divorcing the final course grade from assessment. I call this the part-whole argument. Suppose a teacher assigns a grade of B based on his or her judgment of a student's mastery of the course material, and then adds a 10-point bonus for actively participating in classroom discussions; the resultant grade would be A. But now the grade has ceased to reflect mastery of content, for the student's comprehension was, ex hypothesi, only at B level.
The beauty of contract grading is that a teacher can stick to the letter (and letters) of the standard system,11 but use grading for a purpose to which it is better and more appropriately suited, namely, to motivate learning, rather than to generate some possibly mythical mark of a student's competence. I speak disparagingly of the latter, "traditional" function of grading because grades on a transcript do not have a univocal meaning. Some teachers grade relative progress while others use an absolute standard; some are easy graders, others tough; some count English mechanics, others don't or don't assign writing at all; etc. ad inf. Furthermore, most college professors do not have a degree or even any training in education and have never formally studied the methods of grading in particular, which generate controversy even among the experts.
There are also deeper, "ideological" issues about grading, such as whether we teachers have any business judging the suitability of our students to fit into outside institutions, be they academic, business, governmental, etc.; whether there might not be some covert purpose in grading in the sense of ranking our students relative to one another; whether an educational institution is justified to put more emphasis on threshing the smart from the less so than on providing maximum opportunity for all to learn; and whether we professors are perhaps perpetrating a power grab by propping up our presumed authority in our various specialized fields by this extraneous, and hence illegitimate, means.12 I myself believe that that last one has a lot to do, however subconsciously, with why most of us cling so tenaciously to the practice of grading. I have become quite aware of my own grading phenomenology; for example, it seems to me that when I assign a grade of D to a student's paper, I am only topping off my commentary with an insult -- as if I were saying, "And furthermore, you stink!"
Perhaps the most telling argument of all against evaluative grading is that it promotes anti-educational values, substituting various extrinsic motivations for a genuine desire to learn the subject matter.13 I mention all of these issues only in passing, however, because my premise in this essay is not that the entire system of grading rots, but rather that grading is a multifarious phenomenon, which ought to be flexible enough to serve different legitimate purposes and take various forms throughout the curriculum. The proper concerns of an engineering professor could at times be quite different from those of an ethics professor. The purposes that engage me the most when I am teaching my ethics course are to contribute to my students' general education, to enhance their appreciation of philosophy, and to promote their understanding of ethics. I am now convinced that contract grading is one way, and possibly the best way, to achieve all of these ends together.
Here is an example of how contract grading can foster general education. I take it that (1) as with any skill, people learn to write by doing it and (2) feedback is available from many sources. Hence, one recommended technique for harried teachers of writing, who have more students than they can reasonably be expected to critique both frequently and in detail, is to have students trade papers with one another for commentary, in lieu of their handing them into the teacher for a grade ("Trade Don't Grade," you might say). In this way the amount of writing assigned can be maximized. I adopted this technique, and it worked to good effect. Not only quantity but also quality increased,14 inspiring me to bring out a textbook composed of my students' essays.15
My students' reading has also benefited. For one thing, they do vastly more of it (that is, the students who are honestly reporting how much work they are doing), since how much time they spend reading, directly affects their course grade. But an unexpected bonus is that students are given an opportunity to enjoy reading, since for my course -- without tests or other graded assessments -- they can read at their own pace and for its own sake; furthermore, re-reading counts.
A contribution of contract grading to philosophical education in particular is that it encourages dialogue. Over the years I have come to view dialogue as the heart of the process of both philosophy and the teaching/learning of it. Socrates has become my patron saint. And even though one advantage of contract grading is that more work can be piled onto the students without breaking the teacher's back, I have been delighted to discover that my ability to provide feedback has been enhanced rather than diminished (for I do still collect all papers and comment on them when I am so moved). I think the reason is that a certain resistance has been removed from our interactions.
