Why Do Students Cheat?
ChatGPT and the myth of meritocracy
Today’s guest writer is Hannah Leffingwell, a part-time faculty member at the New School and a freelance writer who covers gender, sexuality, and higher education. Thank you, paying subscribers, for making this guest writing initiative possible.
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It’s been a tough couple of years for higher education: remote learning, shifting Covid-19 protocols, labor disputes, and low enrollment, for starters. But the most recent frenzy has been about writing, one of the only common classroom practices among the humanities and social sciences for generations.
Now, this, too, is collapsing on us. ChatGPT, an AI chatbot “that delivers information, explains concepts, and generates ideas in simple sentences,” is our newest headache. It’s the AI version of paying someone smart to write your papers.
Let’s leave aside, for a moment, the existential questions that ChatGPT inevitably raises—is this the End of Writing? Will artificial intelligence take over the world? Are we doomed? Instead, I want to focus on the day-to-day. For college and university educators, urgent questions have emerged: should we ignore ChatGPT or try to teach it to our students? How can we know if they are using AI to cheat, and how can we prevent it?
Should we stop assigning essays altogether?
But there are other, more profound questions, ones that professors and administrators tend to avoid as they squabble over the implications of ChatBots for academic honesty. Why do students cheat in the first place? What is in it for them? Why are they willing to risk shame and possible expulsion?
An AI-generated essay or exam has a clear purpose for the student who uses it: a higher grade. Their need for this risky workaround could stem from many factors. Perhaps the student realizes she does not enjoy the topic of the course after all or finds herself easily bored with the material. She would rather spend her time on something else.
Or perhaps that student works two jobs to pay her way through college, and she feels she must choose between finishing that paper and paying her tuition, rent, and car loan. The student may want a well-paying job in medicine or law and must pass a particular class to advance, even though they are ill-prepared and cannot keep up with the work.
There are lots of reasons why students cheat. However, ChatGPT is just one symptom of a more severe disease in higher education, namely, the multiple forms of meritocratic thinking—standardized testing, merit scholarships, gateway courses that cull students from majors, and grades themselves—that perpetuate and exacerbate the inequalities that students bring with them into the classroom.
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These inequalities are often invisible and taken for granted by both faculty and students. But the truth is that most students cannot attend college purely for the sake of learning. Those who can are often bolstered by immense privilege, protected by a safety net of not just family wealth but also the patience, understanding, and second chances money can enable.
For many students, college is a calculated risk. They seek value for their money—and if they are attending on scholarship, value for their time. Some may not know the consequences of taking on so much student debt so young, while others are all too aware of it. Such students may be driven by a high-stakes cultural narrative that tells them college is a rite of passage and a ticket into the middle class. Whether they know what they are getting into or not, these students understand that the stakes of failure are high and the potential benefits of succeeding are significant.
If a college education does what students hope (and are told) it will do, good grades can maintain or improve their socioeconomic condition. They can have a “better” life, and so can their families.
This myth begins at the beginning, with the torturous and—in my opinion—cruel hazing ritual of college admissions. I recently spoke to one of my students who told me they had applied to thirty colleges. Thirty colleges. Anyone who has filled out a college application knows how many hours of work this must have entailed, not to mention the money spent on application fees.
Why? Fear: What if no one had let them in?
College admissions, as many of us know, presents itself as merit-based. The best students get into the best schools because they have earned it. None of this is true, of course. From legacy admissions to expensive SAT tutors, admission to a selective school is pre-determined for the majority of students who ultimately attend them.
And yet, the logic of letter grades, test scores—and eventually, credit scores—teaches our children from a young age that success is cumulative and failure is permanent. Those bad grades you got in your sophomore year of high school when you experienced the worst depression of your life, struggled with an eating disorder, or lost a relative to cancer? They will determine your fate.
But despite this pervasive meritocratic gaslighting, there is one thing every student knows for sure: the more A’s you get, the more opportunities you will have. And the reverse is also true. Failure begets failure. Not knowing means you will never be able to know.
Take Jeanna Kadlec, who grew up Evangelical in rural Iowa. She followed the meritocratic logic, working hard in school to build a chosen life. She got into college, earned scholarships, and was admitted to a Ph.D. program in English Literature. “When I was younger, I thought college was my ticket out,” she writes in her memoir, Heretic (2022):
Not just for success, mind. I thought it would be a guarantee I wouldn’t end up like my mom: stuck in a nowhere town, financially trapped in a no-good marriage with a man who provided for you but didn’t appreciate you. An education would get me away from the country, away from small towns and small minds and the kind of God-ordained heteronormativity that chased women like me until it choked the life out of us. I wouldn’t find out until later that higher education is only another example of liberal America’s and academia’s own cruel optimism, where what is given financially, energetically, emotionally, and even physically, so overwhelmingly, and so often, exceeds the actuality of what is received.
If we teach students that academic success is the key to a happy (read: financially secure) life while also meticulously recording their mistakes and failures on transcripts that follow them everywhere forever, then, of course, they will cheat. Of course, they will use AI to write their papers. Of course, they will seek out shortcuts.
And if we teach students that college is the only way to improve or maintain their socioeconomic status, they will necessarily privilege the performance of success over the messiness and uncertainty of real learning. In this context, students aren’t just cheating; they are making rational calculations about how to survive and, they hope, thrive.
