Teaching Students to Cheat or Not to Cheat

  • by: Norman Amsel

This article originally appeared in Ten Da’at, vol. 4, 1, 1989, pp. 19-21. Appears here with permission.

The recent New York Regents exam scandal involving some yeshiva high school students and graduates has, once again, focused the attention of many Torah educators upon the problem of cheating in our schools. Although most teachers and principals realize that these incidents are merely symptoms of a much greater problem, such public occurrences often provide the trigger for self-examination. This, in turn, may help educators investigate new possibilities and strategies to eliminate or minimize the problem of cheating in our day schools. The following will attempt to define the problem, analyze some of its causes, and offer a few general and specific proposals.

Cheating can be found in every school, including in yeshiva elementary and high schools. A number of years ago, the Principal’s Council of the Board of Jewish Education of New York conducted an unscientific anonymous survey through questionnaires of yeshiva junior and high school students in both coeducational and non-coeducational schools in the New York area. One of the major areas investigated was that of cheating and lying. The results showed students in every school poll admitting to widespread cheating. In addition, little variation in the extent of cheating could be seen differentiating type of school, the religious philosophy or the age of the students. Furthermore, this author has found that in the proper, non-threatening atmosphere, students openly speak about their cheating on tests, copying homework, and even lying to teachers and parents.

What causes students to cheat, especially when they are repeatedly taught by parents and teachers that cheating is morally wrong and violates Torah principles? The most prominent factors mentioned by the students themselves in frank discussion are: 1) the pressure to succeed and 2) peer pressure. Often without realizing it, parents and schools place enormous emphasis on “the bottom line” i.e. receiving high enough grades in order to go to the “right” high school or college. Schools themselves often unwittingly add to this pressure by giving recognition only to students who achieve the highest scores, without acknowledging great effort by the weaker students. Awards for moral achievement and outstanding character are never given as much recognition as awards for academic achievement. Although parents will never consciously promote cheating to achieve the desired end of high grades, the nonverbal signs of disapproval when seeing a child’s tests and report card send a powerful signal to children about what is really important. Some students, then, who are incapable of achieving these expected high grades on their own, will do anything to achieve this approval, including cheating. Others, who have the ability but not the inclination, will also cheat to achieve these “expected” results.

The effect of peer pressure, especially in high school, should also not be underestimated as a factor causing many students to cheat who would not normally violate the rules on their own. When “everybody” is doing it, it becomes extremely difficult to have the moral courage to challenge the unethical behavior of all of one’s classmates by refusing to cheat when others do so. The negative social implication of being the class “goody goody” causes many students to go along with the majority when the opportunity to cheat presents itself.

It is interesting to note how many teachers “are sure” that no cheating exists in their classes, when, in reality, cheating is rampant. Our students have become very clever in devising methods, which fool the faculty. The relatively easy access by students, year after year, to state-wide Regents exams, supposedly locked up in a safe, clearly demonstrates how enterprising our students are today.

A third factor contributing to cheating, usually not verbalized by students, is the perceived values in general society. As students look at newspapers and television, they constantly see headline about many of the “leaders” in society who have broken the rules (i.e. the law). Whether the person arrested or indicated is a Jew or non-Jew, religious or non-religious leader, students see adults accused of illegal activities. Unfortunately, the punishment is often minimal, as many accused seem to “beat the system”. This is demonstrated with the recent scandals in insider trading, corruption in nursing homes, with noted “leaders” in the Jewish community. Furthermore, the leading candidate for the mayor of New York City clearly admits that he did not submit income tax returns for a number of years, but there is little public outrage. These incidents send a signal to students that many are engaged in “breaking the rules” and, even if caught, it is possible to “get away with it”.