Thus, when I make a critical observation on a student's paper, there is no time wasted because the student thinks she "deserves a better grade"; I need not contend against that tedious sort of defensiveness. Instead we can get right to the issue at hand, whether it be a substantive point of philosophy or a technical point of logic or a stylistic point about writing effectively. Meanwhile, my own reactions to a student's work need not be inhibited by considerations of "objective assessment" or even "self-censorship," since now there is no risk of the student's suspecting that she might receive a low grade due to my disagreeing with her about some issue under discussion. Similarly, the student feels freer to express herself about truly held beliefs, a sine qua non of genuine dialogue, according to the anti-sophist, Socrates.
As for contract grading's advancing the goals of an ethics course specifically, it works like this. The only way I have of knowing how much time my students have spent on the course is to have them fill out a log. This means, of course, that a student could be duping me; a student might even have spent no time at all on the course (other than, say, enlisting the services of an Internet paper provider or of a roommate) but put down enough hours in his or her log to receive an A. But then, you see, that is precisely the point. The responsibility of honesty has been shifted entirely to the student's conscience. In my course the choice is stark -- Learn or cheat; do the work or deceive. It is not a game of hide and seek with the teacher; it is instead a confrontation with oneself. Who are you?
But aren't both the students and the teacher getting away with murder? The students don't have to do any homework, and the teacher doesn't have to do any grading; it is a perfect marriage of convenience for the lazy and the dishonest. Well, yes, of course this could happen ... just as the "traditional" grading system also has its infinite loopholes. Any system of grading or education depends for its ultimate success upon its being employed conscientiously; this is equally true for any system of government, business, science, you-name-it -- and that is the case, no matter how many checks and balances have been instituted (need I mention the names "Enron" and "Arthur Andersen"?). It must also be competently employed; one must learn how to teach a course of this nature (as one would any other course).
What is vastly ironic about the present situation is that the system of grading I have been using, precisely because it attacks the problems head-on and challenges the students to justify not cheating, has served as a lightning rod for criticism of the ills that have been rotting away education in this country due to the traditional grading mentality. An example of what I mean comes from the opposite end of the spectrum from the complaint that my system permits dishonest students to avoid doing any work. It is the charge that the system obliges students who are both honest and intelligent to do too much work. For, remember, my system links the course grade to time spent doing course assignments, and not to performance on tests, etc. Under a traditional grading system, a smart student could earn a high grade with far less effort devoted to homework than my system requires. Hence, smart students (that is, those who are also honest) are being penalized; they must work more than they "should have to" in order to get a good grade.
I have actually heard this argument put forward by some of my (non-philosopher) colleagues, not just by teenagers. I find it astonishing and appalling; to me it seems I am being admonished by my fellow educators for trying to further my students' education. Somehow it is deemed "unfair" -- even the word "harmful" has been used! -- to insist that students spend a certain amount of time doing homework for a course, when they could, and hence should (it is argued), get a good grade for doing less. Some colleagues have expressed this sentiment particularly with regards to general education courses, as being less important than courses in the major.16
But what is this argument really saying? It seems to me it is placing more importance on rewarding a small subset of students for their innate intelligence than on encouraging all students to learn as much as they possibly can (within reasonable time constraints). And a point I wish to stress is that intelligent students are the first to suffer -- yes, to be harmed in a real sense -- because of this topsy-turvy view of education. For what I have seen repeatedly is that some of the brightest students are among the most ignorant. That is because they have been permitted to glide through their schooling with minimal work to "get the grade," while their peers have had to struggle (and/or have cheated) just to pass.17 Hence, it is the "smart" ones who are being cheated, by the system itself; by giving them As for their intelligence, we have really been failing them.
Perhaps such an insight explains why my university's undergraduate catalogue specifies a minimum amount of time for homework, thus: "All full-time and part-time students are expected to spend at least two hours of time on academic studies outside of and in addition to each hour of class time."18 But this statement is as widely ignored --and I mean by the faculty as well as by the students -- as the one that says "Academic dishonesty isn't tolerated at the University." How do I know? Because my students have told me so, consistently and convincingly.