The system of rewards and punishments upon which the American education system is built runs counter to anything we might identify as social progress. As Kadlec puts it, “For most of us, school is where we learn to maintain the status quo.” The meritocratic myth upholding these institutions punishes neurodiverse, disabled, poor, and otherwise marginalized students. It robs our students of a true education and makes equitable grading at the college level impossible.
But it also disadvantages the ordinary student who has committed to an education she cannot afford in hopes of having a future that she can. It makes promises it can’t keep.
As conservatives outlaw Critical Race Theory and the teaching of gender, and liberals trip over themselves trying “educate” the heartland out of bigotry, today’s college students—conservative and liberal alike—are being systematically gaslit by a set of ideals that speak to meritocracy, but not to their real lives. To fight ChapGPT, universities must reimagine higher education beyond mere pedagogical tweaks and newfangled surveillance technologies.
After all, students aren’t the enemy here, and education should be an antidote to coercion—not the source of it.
What are your thoughts about cheating and how to prevent it? If you have an idea,
What I’m listening to:
“Sold a Story: How Teaching Kids to Read Went So Wrong” is a podcast by Emily Hanford at American Public Media about the various theories of how children learn to read—and how one of those theories was fatally wrong. Don’t be turned off by the high focus on nice white parents in episode one. This podcast is worth it and will make you wonder whether the kids in your family diagnosed with learning disabilities actually developed them in school.
Perhaps you have noticed that since a Norfolk Southern train derailed near East Palestine, Ohio, several conservative pundits have become environmental concern trolls. Judd Legum, who watches Tucker Carlson, so you don’t have to, notes that Fox News’s favorite Preppy Trump Fluffer is demanding answers from the Environmental Protection Agency, which he suspects cares nothing for rail travel because “it can not be used `to sell solar panels.’ Further, Carlson claims the Biden administration is uninterested because `Donald Trump got over 71 percent of the vote in the county in the last presidential election.’” It honestly makes a person want to saw open Carlson’s head to see if there is a brain in there or just oatmeal. (February 15, 2023)
The upcoming election for the Wisconsin Supreme Court will be an interesting test of the GOP’s culture wars strategy, including the decision to take down Roe and throw abortion to the states could create more collateral political damage than it has already. As Charlie Sykes notes at The Bulwark, “The state’s high court now has a 4-3 conservative majority, but one of the conservative members is retiring, which has created an opening for progressives to flip the high court for the first time in decades.” And this is what makes it all more interesting: “Democrats and their allies are very much focused on the Wisconsin contest,” Sykes writes. “Meanwhile, Wisconsin conservatives have chosen this moment to crack up.” (February 15, 2023)
It will be breathtaking to see where it all ends as Republican Governor Ron DeSantis seeks to remake education in Florida into a unique knowledge delivery system that rejects much of what is taught at the nation’s colleges and universities. Nick Anderson at the Washington Post reports that “Meatball Ron,” as his rival Donald Trump calls him, is now contemplating getting rid of all AP courses, not just the one in African American studies. “As a practical matter, it is unclear whether or how AP could be eliminated in Florida,” Anderson writes. “The program, with more than three dozen courses in math, science, social sciences, humanities, languages, and other topics, is deeply entrenched in the state and nationwide.” But maybe DeSantis has just figured out how much money all those tests generate for the College Board. As Anderson notes, “More than 199,000 Florida students enrolled in AP classes in 2020-21. About 366,000 AP tests were given in Florida in 2021, more than in any other state except Texas (527,000) and California (683,000).” (February 14, 2023)
Great piece Hannah! So many important questions! Once upon a time state colleges were well funded and earning a college degree helped to build the middle class. With the help of Reagan and others, the defunding of state schools was/is the prime mover of inequality. Essentially, state-funded schools were similar to the vocational system in Europe. While it was possible for a few to do great things with a state degree, it was mostly responsible for creating the vocational class, which was a good life relatively speaking. People call for refunding state schools and that would be a good thing, but the AI subject of your essay is now responsible for eliminating many vocational jobs as well as professional ones. It is a Catch-22 situation. As for your more philosophical questions, cheating is an inextricable part of the human condition and I simply love how you have layered in the many different intentions for doing so. As I like to say, context is everything. Is this the end of writing? Certainly the end for a type of writing. Writing in general has always been a problem and genuinely exceptional writing has always been rare. Rare because it requires a love of language ( especially grammar) and of reading and of knowing a language other than your mother tongue. We are living through a major transitional period in time. Higher education is on the front line of this transition. What they decide today will impact our future. Will it be like Star Trek the New Generation or more like Philip K. Dick's Blade Runner? I believe we must embrace the inevitability of AI in a positive way to ensure that we encode ethics. It is the only way to prevent the dystopian world imagined by Dick. And it won't be easy. Thanks again for a great read!
Nice essay. If younger generations don't learn to translate their perceptions, feelings, and observations into good writing, we will have no new insights that can be called human ones. The same is true of "art" made by AI. Capitalist "values" have so skewed and dirtied everything in our world, from the food chain to education, that everything is for sale, including degrees, including people, including countries. What we are fighting for, it seems to me when we require students to do their own work, write their own essays, paint their own paintings, is a recognition that their unique and beautiful selves matter, that their points of view are important and. matter. We must reach them that to let a machine do their work is to obliterate themselves. We must show them that we want better for them than that, that they deserve better than to abandon their brains to a machine. How to catch them? No idea.