Dr. Vitz has posted several post concerning the cheating, plagiarism and lack of learning that has become a serious problem in academic institutions. These issues are of vital concern for the educators, the students, the nation and even the world, especially the democratic world. In order to address a problem, we must first know the reasons for the problem and what kind of problem it is; and, then, and only then, frame a solution to that problem. The issues that I will address in this post are: roots of cheating, plagiarism and being educated without learning; and I will address if cheating, plagiarism and being educated without learning are a moral issues, are practical issues or if they are both—and how it is what it is.
First, I need to clarify some terms. I will argue using behavioral terminology. People do what they think is good: people do what reinforces them at a higher frequency than without reinforcement. People don’t do what they find to be bad: People avoid what punishes them. Reinforcement increases a behavior; punishment decreases a behavior. There are two types of reinforcement: positive (R+) and negative (R-). Think of the positive and negative not as terms of valence (valence can be in the terms punish or reinforce) but like the mathematical concept.
Positive reinforcement means you are providing something that results in a better state of affairs, like if I gave you food when you were hungry, and this state, getting the food, results in being more likely to do what got you the food. The food was added so it is positive.
Negative reinforcement means that you take something that is aversive away, and it results in an increase of behavior because it results in non-aversive state taking on a reinforcing quality because of the contrast between a punishing state and a non-punishing state. When a behavior or group of behaviors results in a better state of affairs because of something bad is taken away, then this is negative reinforcement. This is what happens if you are being shocked, and you do something right and the shock stops, so you are more likely to do what caused you not to be shocked anymore. The shock is taken away so it is negative. Positive (P+) and negative (P-) work the same way for punishment (P+ & P-), except punishing behaviors reduce the likelihood of a behavior. So I would add pain (P+) to stop you from doing something; and I would take away a pleasure (P-) to get you to stop doing something.
Good Valence (VR=Valence Reinforcing) and Bad Valence (VP=Valence Punishing). When I talk about Valence I am talking about whether something feels intrinsically good or intrinsically bad, something intrinsically choice-worthy or intrinsically not choice-worthy. And, when I use the term valence I am also talking about both the phenomenological essence as well as its objective, causal underpinnings as one. In contrast, reinforcement and punishment don’t always have a VR or a RP, but always have neural underpinnings. However, a bad valence is almost always punishing and a good valence is almost always reinforcing, so I have made valence VR and VP have R and P stand in to show intrinsically, qualitative goodness or badness.
Secondary Reinforcer: A secondary reinforcer is something, and object or word, that has been associated with something that is naturally and intrinsically reinforcing, like food, and that takes on its reinforcing ability or VR to some degree.
Token: (T) A token is a word or object that is given as a secondary reinforcer to a behavior.
As a student, looking into the future, longing for a time when I am financially secure and have a career, grades mean everything. Somehow in my limited emotional, fiscal and time resources I need to read for hundreds of pages, determine the salience of the material and remember it, and then I need to do research, write papers, feed and train my dog, keep track of my bills, keep track of my finances, eat and manage my friendships and family. Any one of those can be daunting for a person whose brain is matured and living life in the prefrontal cortex. However, most college students are still reasoning out of the seat of emotions, the amygdala. This results in a highly emotion based thinking. This doesn’t just mean that they reason less, it means that their feeling drives are stronger and more compelling than reason because their emotions and other feeling states are not being regulated. It means that sometimes, they simply cannot force themselves to do their work.
In addition, to the problem of emotion, you must consider that sometimes studying for hours on end for endless assignments, and rushing from one paper to the next, one test to the next, and feeling anxiety about your next grade is unnatural and unhealthy for the body. You must deny many social-emotional needs, force yourself to sit at a desk, down some nasty coffee and move your eyes in a line for hours. And, when all is said and done, you may pass the test, but you forget almost everything. And, honestly, you can never do enough. Sometimes your eyes simply wear out and you realize: I can’t read anymore, but I need to.
What happens to learning in this situation? Learning becomes devalued, secondary reinforcers like grades become most salient and trained helplessness sets in. Learning takes a back seat, the intrinsic reinforcing and motivating power of knowledge is degraded or destroyed, and a student comes face to face with their inability to get it all done, and the fact that even if they get it all done—they’re not going to remember it anyway.
Tertiary Tokens: Looking at the Wrong Thing.
Mental stimulation and fascination are natural motivators and and reinforcers. They work. Also, the strongest reinforcer, bar drugs, for a human is social reinforcement. And using natural reinforcer, which are present in the environment and directly applicable to all learning—those motivators and reinforcers are at the very core of real learning, for people learn knowledge to pass knowledge on and make them more effective and affective in social situations. School can offer both of these reinforcers directly by arranging a class around interaction and personal fascination. However, what happens instead of using these reinforcers and motivators, most schools use grades.