Recall that I employ a system where the burden of honesty about their work is entirely the students'. This has resulted in a degree of freedom of expression in (and about) my course that is perhaps unique. In the assigned papers on cheating, in a decade of classroom discussions, in 500 interviews on a program I hosted at our university's radio station, and in one thousand anonymous course evaluations, my students have made it clear: Just about nobody does even the minimum "expected" homework for any course, and just about everybody cheats. Behold: the fruits of the traditional grading system!
I certainly do not claim that I have discovered the magic formula to cure cheating and laziness and ignorance. Furthermore, there are probably several valid approaches that can be taken, and no one alone should have to bear the whole burden. But I do know that my method addresses these problems, rather than, on the one hand, sweeping them under the rug or, on the other, applying a "cure" that is worse than the disease (i.e., traditional methods that attempt to impose an artificial honesty and end up undercutting both educational possibilities and genuine character development).
I also believe that cheating is reduced in my courses (again, my claim is based on extensive feedback from my students19). Remember that the baseline for cheating, according to national surveys as well as my own teaching experience, is as high as 80%; so if that goes down even to 50%, significant progress has been achieved.
But more to the point: I believe that dishonesty is diminished. For consider: The true measure of honesty in the classroom is not how many students are cheating, but how many are cheats. So suppose 50% of my students actually cheat, whereas in somebody else's course, employing stringent controls, only 10% cheat; it could still be that more of my students are honest because, given the chance, maybe 70% of the students in the other course would cheat.
I claim, therefore, not only that fewer students cheat in my ethics course than would under the regular regime (sans stringent, education-stifling controls), but that fewer will go on to cheat in other courses. Their reason for not cheating will be not that they cannot get away with it, you see, but that it is wrong. The underlying rationale -- or call it my (Socratic?) faith, if you will -- is that when people reach an understanding of why cheating (or anything else) is wrong, then, all other things equal (i.e., with neither carrot nor stick in the offing), they will be less likely to do it.20 After all, if philosophers really thought that virtue cannot be taught, what are we doing teaching ethics courses?21
There is one final objection to my sort of system, however, that really does give me pause: Honest students, who work hard for their grade, sometimes feel, well, cheated, by my grading system because of the cheats who end up with a better grade for doing less work. I do acknowledge that this is a flaw in the system. Yet, how could it be otherwise and still be the system that it is, having all of the advantages that it does? (In this best of all possible worlds, did not even God have to rely upon Judas to carry out His plan?) Also, nothing can be evaluated in a vacuum, so the real question is: Are the net disadvantages of alternative systems even greater?
I have tried once again to tackle the problem head-on, by pointing out to my students that one of the great "lessons" of ethics may be that doing the right thing does not necessarily leave one better off than those who do the wrong thing. Alternatively, on the "virtue is its own reward" view, akin to Socrates' claim that integrity is a matter of the soul's welfare, the honest student may be ipso facto better off. However, as much as I do myself subscribe to such a conviction, I also recognize that it most emphatically does not endorse turning a blind eye to injustice (all the better to enjoy the virtuous fruits of suffering it!).
So let me make the following points. First, as I have already noted, the amount of cheating in my course may actually be less than that in other courses; thus, all that may really be distinctive about my course is that, as intended, everybody is talking about the cheating that is going on in it. Second, while the talking can deteriorate into boasting by some of the cheats, this is both understandable and even a good thing in a way. As one student wrote in a course evaluation, "I would hear them complain about your teaching. They would mock you and say that you were being unreasonable thinking we shouldn't cheat although the opportunity was there. Personally, I think that is their way of justifying their wrong actions." I interpret that to indicate that the course has indeed "reached" even the cheats, who now feel that they must broadcast their behavior, to disguise with bravado a feeling of guilt in front of other students who, they now dimly realize, are victims of that cheating.
