In defense of Cheating

7 Apr 2005 - 12:58am
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This is an interesting article written by Don Norman on the current need to
change the education system...Hope you enjoy reading it. I have pasted it
without any formatting...


In Defense of Cheating

Donald A. Norman


In a recent issue of Ubiquity, Evan Golub examined the

implications for cheating of allowing students to use

computers during examinations (Golub, E. (2005). PCs

in the classroom & open book exams. Ubiquity, 6(9).

I was disturbed by Golub's article because the

emphasis was on cheating by students and possible

counteractive measures. Never did he ask the more

fundamental questions: What is the purpose of an

examination; Why do students cheat? Instead, he

proposed that faculty become police enforcers, trying

to weed out dishonest behavior. I would prefer to turn

faculty into educators and mentors, guiding students

to use all the resources at their disposal to solve

important problems.

Golub takes as a given our current educational methods

that test by requiring students to prove that they can

regurgitate the information presented in class without

assistance from others (although, thankfully, he does

allow them to consult books, reference notes, and even

internet sources). But in real life, asking others for

help is not only permitted, it is encouraged. Why not

rethink the entire purpose of our examination system?

We should be encouraging students to learn how to use

all possible resources to come up with effective

answers to important problems. Students should be

encouraged to ask others for help, and they should

also be taught to give full credit to those others.

So, the purpose of this contribution to Ubiquity is to

offer an alternative approach: to examine the origins

of cheating, and by solving the root cause, to

simultaneously reduce or eliminate cheating while

enhancing learning. (This essay is adapted from an

unpublished posting on my website: In defense of



No, I am not in favor of deception, trickery, fraud,

or swindle. What I wish to change are the curricula

and examination practices of our school systems that

insist on unaided work, arbitrary learning of

irrelevant and uninteresting facts. I'd like to move

them toward an emphasis on understanding, on knowing

how to get to an answer rather than knowing the

answer, and on cooperation rather than isolation.

Cheating that involves deceit is, of course wrong, but

we should exam the school practices that lead to

cheating: change the practices, and the deceit will

naturally diminish.

Students cheat. There is no way of avoiding this fact.

Students hand in homework and project assignments

copied from others, or written by their parents, or

even purchased. Students copy from one another on

examinations, and they try to discover advance

information about examinations. When cheating involves

deceit, trickery, fraud, or swindle it must be

prohibited. But the proper solution to the problem is

not through prohibition and punishment: it is through

examination of the sources. Why do even our best

students feel compelled either to cheat, or to help

other students, or to watch while others cheat,

without taking action? I believe that the root cause

of cheating in our school systems lies with

inappropriate curricula and examinations. Change the

practices and the cheating should naturally diminish.

Consider this: in many ways, the behavior we call

cheating in schools is exactly the behavior we desire

in the real world. Think about it. What behavior do we

call cheating in the school system? Asking others for

help, copying answers, copying papers.

Most of these activities are better called

ÒnetworkingÓ or Òcooperative work.Ó In the workplace

these behaviors are encouraged and rewarded. Thus,

many experts will tell you that their real expertise

lies not in what they know but rather in who they

know: that is, expertise is often knowing whom to ask

and where to look. When we have problems in the real

world, we want answers, no matter the source, which

means searching to find someone else who has

experienced the same problem, asking others for help,

and cooperating.

Cooperative Versus Individual Work

In schools we over-emphasize individual work. Perhaps

the only place where individual, isolated work is

encouraged and cooperative work punished is in the

school systems. In examinations, not only is it

prohibited to copy other's work or to ask others for

help, but it usually isn't possible to refer to books

or, oh my goodness, the Internet. Yet these are all

important skills in the world outside of schools.

Students should be taught how to work effectively in

teams, how to use reference works, how to use the

Internet effectively, and especially how to find the

significant from the non-significant, to distinguish

quality from nonsense.

Our instructional philosophies are short-sighted. This

insistence upon unaided, individual work is the result

of the long-established policy of grading: each

individual is ranked through the assignment of a

numerical or letter score that is meant to reflect

their mastery of the subject matter. But does it?

