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Why Cheaters Cheat, or Harvard’s Fear of Failure

By The Crimson Editorial Board
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.

For all the talk of grade inflation ravaging the Ivy League, some Cantabridgians still struggle with obtaining their target GPAs — so much so that some chose less ethical paths to the much-desired As. That trend has only worsened over the past couple of years: According to a recently released University report, a record 27 undergraduate students were forced to withdraw from the College due to academic dishonesty during the 2020-2021 school year.

As a Board, we strongly and unequivocally oppose academic dishonesty, a practice likely to hurt the perpetrator (through artificially inflated results that discourage skill development) and their curve-graded peers and academic culture at Harvard writ large.

Without condoning or excusing their actions, we must, however, strive to understand what drives them: Why does the cheater cheat?

We would like to believe that most of our peers would never cheat just for the fun of it, but only as a desperate last resort. From that lens, Harvard’s culture of high academic pressure might be as large a factor as any individual predisposition towards hiding a cheat sheet inside their sleeve.

To be clear, we don’t believe academic dishonesty is entirely cultural. Students found to have been academically dishonest are ultimately responsible for their own actions: For every student that resorted to academic dishonesty under pressure, there are swaths who dealt with the very same pressure but either stomached lower grades or made sure to prepare more thoroughly.

Still, combatting academic dishonesty will likely require acknowledging the cultural backdrop that we regard as nudging students toward grade maximization even at the cost of violating the honor code. Our fast-paced, perfectionist culture can and should change, but it is up to us to take the initiative. That starts with better understanding the specific factors likely to increase dishonesty rates, and creating policies designed to disincentive said behavior.

The records set during the 2020-2021 academic year included a large number of first-years: Students who, without much guidance from upperclassmen or time to acclimate to Harvard, are still fundamentally shaped by their (over-achieving, Harvard-worthy) high school experiences and driven by the compulsive need to be the top of their class. Once big fish in a small pond, newly surrounded by a class defined by excellency, first-years are vulnerable to unease about their skills, imposter syndrome, and a crushing desire to prove that they do, in fact, have what it takes to thrive at a place like Harvard. Faced with such pressures, some — like the overrepresentative share of first-years investigated for academic dishonesty — may resort to unethical means to prove their worth.

Here, the ideal policy prescription can be found just outside the confines of our university: MIT’s mandatory first-semester pass-fail grading system, which forces students to progressively adapt to college standards before transitioning to standard grading their sophomore year, might reduce stress for first-year students, minimizing the risk of cheating. If Harvard is genuinely concerned about high school valedictorians feeling pushed towards academic dishonesty within months of enrolling, replicating the MIT model could offer a better path forward.

The tendency toward academic perfectionism, however, needs to be addressed even when the harm isn’t as severe as academic dishonesty. A competitive culture will naturally amplify preexisting inequalities in past educational experiences: FGLI students, for example, are likely to comparatively struggle more in courses that require substantial high school knowledge — primarily courses in STEM subjects with problem sets and exams to test learning.

While it is necessary to measure growth and learning in courses, evaluative tools with rigid grading schemes may, if overused, put undue pressure on students. This could explain the overrepresentation of the sciences in cases of academic dishonesty: STEM courses accounted for slightly more than 85 percent of all cases of academic dishonesty in the 2020-2021 academic year, a vast overrepresentation in comparison to the Humanities and Social Sciences.

To address that dynamic, STEM courses may require a top-down rethink altogether: When the pressure to perform well on exams and problem sets overrides any meaningful incentive to learn, students’ passions and love of learning for learning’s sake inevitably suffer. The College and individual faculty should consider relying more on alternative evaluative measures that emphasize growth and synthesis of knowledge, or encouraging other policies, such as problem set drops, that might reroute students’ drive towards perfectionism.

Generally speaking, our campus’ hyper-perfectionist culture points to an intense fear of failure that dissuades us from taking risks — a disservice that closes our doors to academic explorations. Even past our first year, we all remain uneasy fish in newly enlarged pond. “Gem-mining,” where students purposefully seek ought easy-A courses, leads to unchallenging (and hence unsatisfying) academic careers for the sake of protecting career prospects from what would be perfectly standard grades at any other college (grades, we must add, that grade-inflation renders below-average).

These intertwined cultural phenomena (at-all-costs perfectionism, grade-inflation, fear of failure) cannot be immediately reversed by University policies. Administrative action should, nonetheless, start now rather than later. Striking a balance between personal and administrative accountability is crucial: Professors should not have to restructure courses with preventing academic dishonesty as a priority, but they should prioritize student well-being and meaningful learning — goals that are poorly served by stringent problem set policies. Pre-class check-ins, assignments that encourage deep reflection rather than summarization of readings, and engaged scholarship courses that prioritize deep learning, on the other hand, are all worthy avenues to explore.

In the short run, students can only attempt to collectively resist our cut-throat cultural impulses. Confront failure in your own life; a failure to do so will make the eventual, inescapable reckoning with your imperfections (we all have them!) much more bitter. We must give ourselves grace, but in turn, allow ourselves to take risks — just not when it comes to academic honesty.

This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.

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