These cheats are having to confront, evidently for the first time in their academic lives, both the true moral consequences of their behavior, and the fact that it is something they must learn to control on their own, without the crutch of external sanctions. Indeed, sometimes they must actively resist powerful external forces. In a moving testimonial, one evaluation related how the student's own mother advised the student to cheat on a psychology exam (so as to have more time for homework in the student's major).22 Maybe the "payoff" of these dawning realizations will not come for another year, or ten years, but there is reason to believe that even the cheats will have been positively affected by this course. Will not the vast majority of opportunities to cheat in later life -- in personal relationships and professional dealings alike -- go undeterred except by one's conscience?
To conclude my argument for the value of contract grading: Grading is a means, not an end. What end or ends does grading serve, or ought it to? This will depend much on a particular context. But in general, academe seems to hold out two purposes: "private" learning and "public" assessment of learning. As is the case whenever there are two values, they can come into conflict. I submit that when these two do, public assessment should yield to private learning.
The virtues of contract grading are perhaps best summarized by a sample of testimonials by my own students in their anonymous course evaluations. "I liked the grading system because it made me feel like I was in control of my grade." "It is much easier to get involved in this class because the students never have to worry about being right or wrong about their answers." "[The teacher] didn't pressure me. He just made me think." "This system played a big role in being able to contradict the professor." "I really like the grading system because I think it opens the relationship between the teacher and student because the teacher is giving the students a sense of responsibility that they don't get from other teachers." "I enjoyed reading other students' papers, especially those who wouldn't speak in class. I eventually got to hear their ideas and thoughts, as well as a little bit about them." "I never enjoyed reading before this course. Now I find myself drifting into books for hours!! I was at first very turned off by the books given to us but as I came to class and re-read the assignments they were like different books the 2nd time around. This is a very valuable lesson I learned." "I felt myself wanting to learn the information rather than learning it because I had to. Isn't that what college is all about?" "If someone is in college to learn then this is an ideal course." "This course was the most difficult course I have taken at UNH although it was one that I have learned the most from and have enjoyed taking." "I know I could get around the required readings by lying, but this instructor was challenging me to do the readings. I think this is funny because I read more in this class than any other class at this university. I feel that one thing I can take from this class is that I understand myself better." "The only test in the course is to see how you get the grade you receive. I believe that this is the best way to show all of the students what ethics is all about." "The personal and professional growth available to those who put forth effort in this course are not duplicated or even approached in any of my other courses." "I should say this is the only class that was able to change my behavior." "[We] lived ethical situations throughout the course in the classroom and also away from it. When this type of classroom setting was brought to the class's attention I was skeptical about it, but as the semester moved along and now at the end I realize how much of an impact it has had on me." "I think [the] grading system promotes honesty and rewards the student for effort put forth." "This is one course I will never forget." All of these comments are typical.
Finally, however, I have modified my grading system once again, incorporating elements of the traditional system, such as in-class examinations, as an additional check on cheating, while still retaining the self-reporting mechanism for time spent on homework. I do this in the same spirit of experiment with which I embarked on the wholly contract grading system. I have done it because I share the emotional response of many of my honest students to the cheating that goes on, namely, disgust. But I am afraid that this is not a good reason, given all of the considerations above, and mainly represents my own weakness. I have retreated partway into the cave (or opted for the blue pill, to allude to the contemporary metaphor from the movie Matrix), back to the comfort of the familiar shadows and an illusory world in which honesty and studiousness prevail over a few bad apples who cheat or skimp. Even though my system seemed to me to be working as well as could be hoped in meeting the objectives I had set for it, I have become so sensitized to the issue, that the cheating that remained of which I was aware, became too much for me to bear. Another factor was the peculiar variety of in-your-face cheating that my system engendered.
