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Harvard cheating scandal? It could be bad teaching.

Several theories try to explain alleged cheating at Harvard University, but they omit the most obvious explanation: poor teaching. Students are more likely to cheat when they feel disengaged from a class. Universities cheat our kids by placing a low premium on teaching.

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Harvard's seal sits atop a gate to the athletic fields at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. Harvard University is investigating allegations of undergraduate students cheating on a spring take-home final exam. Op-ed contributor Jonathan Zimmerman writes: 'Teaching is mostly unrewarded, which is the biggest scandal of all. Across every kind of school...professors who give more time to research tend to make higher salaries; meanwhile, the ones who devote themselves more to teaching tend to earn less.'

Brian Snyder/Reuters/file

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In 1998, a self-described con-man named Bob Corbett published an irreverent, tongue-in-cheek manifesto called “The Cheater’s Handbook: The Naughty Student’s Bible.” Boasting that he had paid someone to take his high school Advanced Placement tests, Mr. Corbett provided helpful and often hilarious hints for producing crib sheets, digging up old exams, and much more.

But he dedicated his book to his 11th grade English teacher, who “did such a wonderfully engaging job that he destroyed any shred of desire I may ever have had to cheat in English thereafter,” Corbett wrote. “If all teachers brought such passionate energy to their classrooms,” he added, “perhaps this book would become obsolete.”

I thought of Corbett as I read about the cheating scandal at Harvard, where almost half of the 279 students in a course last spring are under investigation for allegedly collaborating on a take-home final exam. Trying to explain the episode, news reports and commentaries named the usual suspects: crazy-competitive college admissions have made students even more grade-conscious, the internet has made it easier for them to cut and paste, and universities have stopped trying to instruct them about what’s right and wrong.

There’s something to these theories, but they omit the most obvious explanation: poor teaching. As educational researchers have repeatedly demonstrated, students are more likely to cheat when they feel disengaged from a class. If you think your professor doesn’t care whether you’re learning, you probably won’t care – or learn – very much either. And you’ll try to pull one over on her or him, in any way you can.

That seems to be what was happening in professor Matthew Platt’s “Introduction to Congress” course at Harvard last spring. An anonymous student in the class told Salon.com that Dr. Platt began the course by announcing that he didn’t care if they attended his lectures or the discussion sections with his teaching assistants. So students frequently skipped class, sending friends to pick up copies of Platt’s slides.

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