Ethical Collaboration

Teaching students to work together honestly — and to build a culture that stops cheating before it starts

By Bari Walsh, on March 7, 2016 3:44 PM
Ethical Collaboration: Teaching students to work together honestly — and to build a culture that stops cheating before it starts #hgse #usableknowledge @harvarded

Among the many powerful benefits that can accrue when students work together lies one potential danger: the possibility of cheating, which can arise from complex group dynamics and a school's cultural norms, and which can be masked by the very collaboration that educators want to encourage.

As learning grows more collaborative, mirroring many contemporary work settings, teachers can’t ignore the pressures that tempt young people to cheat, say three researchers at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) in a recent essay for the National Association of Independent Schools. When they teach collaborative skills, they also have to teach students how to work together ethically.

Why do students cheat today?

Researchers Alexis Brooke Redding, Carrie James, and Howard Gardner identify three conditions that can increase the possibility of cheating.

  1. The pressure to achieve and to hit certain metrics in the college admissions race can prompt students to sidestep rules and ethical norms, the researchers say. Students often feel this pressure — subtle and not so subtle, as Gardner describes it — from parents and extended families, who may uncritically reinforce the notion that academic success is paramount, according to work by HGSE’s Richard Weissbourd, at the expense of a more balanced view of what achievement means. Data reported by students suggest that high-achievers seem to cheat at the highest rates, often justifying their actions through rationalizations that seek to explain away their ethical lapses.
  2. In certain schools, including high-achieving ones, a community-wide ethos of cheating can develop. In this ethos, unethical collaboration — students sharing test answers, for example — can flourish, and it can be hard for individual students to resist going along, especially when the cheating is framed by the community as altruistic, to help others.
  3. In a changing world, unreflective digital collaboration is a significant factor in cheating. Some students use today’s abundant digital tools thoughtlessly or unethically — using cell-phone cameras or text messaging to share test questions, cutting and pasting from other digital sources into their own work. In research conducted by Donald McCabe, Kenneth Butterfield, and Linda Treviño, nearly 40 percent of college students said they considered digital plagiarism “either not cheating at all or just trivial cheating.”

How to build an ethical community

Gardner’s past work on how to address threats to ethical behavior in a community identified three ingredients that are crucial to developing an ethical sense. Students need:

  1. Vertical support. School leaders must articulate strong, clear, and consistent standards about ethical behavior and must respond to violation of the rules with consistent disciplinary enforcement. But more than that, educators must serve as mentors in ethical living, infusing classes and curricula with opportunities to discuss, reflect on, and take ethical actions.
  2. Horizontal support. Educators need to give students the tools they need to build and reinforce an ethical community for themselves. Consistent guidelines and enforcement are one way to do that — helping to create a school environment where students know, and can persuade their peers, that no one benefits from cheating. Students should have a role in creating these guidelines and in revising honor codes or conduct rules when necessary.
  3. Periodic wake-up calls. Educators should convene a “commons” — a conversation space where ethical issues that don’t have an obvious right answer can be debated and assumptions can be challenged. These conversations should include all members of a school community — parents, teachers, students, and administrators. The goal is to confront the issues that live in the gray area, allowing every member of the community to develop ethical capacities and make ethical collaboration the norm.

Questions to Consider

  • What is "altruistic cheating" — cheating to help others — and what makes students susceptible to it?
  • Does your school community have strong guidelines about how to use digital tools in a deliberate, responsible way?
  • How can schools empower students to be partners in a campaign to stop cheating?
  • Does your school help students manage the pressures they feel? Is there a "success at all costs" ethos in your school?

Additional Resources


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Topics in this article

Schools, Learning, Teaching

Faculty in this article

Howard Gardner

Decades after he advanced the influential theory of multiple intelligences, Howard Gardner and his team at Project Zero's Good Project are examining liberal arts and sciences in the 21st century and the formation of good workers and good citizens.

Carrie James

Carrie James is a research associate and a principal investigator at Project Zero and a lecturer on education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. A sociologist by training, Her research explores young people's digital, moral, and civic lives.