Nowhere is this message more clearly projected than in the arena of sports, where many of the athletes are truly heroes to our youngsters, and their behavior is readily imitated. When athletes in general, and star athletes in particular, are given second and third “chances” to return to the sport when found partaking in criminal and unlawful activities such as drugs, students perceive that, even if caught, they will be given a second chance. This attitude is displayed to an even greater degree with star athletes, as players and the public are willing to forget “mistakes” if the player is a real star. When both Keith Hernandez and Dwight Gooden, star baseball players with the New York Mets, were finally proved to be drug users after repeated denials to the public, each player was given a standing ovation by the fans the first time he appeared on the fields following a short respite and admission of wrongdoing. Today, both players participate as if nothing ever happened, and continue to be admired by children and adults alike. Thus, the student learns that you may lie to others and break the law, but you will be forgiven if you say you are sorry and you are good enough at what you do.

With all these powerful forces “pushing” students to cheat, we can understand why teachers, principals and even parents who repeatedly tell children not to cheat will, by themselves, be ineffective in curtailing such activity in school and in life after school. What then, as educators, can we possibly do in the school environment to minimize or eliminate this illegal activity and immoral attitude? The following are a few possible suggestions which may be tried independently of one another. Each should be evaluated beforehand, given the specific student and parent populations and the general atmosphere in any given school.

The first signal should come from the school administration. Even though society in general rewards the achievement no matter what the means, principals should minimize praise and awards for achievement only. By giving equal recognition to students who demonstrate superior effort and strong moral character, the administration sends a message that achievement alone is not the only goal. Award ceremonies, special societies and dinners can be created for those students who try the hardest but do not achieve, as well as for those student show do continuous acts of chesed in and out of school. Realistically, grades and the emphasis on grades will never be totally eliminated, However, by emphasizing the concepts of Torah lishmah, and sekhar mitzvah mitzvah, doing good for its own sake and not for the reward, the pressure to do well may be minimized. Of course, while parents and society and sending signals to achieve at all costs, this signal alone may be ineffective in changing student attitudes. Other strategies are necessary.

If possible, the school should organize speakers and workshops in the framework of “helping your pre-teen or teenager cope with stress”. As part of these programs, parents should be made aware of how they often unwittingly cause or “teach” their children to cheat by increasing the pressure or demonstrating that success is the ultimate value in life. These discussion groups can be very helpful for parents in general, and also encourage a meaningful parent-child dialogue. Another strategy that sometimes pays dividends in the classroom is the policy that students need not take one test a semester, if there is a legitimate reason why they students could not study. This sends a message to the students that, rather that cheat when he or she did not study (even for no legitimate reasons), there is an option to talk to the teacher about it rather than “having to cheat”.

More specifically, discussions with the students as part of a separate or integrated curriculum on moral values will probably be most effective in changing student attitudes, if executed properly. Below are some of the ideas, concepts, and Jewish sources that might be included in such discussions.

When discussing the topic of cheating in a frank atmosphere, students will usually present reasons why cheating on a specific test should not be condemned. In addition to the claim cited above, students may argue that if no one knows about a specific test and all that is copied are the answers to a few meaningless facts which could be looked up afterwards anyway, then it cannot be so wrong. In the large scheme of things, no one will ever know the difference, and it’s just this one test, so what could be so wrong? The teacher should explain through discussion and questions (not a lecture) that Judaism makes no moral distinction between a “small” or “large” sin. Judges look at each equally.1 Although the punishment may be greater for someone stealing a million dollars than for stealing a one dollar, the violation of sin is the same. Therefore, there is no moral distinction between cheating on a quiz or on the SAT. The class should then discuss how hardened criminals and those who embezzle large companies might have behaved as students. The class should agree that a person starts small, and, if successful, may move on to more serious cheating and breaking of the law. No one can know, for sure, who will stop after one “little quiz” and who will continue to become a chronic cheater and eventually move on to greater forms of law breaking.

