Cheating or not?
As the school year ends and many of you have student papers due, here’s an ethical challenge related to such assignments, put to the New York Times Ethicist last Sunday:

When I was in college, I’d sometimes write a single paper that would satisfy assignments in more than one course. For instance, I once wrote a paper on how “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” expressed satire; I submitted it for assignments in both my poetry course as well as my completely separate satire course. I did not disclose this to either professor. When I share this with people, half call the practice cheating, and the other half call it genius. My niece told me it would certainly be grounds for expulsion at her college. In my mind, I was adding a level of intellectual complexity to my studies. Was this an ethical practice, or was I cheating?

Readers, what do you think?
Here is the link to the article and, therefore, the Ethicist’s reply. I think you’ll find his answer thought-provoking.
The overwhelming majority of posters disagreed vehemently with his response, and you’ll enjoy reading those, too! (You’ll also want to ponder whether your current policies to students are up to snuff).
POSTSCRIPT: the avalanche of mail led the NY Times Public Editor to ask the Ethicist for a defense of his thinking and a response concerning his fitness for the job!


20 Responses

  1. Not cheating.
    Each class one takes (in college, in high school) should have, by design, its own goals, outcomes, and assessments. Any and all assignments are hopefully being collected so that the professor can gauge whether or not students are meeting or have met the goals. As such, the work should be evaluated according to specific criteria for quality work. If an assignment that a student has produced for another course constitutes evidence that the student is meeting or has met the goals of another course, submitting it as evidence isn’t a problem from an assessment standpoint.
    Seems to me that ego and jealousy is what would lead a lot of professors and fellow students to bristle at the idea. The onus is on course designers, not students, to ensure that their assignments are tailored to the goals of the class. In any case, exemplary performance assessments and writing prompts will almost always prevent the possibility of even being able to turn in an assignment from another class “as-is.”
    Arguably, a student could be missing an opportunity to extend, push, or revise his/her thinking. And if the work was done in a previous semester, it probably doesn’t represent the most recent or most relevant evidence of the student’s understanding, knowledge, and skill. Then again, it might–esp. if the student’s experience in the course for which he/she is turning in the “double-dipped” paper left his/her thinking unchanged.
    On the other hand, given a student’s competing demands and the mundane, vague nature of many college course assignments, it’s more likely that he/she is just demonstrating what Robert Sternberg calls “successful intelligence”. Multiple-submission policies appear to protect the teacher who doesn’t want to change, upgrade, or distinguish his course rather than safeguard ethics.
    In short, if a student can turn in an previously-produced assignment as evidence of meeting another course’s goals, and do well on it, then it’s probably time for the teacher design a new assignment.

    • I agree with Jessica here in that the problem is probably that the assignment was so generic as to give the opportunity for a student to do this. Good performance assessments tailored to a specific class should prevent a student from being able to do this..
      The question, though, which I don’t think many of us (certainly not on the NY Times blog posts) are addressing is “Is it ethical to turn in the same paper for two classes?” This is a moral question that, if answered, will have a companion epistemological question “How do we know whether it is right/wrong– what justifies our knowledge?”.
      Some are claiming that it is wrong because it goes against the college policies. Well, that doesn’t help us determine whether it is ethical or unethical. That just says it went against a policy. The policy itself could be unethical. A law might prohibit blacks from voting. If a person refused to follow the policy, then you can make a strong case that the person was acting ethically in circumventing the policy and that the prohibition was morally wrong. The same could be true in this case.
      Additionally, I think it is important not to convolute this ethical question with others imbedded in this case, like whether lying to your professor is right or wrong. We can’t say that because the student lied to his professor that all of a sudden that makes turning the paper in wrong too. They are separate cases.
      From a utilitarian standpoint, the consequences of this moral decision render happiness for the student certainly—he/she doesn’t have to do as much work and gets to satisfy the requirements of two classes. This frees up time for other fun things to do. What about the pain? Certainly the professor’s ego would be hurt by this, and possibly this type of behavior, if sanctioned, might lead to a fresh strategy on campus for turning in papers for multiple courses and for ‘getting out of doing work’. Yet, that may lead to professors getting better at adapting their assessments so that they are more unique, which could be positive. Utilitarianism is guesswork it seems.
      Applying Kant, could the student universalize this moral action? What if all students on all college campuses turned in the same paper for multiple classes? Is there something logically contradictory about this happening? You could make a good argument that this behavior could be universalized without leading to any sort of logical contradiction…
      Enter Aristotle… Is it virtuous to behave in this way? Here is where I think you could make a better argument that a student ‘killing two birds with one stone’ is taking more of an easy way out. The virtuous thing to do is to produce something original for each class, command an honest work ethic; otherwise, you seem to be cutting corners, playing the system… Yet, I think you could make an argument that a student could work very hard to pull this off and really demonstrate an ability to make connections between classes in a way that is admirable..
      This is a tough one… I think I have confused myself!