I should also note that adopting a wholly nonevaluative system such as mine is likely to elicit antagonism from some faculty and administrators.23 The idea of grades as motivators of work and instigators of a course conversation, without at the same time being assessments of the quality of that work and conversation, strikes some as practically incoherent.24 Thus, one may find oneself striving not only with students -- both the dishonest ones who blatantly cheat and the honest ones who think the system is unfair -- but also with colleagues who reject one's reasons or suspect one's motives. Should such disagreements rise to the level of attempted interference, there are three key points to remember: (1) academic freedom applies not only to the content of what we teach but also to how we teach it, (2) even though the faculty as a collective are responsible for academic standards, academic freedom resides in the individual faculty member, and (3) as my university's faculty constitution puts it, "the individual instructor has [not only] the prerogative [but also] the responsibility of making use of such methods, techniques, books, and materials as he or she considers useful to fulfill his or her objectives as an educator, and the intent and purpose of the course" (Article II, Section 1; my emphasis). Still, the end result can be controversy that affects the teacher's relations with all constituencies at the institution. If, like Socrates, you relish the good fight, your career is made. But for most of us, the effect on the emotions can be draining.
Instead of continuing my solitary struggle against an institutional ill, should I seek an institutional solution? One tactic that has been tried with some success at some schools is an honor system or honor code. I can imagine rallying the troops at my university: challenging the student body in op-eds written for the student newspaper; bringing the idea before the faculty senate; broaching it with the administration. What holds me back is twofold. On the one hand there is the practical consideration that what prompted my grading experiment in the first place was the dearth of administrative and faculty support for doing anything about cheating or even recognizing the existence of the problem (and various allusions in the preceding paragraph and elsewhere in this essay suggest that this attitude has only become more entrenched with time). Second is the theoretico-ethical consideration that honor systems tend to incorporate a significant enforcement component, which seems beside the point of what I have been trying to accomplish. Indeed, massive cheating has occurred at institutions that have an honor code.25 Nonetheless, I do not rule out this avenue, and the literature is certainly pertinent.26
Another sort of institutional approach I mention in passing, only because I consider it to be ridiculous. This was tried at the main (College Park) campus of the University of Maryland, where discount cards at local merchants' were offered to students who signed a pledge against cheating.27
So for now I am back to dealing with the problem on my own. But already I am observing that for the sake of what is in effect a cosmetic change (for cheating goes on no matter what), my partial reversion to the old way of grading has brought in its wake the host of pseudo-educational issues that are so loathsome about the traditional grading system. I see the intense focus on what will "count" on the exams rather than luxuriating in the expanse of learning, the hoarding of helpful ideas during class discussions lest the student give away his or her "competitive advantage" on subsequent graded assignments, and the hesitation, both by students and by teacher, to express genuinely held opinions about ethical issues for fear of grade repercussions or of appearing to be biased in grading, respectively. Thus, this story is not over.
I would like to acknowledge the encouragement of Michael Morris, editor of our university's in-house newsletter, Reflections, where an earlier draft of this essay appeared last spring; of Robert Rafalko, who wrote a companion piece about his use of the method over the past five years; of Mitchell Silver (University of Massachusetts at Boston), who has been using it ever since reading about it in my AAPT article (see Note 5); and of Lawrence DeNardis, president of the University of New Haven. I would also like to thank Michael Kaloyanides, Erik Rosenthal, Ralf Carriuolo, and Charles Vigue for their unwavering support of academic freedom.
1. James B. Gould makes the analogous or general point in his essay, "Better Hearts: Teaching Applied Virtue Ethics" (Teaching Philosophy, 25:1, March 2002, pp. 1-26). However, in his emphasis on character education in our ethics courses, Gould curiously overlooks the problem that is staring us right in the face in our own classrooms.
2. E.g., "Throughout the 1990s, nearly 80 percent of Who's Who [Among American High School Students] teens have consistently admitted to cheating in school," from "Students' Priorities Yield Sorry Results," a report by Educational Communications, 2002 . There is no reason to think the numbers drop appreciably when these students enter college, and every reason not to (see seq.).
