Book Review: James Lang’s Cheating Lessons


James Lang, Associate Professor of English at Assumption College in Massachusetts, offers practical advice to fellow faculty members about how to prevent cheating by focusing on learning in Cheating Lessons: Learning from Academic Dishonesty (2013). First, Lang offers a theory of cheating (Part I: Building a Theory of Cheating); next he clarifies the motivations for cheating and how to take on cheating indirectly by focusing on learning (Part Two: The (Nearly) Cheating-free Classroom); and finally, he briefly offers advice on how to address cheating once it occurs in the classroom (Part Three: Speaking about Cheating). To educate other educators on how to teach integrity and also how to prevent cheating, Lang relies on a handful of scholarly works, such as Susan Ambrose’s outstanding How Learning Works and two decades of research by ethicist Donald McCabe.

To build a theory of cheating, Lang introduces four real-world scenarios—from ancient times to contemporary society—to illustrate the conditions that contribute to cheating. From each scenario, Lang draws a lesson about when and why cheating happens. Together, the scenarios set up the four conditions Lang believes promote cheating:

    1. An emphasis on performance;
    2. high stakes riding on the outcome;
    3. an extrinsic motivation for success; and
    4. a low expectation of success. (35)

The best remedy for these conditions is a re-emphasis on the learning process over outcome. In the second part of the book, Lang encourages teachers to make connections between old and new material and to help students make these connections on their own.

One helpful tip is also good for graduate students to note: Cheating often occurs when students are overconfident in their abilities and underestimate the time needed to prepare for an exam (145). To avoid this temptation, begin preparing early for exams. Similarly, start writing papers well in advance of their due dates. When preparing for exams, practice with problems and quizzes. Check comprehension of the material, and see if you can make connections across topics. Can you analyze the problem and use higher-order thinking rather than simply regurgitating knowledge?

Finally, Lang addresses originality, which is at the core of a research degree. He asks the question, “How do I produce my own work in this discipline and why does it matter that I produce my own work?” (194). Within the various disciplines, scholars may rely heavily on others’ analyses or thoughts and apply them in  innovative ways. Lang offers the example of a group presentation as original work. In one of his classes, education majors analyze a poem and then present strategies on how they’d teach the poem to middle school students (196). Through the project, the students demonstrate they understand original work, properly attributing the ideas and words of others as they create their own curriculum and lesson plans. While the analysis is not the group’s original work, the application of the analysis is. The presentation of others’ ideas within a novel curriculum framework makes the work original and innovative. This innovative project models the heart of the academic enterprise—adding to a body of knowledge in new ways, all while demonstrating a keen awareness of prior scholarship.

 James Lang’s Cheating Lessons: Learning from Academic Dishonesty was published earlier this year by Harvard University Press.