First of all, are the examinations effective? Do they

encourage understanding or do they emphasize the

arbitrary recitation of material that is examinable.

We know from our own experience, supported by numerous

formal studies, that students cram for exams,

regurgitate the material at exam time, and seldom

retain it afterwards.

How much better to reward procedures for coming up

with answers. Emphasize understanding of the issues

and knowledge of how to gain insight and resolution.

Emphasize cooperation.

Consider plagiarization. The sin of plagiarization is

not that it involves copying, but that it doesn't give

credit to the originator. Deceit is wrong: it should

be avoided. The problem is that the current system of

homework and examinations emphasize the individual

activity, oftentimes in sterile, meaningless

exercises, ones that are easy to grade. Grades have

become critical to determining the future of each

student, even though they measure only a fraction of a

person's ability and potential, and quite often do a

poor job even of the aspects they pretend to measure.

It is no wonder that students study for the exam, that

true understanding and exploration of issues is

discouraged if it will detract from time that could be

spent studying for the exam. The grading system,

moreover, is often on a curve, with a fixed percentage

of students receiving each letter grade. This means it

is a zero-sum game: a person can only get a higher

grade if someone else receives a lower grade.

No wonder the intense competition, no wonder the

cramming for exams, no wonder cheating - anything to

get ahead. No wonder copying without attribution, for

the students feel compelled to lie: the student who

finds just the perfect essay and presents it to the

instructor receives no credit if the essay was written

by someone else. But suppose the student got credit

for finding the essay, that the reward was based upon

just how relevant and insightful that essay really

was? And if both the student who presented the essay

and the originator of the essay received credit?

This is a tricky concept. Thus, if one student writes

a paper and another simply copies it, no, that's not

what we are trying to encourage, not even if full

credit is given to the original. The goal is to

support cooperative work, where everyone contributes,

each according to their abilities, but that those

abilities are recorded and become part of the student

transcript. In other words, the goal is not to rank

order the students by some arbitrary mark of

performance measure, which is what grades do, but

rather to determine a student's true attributes and

skills and to record them accurately. Some students

are scholars, others leaders. Some are team players,

others not. Some are generalists, others specialists.

The goal is accurate characterization. We do not need

value judgments among the attributes: society needs

all of them.

In a system where copying is punished, the student

feels compelled to lie. Suppose that copying were

encouraged - honest copying, where the source must be

revealed. And suppose that both the copier and the

originator of the material were rewarded, the

originator for their contribution and the copier for

knowing where to seek the information. This would

reinforce the correct behaviors, minimize deceit, and

encourage cooperativeness.

Take a tip from the recommendation sites on the

Internet, where contributors are rated on the basis of

their effectiveness and usefulness to others. We

should grade students on their effectiveness in

forming coalitions in organizing groups, and in the

nature of their contributions to the group work. Thus,

if one person is frequently copied, that person's

stature as a contributor should rise. Similarly, if a

person makes no original contribution, but is

effective at forming coalitions that solve problems,

that person's status as an organizer should rise.

We could change the educational system to make it more

relevant to the world, to teach proper social skills,

and at the same time eliminate the deceitful, hidden

acts of cheating by recognizing cheating for the good

that it brings: group activities toward a common end.

Mastery Grading

Today, the grading system fosters a competitive,

zero-sum game spirit in which if one student wins, the

others lose. I have long been bothered by the system

of grading on the curve, forcing students to compete

rather than cooperate. I favor grading to absolute

standards. Determine what is to be learned and measure

how successful each student is in their

accomplishments. If every student gets an A, hurrah!

It means every student has learned.

