By Alicia Juang
The incident started with just one little tap. As one junior, who requested to remain anonymous, recalled, not too long ago, she looked up during a test in her language class and saw one classmate glance around, quietly knock on his neighbor’s desk, and receive an answer. 10 seconds later, everything returned to normal. No one else, including the teacher, had seen.
While she has seen and heard about cheating more in this class than in others, she said cheating is still “definitely a pretty big problem [at BB&N].”
“There’s a pretty common perception among students that they can cheat and get away with it,” she said. “And [students] are really good at hiding the fact that they cheat.”
Across the country, the fallout over the discovery of several high-profile cheating incidents at schools like the Air Force Academy and Manhattan’s competitive Stuyvesant High School has given much recent media attention to the issue of academic dishonesty. Just down the river, Harvard University is conducting an investigation following allegations of “inappropriate collaborat[ion]” among students on a take-home, open-book exam last spring, according to the Harvard Crimson.
Though no recent cheating incidents at BB&N have caught widespread attention, many students attest that cheating is not uncommon. According to Disciplinary Committee Chair and English Teacher Rob Leith, typically three to eight of the committee’s six to ten cases per year involve cheating offenses.
“I’d say probably the whole student body has cheated at least once,” the junior said. “There’s just so much pressure to do well.”
A senior added that though any cheating constitutes a problem, it is less serious at BB&N than at many other schools.
“We’re pretty good attitude-wise, but there are so many different kinds of students that there are always students who [cheat] all the time and can get away with it,” she said.
Mr. Leith said that he thinks that while most cheating does go unnoticed by teachers, most teachers would confront students if they had suspicions.
However, among students, turning in each other is rare, according to alumnus Jeff Silverstein ’12.
“We were sort of all going through the same [struggles and assignments] together,” he said. “You really don’t want to get [cheaters] in trouble because you’re in a similar situation.”
However, Academic Dean Ross Clark said the larger question is the motivation behind each incident.
“By and large, our students are good kids who want to do the right thing and will do that with an adult presence,” he said. “My fear around cheating is that if students get away with it one time, the next time they find themselves in that awkward situation, they might revert to that.”
He added that though there often is not one specific factor, a student’s rationale to cheat usually has to do with stress.
“There’s a lot of pressure to succeed,” he said. “The school does a good job—though we can always do better—of acknowledging the stressors and trying to keep [them] under control. Kids [can] do silly things when there’s a lack of balance.”
Alumna Alice Berenson ’12 agreed, adding that the motivation to cheat often comes from over-commitment and a lack of time: “[Students] have to make choices about what [they] care most about, and people may make sacrifices to scrape by.”
And if a student does make the wrong choice and is caught, Mr. Clark said he tries to “turn it into a teachable moment.”
“You don’t want any one event to sum up a person,” he said. “People do stupid things all the time. I want to give [him/her] an opportunity to rebound, and I’d expect that student to do the right thing next time.”
Not all cheating is so clear, though. The extent to which students consider a specific action cheating varies, according to Mr. Leith.
“People regard cheating as a matter of scale, and to a certain extent, the school acknowledges that because we would penalize someone more for cheating on the Senior Essay than on a quiz,” he said.
While the definition of cheating is usually clear, the senior said, what is acceptable for the “little things”—test corrections, small labs, and problem sets—crosses into a gray area.
“Sometimes I work with friends on test corrections I think I’m supposed to do myself,” she said. “The [corrections] just don’t seem like a big deal. If you don’t do well on a test, you want to get the points back, and when you call up your friend [and ask for help], no one’s going to be like, ‘No, you can’t do that.’ In hindsight, it does feel a little weird.”
In a sense, she said, the attitude becomes to just “do what you need to do.”
Jeff added that a lack of consistency across classes added to the confusion, pointing to an incident that occurred in one of his science classes.
“[My classmate and I] were just working on a lab report together, and I’d say half the class worked together on theirs,” he said. “I [worked with others] in most of my other classes, so I didn’t see why this was different. The line was pretty blurry.”
Students generally approach the idea of collaboration differently than they do cheating, Alice said.
“[With regards to] explicitly cheating, I think people know you can’t copy a passage directly from the internet or copy someone’s answers,” she said. “But I think there’s definitely the idea that you can collaborate more than is probably okay. There’s that fuzzy area where it’s not clear whether talking with someone in the abstract about one of the questions [in a take-home set, for example,] is okay.”
But that gray area, Mr. Clark said, should push students to ask for clarification rather than make their own judgment.
“I can see where you may not want to ask in front of everyone,” he said. “[Avoiding cheating] is a shared responsibility. Teachers and leaders need to be clear, and students need to ask for that clarity [if it’s not given].”
Mr. Clark added that BB&N is the first school he has worked at that has not had an honor code. Though he said there are no current plans to develop one, a potential code could change the cheating culture.
“It’s not that [those honor codes] prevented infractions, but [they] did simplify things—if someone did something wrong, we knew it was wrong,” he said. “The honor code or any code of conduct is only as effective as the community is willing to live by it.”
Jeff now attends Princeton University, where there has been an honor code for more than a century. He said he thinks it could also mitigate student stress.
“I think BB&N could handle some sort of honor code,” he said. “Here, the teachers have a trust in the students, and that alleviates some of the stress. I was kind of scared of the honor code when I came here, but it seems to work really well. You’re not being watched all the time.”