I recently had a conversation with a person who teaches 8th-grade English. She related to me an incident in which she discovered that a student had plagiarized an essay. After confronting (and penalizing) the student for the offense, she asked the student if she had learned anything. The reply was, "I learned that I should not plagiarize in your class." Upon discerning that her teacher did not find her reply to be satisfactory, she added, "Do you think this makes me a bad person?"
As an educator concerned with the integrity of the educational process, it seems easy to say "yes", because honesty is "good" and cheating is "bad". But if cheating makes a student successful at the cost of acquiring an unwanted label of "bad", then what is the real cost? In fact, an excuse for cheating I have heard before from a guilty party is "everyone else is doing it, so I have to cheat to keep up."
Given this mindset, I propose that any argument against cheating intended to persuade a perpetrator to stop has to demonstrate direct damage to the cheating student.
Implicit in the act of submitting a solution to an assignment is to claim that the submitter created the solution in accordance with the instructions. Students cheat when it is easier to submit someone else's solution to an assignment than it is to create their own solution. To cheat, then, is to lie.
What makes this lie so pernicious? When I, as an educator, create an assignment, I design the assignment so that correct solutions demonstrate that the student has acquired an ability. When a student cheats, the student falsely claims to have acquired that ability.
Any reflective person is aware of the power of habitual behavior. When we repeatedly select an action in response to a condition, the selection of that action becomes an unconscious response. One need only reflect on how quickly we respond to boredom by reaching for our smartphones to visualize the truth of this claim.
A student who cheats one time without being caught has already begun the process of forming the habit of cheating. The habit of cheating is equivalent to the habit of falsely claiming abilities. So what does it mean to have acquired this habit?
It means that, down the line, one's school transcript, in which grades correspond to false claims about acquired abilities, based on that transcript one can be hired for jobs for which one is not actually qualified. Such a job may be appealing for a good salary, but they will have hired a person who can't actually do the work. And the truth has a way of catching up with us, in time. An employer who hires someone who can't do the work will eventually figure this out and fire the person. Why will they figure it out? Nobody likes wasting money.
So, does cheating make a student a "bad person"? Yes. To be more precise, cheating makes a student a person with a habit that damages both the student and everyone around the student, as a result of claiming abilities that are not consistent with reality.
But it is important to emphasize that a growth mindset applies to our moral habits just as much as it does to our abilities. If we have acquired bad moral habits (and most of us have), we have the freedom to choose actions that help us alter our habits, to transform the bad habits into good habits. So I would hate to close this essay without emphasizing the fact that the only thing stopping a person with bad habits from becoming a person with good habits is that the person with good habits has made a concrete decision to change for the better.
Another implication of this argument is that educators can do tremendous good for students who cheat by catching and punishing them as early as possible. This gives the student a chance to break the bad habit of cheating before it becomes too ingrained. It is a false mercy to go easy on a cheating student!