3. In a Sunday "Calvin and Hobbes" cartoon from 9/12/1993, the little boy Calvin relates to his imaginary companion Hobbes (the tiger) his internal dialogue earlier that day about whether to cheat on a test at school. "So what did you decide?" asks Hobbes near the end. "Nothing," replies Calvin; "I ran our of time and I had to turn in a blank paper." "Simply acknowledging the issue is a moral victory," comments Hobbes." "Well," concludes Calvin, "it just seemed wrong to cheat on an ethics test."
4. E.g., Brian Cornforth, an instructor at San Diego State University, caught 25 of his 75 undergraduate business-ethics students cribbing from a pirated test key ("Need Someone in Creative Accounting?" by Jamie Reno in Newsweek, 5/17/99, p. 51), and 31 engineering students at Carleton University in Ottawa were caught plagiarizing an essay on ethics ("Students cheat their way to ethics essays," Reuters, 3/28/02).
5. See my "Cheating: Two Responses" (American Association of Philosophy Teachers News 15:3, November, 1992, pp. 5-9).
6. Looking back I wonder whether a more innocent interpretation of this episode were possible. All I know is that at the time, when I confronted my class, no one suggested any. In any case, the Who's Who statistics (see Note 2) and my subsequent discussions with hundreds of my students make it clear that massive cheating does take place.
7. Of course my university is not alone. Presumably this is another trend begun in high school, where, according to Who's Who Among American High School Students, 95% of cheats avoid getting caught (and presumably few of the remainder are punished severely) ("Cheating and Succeeding: Record Numbers of Top High School Students Take Ethical Shortcuts," op. cit.).
8. By the way, lest I be perceived as a plagiarist (!), let me acknowledge that the title of this essay, "Cheating 101," was previously used for a handbook by Michael Moore, a then-student at Rutgers University. Published in 1992 and subtitled, "the benefits and fundamentals of earning an easy 'A'," his how-to guide achieved nationwide notoriety. Moore defended the work as a wake-up call to lax enforcers of academic "integrity" (which I put in scare quotes, for reasons to be explained in this article; and cf. Note 27 below); see his op-ed in the Hartford Courant (1/14/92), "Does the educational system encourage cheating?"
9. An excellent introduction to the virtues of this kind of grading is "Contract Grading: Encouraging Commitment to the Learning Process Through Voice in the Evaluation Process," by Tammy Bunn Hiller & Amy B. Hietapelto (Journal of Management Education 25:6, December, 2001, pp. 660-684). Cf. also and the student testimonials near the end of the present article.
10. I thank my colleague David Morris for pointing this out.
11. Our university catalogue says, for example, that "B = Good." Some of my (non-philosophy) colleagues assume that such stipulations rule out my grading system. But, having been trained in conceptual analysis and logic, I ask the question, "What does 'Good' mean?" and point out the analogy of the logical operators, whose entire meaning is given by their truth table definition. Thus, even though we informally refer to the wedge as "or" (or, more precisely, "and/or"), its exact and only meaning is a certain set of Ts and Fs in a truth table. Just so, the exact meaning of "B" or "Good" in the university catalogue will be relative to a grading system. In my system, "B" or "Good" is precisely defined as "Puts in x amount of hours on the assigned homework, which must satisfy certain specified criteria." Hence, a student who does x amount of satisfactory work performs at the B level, i.e., does "Good" work, in my course.
12. Cf. "Institutional Obstacles to the Teaching of Philosophy" by Michael Goldman (Metaphilosophy 6:3-4, July-October 1975, pp. 338-346).
13. Cf. "A Proposal to Abolish Grading" by Paul Goodman in Compulsory Miseducation (New York: Horizon Press, 1964).
14. I suspect one explanation of the latter is that the average college student, being a teenager, is more likely to want to impress a classmate than a teacher, and also to take a classmate's criticism to heart.
15. From the Theoretical to the Personal: Essays for and by Students about Ethics, which I self-published for the use of my own students (with any profits earmarked for scholarships at our university).
16. Perhaps it is pertinent to point out that at my university there are only two philosophers among the more than 150 full-time faculty, and we both use the grading method in question.
