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Harvard cheating scandal? It could be bad teaching.

Several theories try to explain alleged cheating at Harvard University, but they omit the most obvious explanation: poor teaching. Students are more likely to cheat when they feel disengaged from a class. Universities cheat our kids by placing a low premium on teaching.

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Put these two things together – what appears to be indifferent teaching and unclear assignments – and you have an almost perfect formula for cheating. In a 2007 survey of undergraduates at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, educational psychologist Gregory Schraw and his colleagues found that students’ perceptions of instructors' effectiveness was the factor mostly likely to decrease cheating.

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“If you really like the teacher and they teach really well then you’re not as likely to cheat,” one student told the investigators. But when students think the instructor “doesn’t care,” another student added, they try “to get [the teacher] back by kind of undermining what they’re trying to do.”

So they cheat. And so do many of our college faculty, in their own way, by giving the students a meager gruel of disconnected lectures and irrelevant tests.When our students cheat, it’s called plagiarism, fraud, or academic dishonesty. But when we the professors do it, it’s considered business as usual.

And our teaching is mostly unrewarded, which is the biggest scandal of all. Across every kind of school, from big research universities to small liberal-arts colleges, professors who give more time to research tend to make higher salaries; meanwhile, the ones who devote themselves more to teaching tend to earn less.

And when it comes to tenure, as per the cliché, it really is publish or perish. That’s why – in my capacity as a department chair – I’ve sometimes advised junior colleagues to spend less time preparing for class, grading papers, and meeting with students. For all I know, Matthew Platt’s chair told Platt – an untenured professor – the same thing.

Until this scandal struck, nothing Platt did in the classroom was likely going to matter in his own career trajectory.Now it will, probably in a negative way, and that doesn’t seem quite fair either. As best we can tell, his class wasn’t very good. But he didn’t really have a good reason to make it better – any more than his students had a real incentive to attend it.

Let’s be clear: Nothing justifies their alleged cheating. If the students are found to have shared answers, on a test that expressly warned them against doing so, Harvard should penalize them swiftly and strongly. But our universities are cheating these kids, too, by placing such a low premium on teaching. And nobody should kid themselves otherwise.  

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and chairs the humanities and social services department at New York University's Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. He is the author of “Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory” (Yale University Press).


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