  2. I disagree with The Ethicist’s final statement, “You are a clever, lazy person.” Why is it laziness to recognize and leverage “shar[ing] a common answer” or to see “commonalities between unrelated intellectual disciplines”?
    At Making Community Connections Charter School (, we encourage students to create “nested” learning designs. If an inquiry or investigation incorporates multiple competencies (aka standards), learners can expand their work to encompass meeting more than one requirement.
    In all fairness, we do require “more” for nested learning experiences. The more includes more than one type of application (project, paper, presentation, or performance) and additional documentation and defense of learning (specifically in relation to the competencies being addressed).
    Connections and commonalities are the very marrow of understanding. Let’s encourage and celebrate them!

  3. I don’t think it is cheating – but it is a bit dishonest. Unless we subscribe to a standards based system (in which whatever standard is met is banked) I think it is acceptable that students are asked to submit new work for each class. Otherwise, we are using dollars (our academic capital) to purchase credit in more than one class at once. Maybe I am wrong – if so I am open to it.

  4. I agree with the ethicist. What is the purpose of an education? Who lost in this course of action? Would the writer perhaps have learned more by writing separate papers? If the student is the only one truly ‘losing’, why should the teacher care? The ethicist may have been right, the student could be a lazy genius; or perhaps they had truly important unmentioned tasks to face.

  5. It seems the main line of reasoning taken by the commenters in disagreement with Klosterman is that the student should not get “credit” for two papers when he only wrote one. The assumption behind both Klosterman and the commenters thinking is that submitting a paper and receiving “credit” is some sort of quasi-economic transaction. Hence the feeling that the student got something for nothing, like paying for one pack of gum while slipping another into his pocket.
    You can’t blame people for thinking about assignments as transactions. Spend a day in a school and you’ll here schoolwork discussed in exactly this way. “You owe me that lab report from last month.” “You’ll lose 10 points for every day its late.” “What can I do for extra-credit?”
    As a high school teacher, I don’t view assignments like this. To me a paper represents an opportunity for me to give feedback and advice to a student. The student doesn’t “get” anything from me but information. From this perspective there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with submitting one paper to two teachers. In fact, in some cases it might even benefit the student to get feedback from multiple perspectives. From this angle, the situation from the article is less like stealing a pack of gum and more like asking two friends what they think of your new haircut.
    If we want our students to see the real educational value of their assignments–that is as chances to practice and improve–we have to stop thinking and talking about schoolwork in terms of credit and points.

  6. I work with IB teachers (MYP and DP) throughout our district, and one of the things I encourage – so far with almost no success – is for teachers to collaborate in designing assignments that can be assessed for two or more classes, but which require greater depth and complexity. I did this on some projects with a couple of friends when teaching at an innovative middle school. We came up with units that addressed standards from social studies (my class), as well as English and/or science. Students did one culminating project that we then graded using different criteria for our respective classes. The students loved it, and we got much higher quality work from most of our students than we did when they had a separate project for each class. Interestingly, we didn’t even have all the same students, so made modifications in some cases, but a lot of the students were sufficiently engaged that they did the entire project anyway. It was great for us because we gained a deeper appreciation of the connections between our disciplines, but we also got to know our students better because we saw their work from different perspectives. Although the up-front planning meant we had to meet after school or on weekends, the payoff was more than worth it. Unfortunately, I have not yet been able to sell the idea to the teachers with whom I work, but I’m hoping to put together some PD for next year that will result in this kind of collaboration.
    I guess my answer to the question is that we should be encouraging students to incorporate work from multiple classes or disciplines into new products; after all, in “real life” you don’t start from scratch every time you have a new assignment. How many lawyers write a contract without reference to others they’ve done? The same is true for many professions. If we are really preparing students for life after school, then we should be teaching them to leverage their knowledge, experience, and work product in order to create achieve better results on future endeavors.