If every student gets an A, this does not mean that

all students are equal. Not at all: some students can

accomplish more than others, and this difference

should be noted. But suppose we replace the fixed

curriculum and its rigid grading scheme with a new

procedure in which different students would do

different work and their grade would be a list of

their accomplishments? Evaluate students on their

mastery level: mastery grading. In addition, evaluate

them on their ability to work with others, either by

being a productive team member, by organizing the

team, or by their ability to contribute toward the


Suppose the grading system measured level of

accomplishment. Suppose the school curriculum were

divided into modules of useful knowledge or skills,

each relatively small (a week or two of class, perhaps

even a few hours). Each student is mentored, and the

module is marked as complete only when the student

masters it. In other words, grade on a Pass basis. But

only use Pass - do not use a Fail or Not-Pass grade. A

student either knows the stuff or doesn't, and in the

latter case, the student is encouraged to keep


Some modules should be mandatory: some optional.

Schools could require that students complete the

mandatory modules as well as a specified number of

others, perhaps requiring a distribution across

disciplines. The major structure of a curriculum need

not change. The major point of mastery grading is that

evaluation specifies the modules completed rather than

today's attempt at measuring the quality of

accomplishment of a fixed-length course. A student

transcript would list the set of modules completed


Admission to higher grades or to universities - or

even employment - could be based upon what students

know. Schools or employers would not look at grade

point averages, rather they would judge students by

their particular skills, by their ability to work in

teams, and by the set of modules that they have


Note that changing to modular education with mastery

grading also means changing today's system of

lock-step education. Today, if students fail at some

topic, when they are moved to the next grade, they no

longer have exposure to it, even if they wish to. In a

modular system, students could study the modules they

need or that they are interested in, regardless of

grade level.

In the end, the students possess a list of topics that

they understand. Some will have completed many

modules, some just the minimum required. Some will

have modules that reflect a broad range of topics,

some more narrow, but deeper knowledge. Instead of

arbitrary ranking through grade-point averages, each

student is characterized by their accomplishments.

Restructuring the Curriculum

In this essay, I focus upon changes to curriculum and

instruction that would change the emphasis in school

systems from that of competition to cooperation, from

arbitrary grading on the curve to mastery assessment

of a student's accomplishments. But these changes are

only part of the restructuring required of our

educational systems. Many more changes are needed.

We need to get away from the lecture-centered method

of teaching. We need to emphasize "learning," not

"teaching." Teaching is about the teacher. Learning is

about the student. The emphasis should be on doing, on

activities - learning by doing.

Yes, depth of understanding should be encouraged, but

this is best nourished when there is true interest and

excitement, which often means project-based

instruction, where teachers act as mentors and guides

to the material. None of this is particularly new:

many others have advocated this form of education,

starting with John Dewey in the early 1900s. But

changes in teaching can not take place without changes

in the curriculum and in the way we assess students.

Moreover, these changes are consistent with changes in

both Computer Science and Engineering curricula being

widely debated. They are consistent with a move toward

problem-based instruction, where students work in

teams on complex, realistic projects, with the

academic material timed to be relevant to the problems

being faced on the projects. The goal is to teach the

skills of creative problem solving, built upon

fundamental principles of the discipline, but where

the fundamentals are motivated by demonstrating their

relevance to real issues. Our courses can be made more

interesting without losing rigor or depth. Make them

relevant. Encourage teamwork and cooperation. Remember

that when our students encounter problems many years

from now, they will not remember the details of what

they were taught (assuming those details are eve still

relevant), but they will remember the fundamentals and

the skills.

We need to rethink the curriculum, for today, we try

to cram everything we think the student will ever need

to know into their heads in a relatively short period.

Instead, we need to train curiosity, self-reliance,

cooperative skills, and knowledge of how to learn on

their own, knowledge that will be of value for the 2/3

of their lives that remain after the completion of

formal schooling.


[Donald A. Norman is the author of numerous critically

acclaimed books, including "Emotional Design: Why we

love (or hate) everyday things," "The Invisible

Computer," "Things That Make us Smart: Defending Human

Attributes in the Age of the Machine," "Turn Signals

are the Facial Expressions of Automobiles," and "The

Design of Everyday Things".

Source: Ubiquity, Volume 6, Issue 11, (April 5 - 12,


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