As far as the argument “no one has to know”, we see that Judaism seems to feel it is far worse to commit a sin without anyone knowing that when it is done publicly. That is why some explain that the thief (ganav) who steals at night when “no one will know” pays back double (kefel), while the robber in broad daylight (gazlan) only pays back the amount stolen. In addition, somebody will always know- you, the cheater (as well as God). The teacher might go on to discuss how a person who continually cheats must feel: inadequate that he or she cannot obtain or does not try to obtain passing grades legally. As part of the discussion about the peer pressure to cheat, it must be emphasized that, ultimately, one must answer to oneself for the rest of life.

In discussing the Hebrew term for cheating, the class should be made aware of the term genaivat da’at and the seriousness of this sin.2* In fact, though many students who cheat would never think of stealing, the Tosefta says that cheating is the worst form of stealing, and implies that it is worse to cheat than to rob a bank.3 Then the class should analyze this term genaivat da’aaat, and decide whose “thoughts” are really being stolen. Who is being deceived when a student cheats on a test or plagiarized a term paper? Firstly, it is the teacher. The teacher believes that this student has attained a level of competence that has not been achieved. Then, it is the parents. They are paying enormous sums of money, thinking that their child is being properly educated, based on the grades. They, too, are being deceived by the cheater. Then, the colleges’ “thoughts” are also being stolen. In accepting students based on a grade point average, the college believes that the student has legitimately attained this level of accomplishment, and may deny other students entrance to the college based on this false assumption. Finally, of course, the student himself or herself is being deceived in thinking that he or she is really fooling someone, when, in the long run (when the importance of learning those “meaningless facts” becomes clear), the student will feel cheated.

Sometimes these arguments work with students, but sometimes they are ineffective. Students, however, usually respond best when they believe that they themselves will be hurt by someone cheating. The teacher should ask the class how many students feel it is legitimate to cheat if, through that cheating, they will hurt someone else’s class rank and ultimately deny then entrance to a particular college. Most students (even those who do cheat) will admit that it is wrong since this kind of cheating can hurt them or their friends. The teacher should then demonstrate how any cheating has the potential to hurt a fellow student. In addition, the teacher should ask, how could students object when they get hurt through cheating by others if they continue to cheat themselves? They can only expect or demand others to stop when they themselves cease this activity.

Finally, the teacher may tell the story of the bright, creative and personable young man who was very popular in school. Throughout high school he cheated on almost every test by devising ingenious methods to avoid getting caught. Being popular, his friends never told on him. He even cheated on the SAT exam and got into a good college, where he continued to cleverly cheat and get good grades. When he cheated on his Medical Boards, he was admitted into medical school where he also cheated and graduated without learning very much. Because of his good personality, he built up a private practice and he is now your doctor. How do you feel about this person and cheating now? He very well may be your doctor (without you knowing it) and may hurt many people. Almost all students will realize the danger in having a chronic cheater put in a position of power. The same story could be told of a lawyer, accountant, rocket scientist or any other professional. If we all object when we get hurt through cheating, then we cannot ourselves cheat and potentially hurt others.

Ultimately, the students must understand that it is difficult to do the right thing when peers, and society in general, are doing the wrong thing. In the short run it hurts. But in the long run, feeling good about oneself and helping make the world a better place is the right choice.

The above suggestions are by no means meant to exhaust all the discussion possibilities or school strategies in combating the cheating problem. Educators must make teaching moral values, in general, and the elimination of cheating in the schools in particular, a priority. Only by establishing a meaningful curriculum in these areas and by integrating activities, classes and creative programs can this challenge be met. Only when administrators, teachers, parents and students work together will the threat of cheating be eliminated. It can happen. It must happen.

1Deuteronomy 1:17.

2Maimonides, Mishne Torah, Hilkhot Mechirah 18:1.

3Tosefta, Bava Kama, Chapter 4.

*Ed’s Note: See Gershon Fluk, “The Ethics of Cheating: The Jewish View,” Ten Da’at 1,1, Tevet 5747.

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