  7. I don’t know. On the one hand I don’t see what is wrong with it, but on the other hand it is not putting forth any effort or thought for the next class. Wow… I’m going to go with, “Nice try, but you really need to do 2 separate assignments.”
    Now if someone could show that they put forth extra effort and thought into the assignment – maybe. But… can’t we just bury our head in the sand and pretend this never happens?

  8. Grant and others,
    I believe, as a teacher, much of my charge is to help develop students Socratic (questioning) skills. This is done through exploring the eternal questions that man confronts. It also demands that students develop a deep understanding of ethics and morals. They need to develop the skills to make what Ruth W. Grant calls Responsible Judgements.
    One of the highest levels of educational endeavor is to read, analyze, synthesize and create new sound interpretations of text and ideas. Another step is to continually re-examine and challenge your old ideas when presented with new ideas, fact, and/or knowledge. At Riverside Virtual School we encourage students to think about their scholarly work from an interdisciplinary lens. To continually spiral the curriculum and curricular areas to develop a deeper integrated understanding of the world.
    John Dewey examines in-depth the relationship between teacher, student and curriculum. He points out the difficulty children have as their world becomes atomized in the school setting. It would seem one step in the right direction would be to allow students to grow in a way were connections are continually being made between courses and their prior knowledge.
    I would conclude that if the work is rigorous and text based and the intellectual property of the student they not only should be allowed but encouraged to work on worthy topics over and over to document their deepening academic growth.

    • Agreed. I like that a student may be able to synthesize topics, writings, and ideas. I don’t think completing an assignment should necessarily be predicated on “putting in effort”, although I stand by the assertion that a person gets out of things what they put into it.
      From both a deontological and utilitarian standpoint, I don’t find this action to be unethical. I don’t think The Ethicist clearly stated whether there were specific rules in place that make this action inappropriate. Certainly when I was in university I was never aware of such a rule (which isn’t to say that it didn’t exist).

  9. I did something similar in college. I had two 20 page papers due the same day: one for Feminist Literary Criticism and one for William Faulkner Senior Seminar. I asked both instructors if I could combine the assignments into one paper and they both agreed. (Maybe they were curious about how I could possibly make this work…) If either one had said no, I wouldn’t have done it, but since they both were amenable to the idea, it worked out fine. I got the same grade on the paper in both classes as it turned out.

    • Jaimi makes a great point for cross-disciplinary study and, notably, got the advance permission of both instructors. This is the key distinction, in contrast to this sentence of the original question (one that the Ethicist glosses over):
      “I did not disclose this to either professor.”
      Plagiarism has often been described as “the intent to deceive.” This is a prime example. The transgression here is the furtive nature. If the writer had written one paper for both classes with the knowledge and assent of both instructors, there’s not problem. However, by not informing the instructors, the writer not only adds “intellectual complexity” but also “intellectual dishonesty” to his studies.
      I’d also like to note a false dichotomy: “half call the practice cheating, and the other half call it genius.” Honesty and intellect are not the same thing.

