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I actually got to school early for my 8:30 lecture last Monday. I got to CKB 303, that nice lecture hall where they whose all the open house events. My professor, who is usually full of enthusiasm and vigor, (she used to put on Amy Winehouse before class earlier in the semester) was sitting down – something she usually isn’t doing during lecture.

She told us to put our cell phones away, close our laptops, to pay attention. Immediately I was psyched out and I knew something was probably wrong.

She had found over the weekend that students in my Ecology and Evolution class were cheating. Whether on the previous exam or most recent quiz, I do not know. And she said something that I have never heard from a professor before – that she took this issue to heart.

My professor is a neuroscientist. She investigates the why and how we do things – and that’s exactly what she told us she did. Apparently, there exists a plethora of scientific literature on cheating across campuses in the United States. 60% of undergraduate students cheat at least once in their college careers. Reasons span from pressure from parents, an overwhelming schedule, an ineffective professor, and so on. Students were still trickling in and my professor told us of a time she herself cheated, as an undergrad, and that it haunted her for 20 years.

I realized then, that teachers, like mine, want to trust their students. And she was hurt because students had violated that trust by cheating on her exams. Teachers don’t come to a place like NJIT to babysit us – they believe in the value of their knowledge, and trust themselves enough to instill that knowledge in us. They trust in the institution of a university to prepare us for our careers, for the real world, for the future. And it’s so easy to lose sight of this larger picture when it comes to your own education. That makes it easy to feel like cheating is no big deal, something that’s OK to do, because everyone else has done it.

If that statistic I mentioned was true, more than half of you reading this have cheated on an exam, quiz, or lied to a professor about some assignment. I would wager that close to 100% of students have considered cheating at least once. Is it a societal issue? Does technology make it too easy to cheat? Does the institution of the university expect too much of 20-something year olds, that it drives us to such a measure to ensure good grades? Maybe a student cheats as an act of rebellion – against the institution and the idea of individualized work, or maybe against their parents. Or, are students’ values and sense of academic honesty changing with the times? Is the world really changing so fast? I do not know if we will ever find a single reason why cheating happens.

That really sucks, to put it in the words of my professor. Cheating jeopardizes the grades of students involved, cheapens the diplomas distributed at that school, and undermines the work and effort of students that earned their grades without cheating. In the case of my biology class, the next exams were revised and made to be open-ended, versus drawing from a test bank of questions that are typical of college exams.

When a student cheats, they do not only tarnish their own reputation, but ruin the experience of learning and education for students around them. And this behavior carries on throughout professional fields – lying and cheating go hand in hand, and can have huge negative impacts. Teachers fake grades for the sake of pay raises, executives fake out their credentials for a higher power position, and government officials make decisions out of nepotism and bribery.

The open ended exam for that class was tough – not because I did not study and not because I did not cheat, but because it forced me to really learn and draw on my analytical skills to complete it. It sucked to feel like I did bad on it, but I realized that this was the process of learning. It really is unrealistic to expect a perfect mastery of this material in such a short amount of time, at least for me. This, really, is what being a student is. Considering the unique context of the exam, I am ok with ending up with a lower grade than I would have gotten if the exam was multiple choice, for example.

Whatever the answer may be as to why we cheat at all, we must recognize that it is a pattern of behavior that reaches beyond schools and universities and into our own personal lives and ethics. Life tests us in different ways – and those, we cannot cheat on.

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