17. The same Who's Who surveys that highlight cheating in our schools point to a deficiency of homework done by the best and the brightest. "In this decade [of the '90s], fewer and fewer high-achieving teens find school challenging. ... More than half (54%) of Who's Who teens surveyed in the past three years claim to have spent only an hour a day - or less - on homework. Who's Who teachers agreed" ("Students' Priorities Yield Sorry Results," op. cit.).
18. Playing with the numbers, I have discovered a rather interesting correlation (whether it be coincidence or the original intent, I do not know): The required hours make being a full-time student equivalent to having a full-time job. For consider: A 3-credit-hour course meets for 2.5 hours per week (as academics have 50-minute hours, just like psychiatrists), and twice that is 5 hours, so each course requires a (minimum) total of 7.5 hours, which is like a typical 9-5 workday minus half an hour for lunch; and the typical workload is 5 courses. Ergo Q.E.D.
19. For some comments from the students themselves about this and other results of using this grading system, see the end of the present article.
20. But is cheating wrong? This becomes a central question of my course. My own answer, naturally, is "Yes." I argue that the reason is purely Kantian, although I also recognize the tremendous social costs of knowledge not gained and trust loss. Cf. "Why Cheating Is Wrong" in my book, Moral Moments: Very Short Essays on Ethics (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2000).
21. I put a question mark after "Socratic" in this paragraph because Socrates apparently believed that virtue cannot be taught. But I take this to be a separate issue about whether all knowledge is remembered. I'm sure Socrates would agree that understanding is the key to right behavior.
22. Who's Who also reports that the parents are as blasé about cheating as are the students. "[A]pproximately two-thirds of both students and parents say that 'cheating is not a big deal'" (op. cit.), although there is some indication that, while the students are definitely condoning what they know to be pervasive, the parents are mostly just unaware of even the cheating by their own offspring.
23. One particular bugbear is so-called grade inflation. It is a fact that the normal curve has taken a vacation from my ethics course, and the final grades are heavily skewed to the high end. Two-thirds of my ethics students, during the decade I have been using the contract grading system, have received a course grade in the A range; almost half of these have been A+. I make two observations. (1) Let us look at the glass as more-than-half full; is it not worthy of note that more than two-thirds of the students did not receive A+? Is it not also remarkable that scores of students, when they fully realized the work load and the expectation of honesty, dropped out of the course altogether rather than cheat or fudge their way to a grade they desired? (2) “[I]t should be our goal that every student get an A in every course,” writes psychologist Steven D. Falkenberg in "Grade Inflation." Although Falkenberg is discussing the grading of content mastery, his essay alludes to a Skinnerian notion which is relevant to my concerns, to wit: “When the student does poorly it is because the instructor failed to motivate the student, failed to captivate her/his interest, and failed to provide appropriate learning activities and instruction …...”
24. I put aside the question of whether this objection is simply an ignoratio elenchi to begin with. For I do provide plenty of assessment of the quality of my students' work. It's just that I don't allow it to influence the grade I submit to the registrar for inclusion on their permanent transcript.
25. E.g., a major incident of cheating involving at least seventy-one midshipmen occurred in 1992 at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, where there has been an honor code in place since the Korean War (Newsweek 9/27/93, p. 44; Associated Press 1/25/94 & 4/1/94); and in 2001, 122 students were under investigation for plagiarism in an introductory physics class at the University of Virginia, whose much vaunted honor code was established in 1842 (Associated Press, 5/10/01).
26. See, e.g., the excellent issue of Perspectives on the Professions (a periodical of the Center for the Study of Ethics in the Professions at Illinois Institute of Technology; 14:2, January 1995) devoted to the subject. A resource is the Center for Academic Integrity , highlighting the work of Donald L. McCabe of Rutgers (appropriately enough; cf. Note 8).
27. “College students offered honesty incentive,” Associated Press (2/28/97). I discuss the absurdity of this in “Rightness and Rewards” (Philosophy Now, no. 37, August/September 2002, p. 47).