This story will be published in this year’s summer issue of The Mark.
Cover image by Kari Trail
Of 102 anonymous students polled, 81 said that cheating is easier and they have done it more since the start of distance learning. It does not come as a surprise to many that distance learning has led to students cheating more, but the extent to which is still shocking. According to M-A’s academic integrity policy, any form of cheating and plagiarism are not allowed and should be reported to the AVP office to be put on the student’s record. It appears, however, that few cases are caught or reported: only five cases of academic integrity violations were logged in Infinite Campus for the 2020-2021 school year, despite both teachers and students alleging a massive spike in cheating.
Pre-Calculus teacher Manja McMills said, “In a normal school year, I don’t really have much of an issue.” This year, however, she has already caught several students cheating.
43% of students polled did not consider breaking the school’s academic integrity policy “a bad thing to do.”
One student said, “Who is to say what is right or wrong? It’s about playing by the rules, and advancing the best you can with what you got.” Another student said, “If I finesse the teacher then that’s on him, not me.”
One student who did think cheating was morally wrong, but still did it said that “with the societal stress of getting perfect grades, it just seems normal to cheat to do better, but it doesn’t excuse the fact that it is wrong.”
Other students felt that cheating was not wrong and if anything prepares them for the future. One student explained, “In the real world, everything is open note and you can collaborate with other people to find solutions to problems. Taking tests without resources and the help of others, while it does help individual growth, does not prepare students for what their future will actually look like.”
Similarly, another student said “In the real world, you have resources and other people to help you. Why can’t we simulate this in school when we are supposed to be preparing for our life?”
One student explained that in their mind, students are cheating more because “during distance learning, teachers can’t expect students to fully complete the same test with the same rigor as if we were back at school normally. The fact is that people aren’t learning as well but teachers have the same expectations.”
Teachers, however, had different ideas on why students are cheating more. McMills thought the rise in cheating was because “it’s super hard for students to be disciplined right now when they’re at home. And when they have all these things at their fingertips to be able to cheat, I could see how it’s very tempting.”
AP Computer Science teacher Cindy Donaldson thought that the rise in cheating wasn’t “malicious and more just blurred boundaries.” In Donaldson’s mind, to fight the culture of cheating, teachers “need to be very clear about what they consider to be cheating, and what they don’t consider to be cheating. For every assessment, I think it’s really important to state clear boundaries. Because the boundaries are so fuzzy with distance learning… it’s important for teachers to recognize how widespread [cheating] is, and to not pretend it’s not happening.”
If anything, widespread is an understatement: only 11.7% of students polled had not broken the school’s academic integrity policy on a test, and 77.7% of students polled thought that cheating is very prevalent at M-A. This matters because studies show that if you think everyone else around you is cheating, you are far more likely to cheat as well.
AVP Nicholas Muys thought that students cheat because “grades become this kind of extra pressurized realm where… students feel the need to cheat to operate within this very complicated system.”
Teachers interviewed believed student stress was the biggest contributor to cheating. McMills said that “I think a lot of it has to do with not the school but the society we live in, the Bay Area. There’s so much pressure for everyone to feel like they have to be the best and if you don’t get into an Ivy League school that they are a failure, and I always try to tell my students, ‘that’s not the end goal.’”
Math and science classes are especially susceptible to cheating—McMills, Donaldson, and fellow math teacher Tomiko Fronk all saw a rise in cheating this year. In McMills’ class, students used the AI app Photomath on a test. She discovered it because “the way they solved the problem was just the way a computer would think… and not the way a person would.” Since then, McMills has tried “to create tests where they can’t use Photomath and try to think of new ways to test students.”
Donaldson, on the other hand, learned a few years ago how easy it is for students to cheat and help each other, and decided to change how tests are given in her class. “I generally go on the assumption that everyone is helping each other, and I try to make most of my assessments around that idea, and not try to pretend that they’re not.”
Students also felt that stress and their workload led to them cheating. One student explained that “ultimately the reason we are doing it is due to our incapability to complete the work the teachers have assigned, so it’s best to tackle the problem at its root.”
Donaldson, who thinks cheating is “widespread everywhere,” uses catching a student cheating as a learning opportunity to discuss bigger issues. “This is also a lesson about honesty and ethics, and so if the student can walk away having learned something about honesty… to me [teaching that] is part of my job as a teacher.”
Looking at the bigger picture, Muys said he felt that cheating was wrong because “you can’t take somebody else’s idea and call it your own… that has huge consequences, not only to one’s reliability as a source of information but as a participant in the academic and scientific realm. You can’t do that to somebody else who has worked hard to develop those ideas.”
McMills said, “a lot of [cheating] has to do with the teachers, and how helpful the teachers are. I think sometimes when kids are scared of their teachers, they don’t reach out for help as much. When they don’t understand something, I think they panic and they cheat.”
History teacher Ahzha McFadden wanted students to know that “if you go to a teacher and are like, ‘I don’t understand this. Can you help me?’ they’re gonna say yes—that’s literally our job.” McFadden expressed that if students feel overly stressed or overworked they should “go to their teacher…they’re going to be understanding. You’re human. We’re human. We are going to cut you some slack.”