The makers of the game complaining about the people playing it

“”I think as long as we have education, we’re going to have people who are going to try and game the system and we just have to keep up with them,” said Deb Eerkes, the university’s director of student conduct and accountability. ”

(40 University of Alberta computing science students caught cheating, CBC News, March 4, 2020)

This is stuff and nonsense. Dangerous, cynical, subversive, appalling nonsense. There are lots of different definitions of ‘education’ but, as far as I know, not a single one of them includes grading and sorting learners. Education is supposed, above all else and non-negotiably, to be a system for learning. If you instead treat it as a system for grading, then of course rational students will take the shortest safe path to attain the best grades possible, whether or not that involves learning. Cheating is rarely if ever a very safe path but, if the stakes are set high enough and achieving success is out of their reach for whatever reason, then it is a calculated risk that some will always take. In fact, most will. Almost all studies of the phenomenon across the world show more than half of all students do so at some point (Jurdi et al, 2011), and some studies show rates over 80% (Ma et al, 2013). These people are not gaming the system. They are playing the game as it is designed to be played. It doesn’t help that we almost always force them to learn things that they neither want nor need to learn at times they are not ready, willing, nor able to do so. And when I say ‘learn’ I mean that in the same sense as we learn the room number of our hotel room when we stay there. When there is no longer a need for it (the grade has been attained) then we have no use for it any more and, as often as not, promptly forget.

When cheating is so widespread and ubiquitous, the fault is clearly with the educational system, not the cheaters. A system that is designed to teach people but makes it a fundamental part of its design that some of them must fail to be taught, is fundamentally broken.  There are not many other technologies that are actually designed to consistently fail in such a spectacular way. Imagine the same design approach being used for, say, cars or nuclear power stations. Of course, some immoral manufacturers do rely on built-in obsolescence, many cripple parts of their products’ functionality in order to sell more of them, and so on. But these are not failures when viewed as ways of making money for the manufacturers, it’s just a failure of their users to understand their primary purpose. It is also true that, with the best will in the world, almost all technologies do, sooner or later, fail, but (with a few exceptions like some artworks) that is not what they are normally designed to do. That’s just entropy doing its thing. Indeed, unless something actively inputs significant energy into a system to maintain it and adapt it to its changing context, every system will eventually fail. That’s not what it happening here. Education is actually designed to fail.

As long as education is treated as a sorting machine, students will use counter-technologies to address its shortcomings, and educators will use counter-technologies to counter those counter-technologies, in an ever-escalating arms war that makes everyone the loser.

Here are a few (of many) ways we can improve this situation, even within the context of a system designed to fail:

  • build the system so that students can try and try again until they have actually learned what they seek to learn. If at all possible, even if it means charging more for the service, do not force them to keep to your timetable for this.
  • give them control over what they learn, and how. By all means let them delegate control to you (or anyone else) if they wish, but always let them take it back when they want or need to do so.
  • do not give grades: they destroy intrinsic motivation. Give feedback that helps students to improve. If grades are mandated by the system, only ever use two: A, and incomplete (Kohn, 1999, p.208). If that is impossible, at the very least allow students to participate in grading, let them choose at least some of the criteria, give them ownership of the process.
  • discover the outcomes that have actually occurred, rather than measure the extent to which students meet the outcomes we say they should meet. Students always learn more than we teach. Celebrate it. Outcome harvesting (Wilson-Grau & Britt, 2012) is a promising approach for this.
  • celebrate achievement. Do not punish failure to achieve. When grading, seek evidence of learning, not evidence of failure to learn. When there are failures to learn, treat them as opportunities to improve, not reasons to reject.
  • celebrate re-use. Everything builds on everything else, no one does anything alone. Let people ‘cheat’, authentically, as all of us ‘cheat’ when we use ideas and chunks of stuff other people have created, but make cheating pointless or counter-productive in achieving a grade. A simple way to do that is to make learning personal (not personalized) so that it is both relevant to student interests and needs (so intrinsically motivating), and always unique to them (so difficult to copy from elsewhere). It also helps to celibrate intelligent (properly ascribed) re-use. Don’t ask students to reinvent wheels, but encourage them to use wheels well.
  • make learning visible. Build sharing into the structure of the process. This is both motivating and the many eyes that result make cheating far more likely to be discovered. If ‘face’ is what matters to your students, then design the system so that they must show it.
  • Build community. People tend to try much harder when they know that what they create will be seen by others that they care about.

I could go on indefinitely: there are countless ways to avoid or at least reduce the harms of grading, not one of which requires coercion, punishment, or harm. The main point, though, is that educational systems are technologies for learning, not for grading. If we can spin some useful awards (not rewards) out of that then that’s good, but it should not, in the process, subvert the whole point of having the things in the first place.


Jurdi, R., Hage, H. S., & Chow, H. P. H. (2011). Academic Dishonesty in the Canadian Classroom: Behaviours of a Sample of University Students. Canadian Journal of Higher Education, 41(3).

Kohn, A. (1999). Punished by rewards: The trouble with gold stars, incentive plans, A’s, praise, and other bribes. Mariner Books.

Ma, Y., McCabe, D., & Liu, R. (2013). Students,  Academic Cheating in Chinese Universities: Prevalence, Influencing Factors, and Proposed Action. J Acad Ethics, 11(3), 169-184. doi:10.1007/s10805-013-9186-7

Wilson-Grau, R., & Britt, H. (2012). Outcome harvesting. Cairo: Ford Foundation. http://www. managingforimpact. org/sites/default/files/resource/outome_harvesting_brief_final_2012-05-2-1. pdf.

Originally posted at:

I am a professional learner, employed as a Full Professor and Associate Dean, Learning & Assessment, at Athabasca University, where I research lots of things broadly in the area of learning and technology, and I teach mainly in the School of Computing & Information Systems. I am a proud Canadian, though I was born in the UK. I am married, with two grown-up children, and three growing-up grandchildren. We all live in beautiful Vancouver.

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