Why Cheating is Bad

Yesterday, while grading programs turned in to me by students in an upper-level computer science course, I discovered that more than one of them was obviously based on a program that someone else had written and posted to the Web a few years ago.  I have to wonder if these students would have turned in someone else's work as their own if they had known what thoughts ran through my mind when I discovered what they had done.  Here--hoping that it will deter some future student from making the same stupid mistake that these students made--are some of those thoughts.

You're hurting me

Since we're talking about my thoughts, let's start with the impact your cheating has on me.  Turning in someone else's work as if it is your own is a form of lying.  To me, at least, when someone lies to me, it says, "You're either too stupid to recognize that I'm lying to you, or you're powerless to do anything about it even if you do know that I'm lying.  Either way, I don't respect you."  In my position as a professor, the "powerlessness" option translates into "too gutless or lazy to do anything about my lie."  So, from my point of view, when a student lies to me, he or she is in effect saying that I'm stupid, gutless, and/or lazy.

Now, at some things I'll admit that I'm stupid.  And I don't know how courageous I'd be if, say, I was thrown into combat.  I'm at times lazy.  That said, I am not stupid when it comes to recognizing similarities in software, I do not back down from confronting students, particularly when I believe that it is in the best long-term interest of the student for me to do so, and I am not so lazy that I would abandon my professional duties.  I take it personally when a student behaves in a way that says that they believe otherwise about me.  Although I think that I'm good about not holding grudges, I also don't think that I'll ever feel the same way about someone after they've lied to me.

Oh, alright, I am omitting at least one other possibility.  I must admit that a student who turns in plagiarized work might not be thinking that I'm stupid, gutless, or lazy, that they might simply be thinking that I'm busy and probably not spending much if any time looking for plagiarism, so maybe their program will slip through the cracks.  Perhaps it's almost a game to them, like a deceptive play in football, say a double reverse.  I look at it differently.  To me, it's more like paying off the referees to make poor calls and throw the game your way.  In football, that's cheating, and it defeats the whole purpose of playing the game.  Likewise, turning in plagiarized work is cheating, and it defeats the whole purpose of the assignment, which is to help you learn.  OK, so maybe I shouldn't take your cheating as an insult to me personally, even if sometimes it sure feels like it.  Regardless, it is frustrating to me, because it frustrates my efforts to help you learn.  Which brings us to the next point.

You're hurting yourself

If you think that you can cheat your way through college, get your degree, and then after graduation jump right in to a successful career, you're in for a very rude awakening (well, maybe not if Mommy or Daddy owns the company, but that scenario has its own set of issues).  For one thing, increasingly, employers have software development candidates complete detailed testing before they're hired.  Even if you found a way to cheat through that testing (highly doubtful), it wouldn't take long for your employer to figure out that you're clueless and show you the door.  Beyond that, if you haven't developed qualities like self-discipline, tenacity, and forthrightness--qualities that you are almost certainly deficient in if you are a cheater--then you're unlikely to be very successful in the working world.  Oh, you might find a job somewhere.  But it probably will not be very desirable, and you'll probably be one of the first to be let go when the next industry downturn hits.  The fact is, you'll be lacking both software skills and some key personal qualities.  So why do you think anyone is going to want to hire you and keep you when the going gets tough?

What's the alternative to cheating?  Face the facts: you don't know how to do the assignment, or you waited to long to start, or whatever.  So, tackle the underlying problem head-on rather than trying to cover it up.  Talk to your professor about getting an extension and getting help before the next assignment is due.  Use this experience to give you motivation to do better, to develop more self-discipline and tenacity.  Try to become the person you would have been pretending to be if you had cheated.  You may not get all the way there, but you'll be a better person for having tried, someone that can look a potential employer in the eye and say, "I may not have the best transcript you've ever seen, but I can tell you that I earned every bit of those grades.  I know how to work, and I will do whatever I can to pull my own weight."  Your letters of recommendation will probably say much the same thing: "we're proud of how hard this student worked, and we're confident that they'll work hard for employers."  On the other hand, if you've cheated in my classes, you might want to think long and hard before asking me to write a letter for you, because I believe in sharing the good and the bad about students in recommendation letters.

You're hurting the whole class

If I don't catch your lie--I suppose that it does happen--then you might receive a much better grade on an assignment than you deserve.  Meanwhile, students who are struggling to understand the same material but turning in their own work might receive worse grades, even though they might understand the material better than you do.  Is this fair to the student who didn't cheat?  No.  More than that, when it gets out that you cheated (and it probably will, you know), how's this student going to feel about you?  What if he or she says, "Why am I bothering to try to do this myself? I'm just going to start cheating as well."  Do you want to contribute to their slide into the muck you're in?

In fact, the problem goes beyond the effect on any one individual in the class.  If you and others cheat rather than letting it be known that you're struggling, I may well get the impression that I can maintain or even accelerate the pace of a class that is already going too fast.  In effect, you've made it worse for you and everyone else in the class who is struggling.

You're hurting the reputation of the school

Getting back to employment: if you can't pass a pre-employment technical exam, or if you can't perform on the job, and you have good grades on your Duquesne transcript, what does that say to an employer about Duquesne?  It probably says to them that we have a poor computer science program.  I resent that: I am well educated, I am experienced, and I work very hard to provide you with what I have reason to believe is an excellent educational experience.  I believe that the same can be said of all of our faculty members.  But employers--some of whom we already know or might meet in the future--are going to form very different opinions of us if you cheat your way through our classes.  And, of course, their opinions will not only apply to us, but to every Duquesne alumnus as well.