Changing the Economics of Cheating

Inside Higher Ed recently published an essay about the economics of cheating. Carol Poster provides dollars-and-cents examples to illustrate why buying papers and cheating online are economically rational decisions. She writes:

“Students cheat. Educators struggle to respond, sometimes blaming themselves for not making courses sufficiently interesting or relevant and sometimes engaging in a battle of wits or technologies with their students to prevent cheating….”

Rather than blaming lazy students or bad teaching for the growth of Internet-facilitated student cheating,… We must change the underlying economy of cheating.”

Poster describes a student “enduring” a gen-ed literature course. “The instructor has inflicted an assignment of a 1,500-word paper on her students.” To inflict is “to impose something that must be borne or suffered; to impose anything unwelcome; to deal or deliver a blow” (  Is it any wonder some students are tempted, some might say pushed, toward cheating or other shortcuts? Poster describes the choice as work 20 hours and buy the paper, or spend 20 hours reading, preparing and writing the paper.

Markets are formed when the possibility of mutually beneficial exchanges arise. Decisions to buy, or not, are based on comparing marginal benefit v. marginal cost. Poster’s setup implies that students perceive the grade as the only benefit from the assignment. The cost is the price to buy the paper or the effort and time involved in writing it. The decision to buy a paper is economically rational if the marginal benefit of buying is greater than the marginal cost. As described, the decision to outsource makes sense.

This is where the analysis breaks down. The costs are not limited to money, time and effort and the benefits encompass more than the grade.  Characterizing the costs and benefits so narrowly discounts the impact of teacher practices, assignment characteristics, and course policies. Teachers need to recognize our role in the cheating economy. We need to help students see and measure the costs and benefits of academic work more comprehensively.  Here are a few thoughts about how to do it.

Costs Benefits Keys Showing Analysis And Value Of An Investment

Identify & Expand Marginal Benefit

Assignments have to be about more than a grade. Poster trivializes the significance of uninteresting or irrelevant work, but it’s difficult to assign high value to work that has no personal meaning or doesn’t have a clear purpose.  Irrelevant or uninteresting activities have low marginal benefit; low benefit activities are more likely to be outsourced.  Thus, teachers should make a strong case about value. This starts with a clear sense of educational purpose. What are students supposed to learn from the exercise? Share how students will use this knowledge or skill in the future. Explain how subsequent material builds on this work. Providing a clear and compelling learning rationale reduces the demand for marketplace papers by increasing the marginal benefit derived from engaging in the assignment. If no compelling reasons or value can be articulated, it’s time to reconsider the assignment.

Teachers can increase the perceived benefit of academic work through immediacy behaviors. Teachers should be mindful of tone and word choice; both can affect how much value students place on an assignment. Presentation matters. Student suffering isn’t a necessary or sufficient condition for learning. A course doesn’t have to be something endured.  I’m not suggesting fluff instead of intellectual challenge, but learning doesn’t have to be drudgery.

Poster suggests oral examinations, like PhD defenses, as a strategy to reduce demand for papers. This is true but impractical at most institutions. It also ignores how the thesis or dissertation topic is usually chosen by the student/candidate, not “inflicted” upon students by the teacher. Instead of oral exams, teachers can incorporate student input, as appropriate. Providing opportunities for students to exert some choice or control on the topic, timing, or format increases interest and adds value (increases benefit). Increasing the actual or perceived benefit of doing the work decreases the likelihood of it being purchased in the market.

Identify and Reduce the Marginal Cost

Poster’s analysis assumes the marginal cost of cheating equals the price of the paper. Students may think similarly. That significantly underestimates the cost of dishonesty in my view. Market failure occurs when participants have not internalized all of the costs and benefits. Market decisions made on the basis of erroneous (in this case understated) cost information are inefficient.  To increase efficiency, teachers can help students identify the non-monetary costs associated with cheating.

Teachers can discuss the social and private costs of cheating with students. Maryellen Weimer blogged about this eloquently. She recommends having conversations about personal integrity and the role of integrity in the advancement of knowledge. Teachers can also model high ethical standards and professionalism. We should invest more time actively promoting integrity to ultimately spend less of it catching violations.

Students who buy papers or other “help” do so after comparing cost to produce v. cost to buy. Ceteris paribus (all things equal) buyers generally choose the lower cost alternative.  I’m not suggesting that teachers water down content or lower standards to reduce “production cost.” But we can be mindful of cognitive load. Productive cognitive load is inherent to the discipline, it goes with learning. But some instructional practices ease the load. One way is to scaffold the work. Ask students to develop a project plan. Timelines with intermediate deadlines, particularly ones with due dates students set, serve a few purposes. First, preliminary work and deadlines help students learn how to manage large assignments. A paper students believe they can write, because it is in manageable chunks, is less likely to be purchased (cost to write < cost to buy). Second, work that must be performed in stages is more difficult to purchase. Last, intermediate deadlines paired with teacher meetings to discuss progress decrease cost to produce.  It’s also harder to discuss the intermediate steps of writing a paper if it wasn’t written by the student.

Unproductive cognitive load refers to challenges that are not directly associated with the content. Confusing directions, missing information, errors, and disorganization increase load without advancing learning. Be clear. Seek student feedback about the organization and structure of content and assignments. Ask for suggestions about format, sequence and timing to minimize unproductive load. Strategies that reduce perceived or actual “cost to produce” increase the likelihood students will do the work themselves.

What about Supply?

A thorough exploration of the economics of cheating should consider the supply side. Poster laments the availability of summaries and assistance online:

If Tom Finn has a test on Hamlet, rather than reading the entire play, he can access extended summaries online — either before the test or with discreet peeks at his mobile phone during the exam. Similarly, a student needing help with a complex set of scientific or math problems can receive step-by-step assignment help.

I’m not suggesting students shouldn’t read Hamlet. But if the answers are easily found or canned papers meet the assignment’s requirements, how valuable are the questions?  Are we asking the right ones? What do assignments and questions like these imply about what teachers value?  What do they suggest about learning?  Our job is to help students see the worth and value in the reading, writing and researching. We need to prepare students to answer the kinds of questions that can’t be answered by a Google search. Instead of bemoaning the availability of answers and papers online, teachers should reconsider what we’re asking.

Too often, strategies to reduce demand for commercial help and papers are left out of discussions about academic integrity. Teachers can decrease demand in the market for cheating by assigning work that’s interesting, meaningful and relevant, sharing control, scaffolding the learning process, minimizing unproductive cognitive load, and always being mindful of what we’re asking and why we’re asking it. We need to shift focus away from identifying suppliers and catching violators to engaging in strategies that decrease demand, because without demand there is no market.




About Lolita Paff

Educator. Wife. Mother. Amateur chef. Wine lover.

Posted on March 23, 2016, in Learning, Students, Teaching and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. I realized, happily, that I am doing many of these things (certainly not all). However, I also realized that I need to emphasize what I am trying to do and why much more to my students. Good thoughts – thanks.

  2. Maryellen Weimer

    We had too much to catch up on this morning. . .I wanted to mention that I thought this was one of your very best posts. . .lots of original thinking and such a unique application on a business metaphor. Well done!

  1. Pingback: Resources, Strategies & Advice | Guide on the Side

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