Okay, I'll admit it. I cheated. I was in 5th grade and it was a stupid state capitols quiz. The classic elementary school, "memorize this and repeat" kind of quiz I've always despised, increasingly so as I've gotten older. In a world where small pieces of information can be found in seconds, why invest energy in memorizing things like the capitol of every state? At the time I hadn't thought about it in those terms, but I still hated it. Fortunately, my desk was one of those classic school desks with the area underneath for storing papers and, in this case, a nice little cheat sheet. Unfortunately, my teacher caught me. The death glare and stern, "they'll kick you out of college for that," from my teacher was enough to make me not cheat again that year.
The reason I mention cheating is because we've been talking about it in my Professional Writing class. My professor has spent a good amount of time doing some research on the subject, including debunking an overblown statistic about cheating. There seems to be a perception that a vast majority of college students cheat and that, "back in their day", cheating was less of an epidemic for our parents. On the very face of it, that is baffling to me.
Most of us have cheated at some point. And by "us" I mean everyone, not just college students. Many of us won't admit to it, often convincing ourselves that what we're doing isn't cheating. If you've ever had to think, "I'm just making things more fair," to justify an action you've done, you probably cheated. Everyone is comfortable with a certain level of cheating that we feel okay with. At the end of the day, we still want to feel good about ourselves. This is what Dan Ariely calls a personal fudge factor.
And for the most part, cheating is considered a pretty simple equation: what do I have to gain, what are the chances I'll be caught, and what are the consequences of being caught? If there's something to gain and a low chance of being caught, it would make sense that people would cheat. Ariely discusses this in his TED talk (linked above), and it turns out that's not always the case. When it comes to a population like college students, I think most of us have greater incentive to not cheat than we do to cheat.
For me, at least, it's real simple: I'm invested in this. Not only in terms of tens of thousands of dollars but in terms of preparing for a career. I'm in college because I want to be. The end-goal of high school is a piece of paper. The end-goal of college is (usually) a job. And today, getting that diploma isn't enough to guarantee a job. Being in college is about more than just doing well in classes. The arbitrary measurement of a GPA is almost always secondary to the experiences a student has when it comes to landing that first job. Successfully cheating in college may help my GPA, but in the long run that hurts me more than not cheating, whether I get caught or not. Not only do I not actually learn the information, but I'm robbing myself of developing skills that ultimately make me hirable.
Memorization is not a skill that makes me hirable. At all. Asking me to simply memorize information and spit it back out is useless. But that's exactly what my astronomy class is asking me to do. Memorize the name and location of 10 stars, and 10 constellations. 5th grade me would say, "easy, just make a cheat sheet!" 21 year old college me says, "just don't bother." These days, because of my investment, I'm more likely to sink time and energy into something more worthwhile. I have greater incentive to simply not do the assignment than I have to cheat.