      • “I did not disclose this to either professor”
        Let’s say the student DID disclose it beforehand…
        Just because a student gets consent of the instructors doesn’t make the student’s original action morally right. It makes the student thoughtful, open and transparent perhaps… but it doesn’t make the action of writing one paper for two classes morally right. It seems we have to separate these issues.
        (If a student tells two instructors that he cheated off of his neighbor, and if these two instructors deviously CONSENT to allow a student to go without punishment, that certainly wouldn’t make the student’s action morally right. Consent wouldn’t confer goodness to an action. The action has to be analyzed on its own terms)
        This is a mind-bender

        • It seems that we agree that in the original scenario the student committed a moral error. It remains to determine why we disagree on the reasons why we think so. I agree that consent does not per se confer goodness upon an action, but your comment seems to be drawing a parallel between on the one hand a student writing one paper that satisfies the requirements of two classes and on the other hand a student cheating (presumably by copying) off his neighbor. This is a misleading analogy; not all forms of wrongdoing are the same. Yes, in both cases the student does less work than s/he should have. But in the case of writing one paper, the student is actually doing work. Moreover, there is no third party harmed.
          One of the reasons we teach the humanities is to foster our students’ ability to make valid connections among disparate elements, to broaden not only their own minds but the minds of others as well. Indeed, this is what scholarship is: researching the ideas of others, using them, as well as other evidence, as support or criticism towards the development of a new idea. Or do you think it is inherently morally wrong to analyse Prufrock both as poetry and also as satire?

          • With regard to the analogy I was drawing…. I was comparing outright cheating with writing one paper that satisfies requirements of two classes based on the fact that BOTH of these decisions broke an academic policy. In our previous discussion you had seemed to suggest that writing one paper which satisfies requirements of two classes was wrong because it was against policy. That claim was the one I was addressing by using the analogy.
            With respect to your comment about humanities, I completely agree—which is why, the more I think about this particular moral issue, the more I am coming down on the side that there is nothing ethically wrong with a student who takes it upon him/herself to see a connection between academic disciplines and then design an original piece which satisfies requirements for both. I would say that a policy which prohibits such behavior is misguided.

  10. The responses in these comments and the comments on the NY Times blog provide excellent examples for all levels of Kohlberg’s stages of ethical development. It also shows how there is such a large amount of friction between Law and Order ethical types, and social contract thinkers.
    For the record: I don’t think it was unethical. It was clearly against the stated academic policy. And I only consider it lazy because they didn’t mention adapting their writing to better fit each assignment.

  11. One ironic thing from a middle school teacher perspective…I like it when we are working in a cross-curricular fashion and kids have to make something work for multiple classes.
    We have to remember, it is not about the work, it is about the understanding. If the submitted assignment showed proper understanding, it makes no difference.

  12. I see nothing inherently unethical about using the same piece of work for multiple courses, but I do see something unethical in doing so without informing the instructors of the duplication, especially if there are institutional policies in place that lead instructors to expect unique work.
    In the senior thesis seminar I’m teaching this quarter, every one of the students is submitting the work for 2 courses: the seminar (where it is graded mainly on the writing) and an independent study with the faculty member supervising the research (where it is graded mainly on content). Many of the students had also used the first draft of their thesis as the final project in a tech writing course last quarter. I wish more of them had done that, as those who did started the quarter with me in a much better position for getting out a decent draft by the end of the quarter.
    In other courses that I teach, there is almost no opportunity for students to reuse the papers in other courses: no other courses will want a design report on an instrumentation amplifier for a strain-gauge pressure sensor or on an EKG (except perhaps the tech-writing course, and I would welcome them submitting their design reports for feedback in that course).
    I’m guessing that recycling papers is more of a problem in the humanities than it is in the sciences. There are a few people in the sciences who try to publish papers that do not differ significantly from previous papers of theirs, but this is often caught by referees. Reusing major parts of the background information is not seen as a problem, though, as long as the novel contribution of the paper is clear.

  13. The Prophet Mohammed (SAW) had two Hadiths (sayings) that seem to be pertinent to the subject matter and shed timeless wisdom.
    First Hadith: “Leave that which makes you doubt for that which does not make you doubt.”
    Second Hadith: “Consult your heart. Righteousness is that about which the soul feels at ease and the heart feels tranquil. And wrongdoing is that which wavers in the soul and causes uneasiness in the breast, even though people have repeatedly given you their legal opinion [in its favour].”
    Being an educator, I leave to the readers to draw their own conclusions.
    Thank you

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