There are several problems with grades: They are weaker reinforcers, they are not maintained by the natural environment and they are tertiary goals that focus on the achievement of tokens (A or B) rather than learning that is intrinsically motivating and reinforcing. In behavioral modification the goal is to create something called a behavioral trap, where the target behavior is maintained by reinforcement found in the environment. Unnatural reinforcers, ones that are not clear in the natural environment will cause a behavior to go into extinction, where the behavior is not longer activated due to the lack of reinforcement. However, if the environment reinforces a behavior it will become embodied in the person’s mind/brain and continued through life and spontaneously enacted. Grades do not offer this: you don’t get A’s and B’s on paychecks or for personal creativity or for a self owned business. And, even if you did, it wouldn’t be very reinforcing; rather you would probably feel overly controlled. The reason other institutions do not use these is precisely because they steal a person’s sense of autonomy, self-motivated behavior, and of self appraisal and are so far removed from unconditioned reinforcers and powerful secondary reinforcers, like fascination, curiosity and social reinforcement, that they don’t work well at all. There is more I will say about tertiary reinforcers, but that deserves its own section.
Evaluative Conditioning happens when a neutral or RV (reinforcing valence) stimuli is paired with a PV (punishing valence). When this happens, the neutral or RV stimulus takes on the aversive quality of PV. One of the great problem with graded education is that it makes learning less about learning and more about achievement that is uncertain and competitive, where you have to be almost inhuman to achieve a competitive edge. And, in many instances, you cannot be inhuman and so linear as to keep you butt in a chair for hours on end, forcing information into your brain. Humans have internal concepts, like the idea of learning and the behaviors that are to achieve it, and these can be associated with a valence, good or bad. When you associate these concepts with being dry, un-pleasurable, stagnant, linear and forced, you have associated learning with this valence, a PV, a bad naturally not choice-worthy feeling.
The first problem is that learning becomes associated with the uncertainty of achievement and the stresses of pushing yourself beyond what is even healthy. The learning concept, while it could be intrinsically reinforcing, takes on a PV. It becomes aversive. While a person is in school, their grades may be high, but since in many cases the students grades are maintained by a negative reinforcement, or escape conditioning, and week reinforcers—when they leave the learning behaviors will stop. And, when there is a chance to avoid learning behavior even while in school, the student will be likely to avoid it because the concept of learning and the behaviors associated with it have become associated with PV.
In addition, because a person can study for hours, till their eyes can’t read anymore, and still not get through the material and still not remember the material later, they can develop trained helplessness. Trained helplessness is a concept that has been tested in many situations. When an animal or person is confronted with constant failure, even when they get a chance to escape that failure or punishment, they will not use that way out. They are paralyzed by trained helplessness. Many students have so associated learning with failure that even when they are given the chance to learn, they will not take it. They have been educated, but the only thing they have learned is to avoid learning.
Tertiary Tokens: The Wrong Goal.
Given that learning has been so devalued and even aversive, and that students can get grades without actually learning, the grade becomes the goal. You do what you can for the grade; the idea to be learned is rather devalued or meaningless. So students become achievement oriented and not learning oriented. It is a clear goal, with clear methods. Ideas have become devalued as inaccessible.
Cheating is a disdain for the value of one’s own ideas. It represents either that a student does not care about the value of ideas, or not caring about the value of their ideas or not believing they can have a good idea. So in this case the problem is the idea, the knowledge and synthesis of knowledge. Ideas no longer have power for the idea maker and/or the idea maker feeks inept. Since ideas don’t have motivating, intrinsic value anymore, and the student is faced with a possible personal failure that could jeopardize their future family, social, fiscal and career life, cheating many times is a very salient option—and one that does not have immorality attached. They see their life and achievement come in contrast with a token, a grade, and the choice would be clear for any moral person—I choose the person’s happiness over some meaningless token.
This is also a problem with teachers: teachers face hurting a student’s future, emotional well being and social capital by giving a bad grade. The token grade is meaningless; the person’s well being is meaningful. To hurt that person would be antithetical to educations—an ideal of hope—because to hurt that person’s future because of a shallow social construct would defy the ideal of hope of a better future. Teachers are also aware that if they don’t appeal to the average student that they risk promoting only the very bright minority. And, to do so is antithetical to common sense and democracy, where we are trying to have massess of successful people and not just a small elite. So in many cases to give a bad grade could be considered unethical.
Education, now, is conflating the beautiful, self-maintaining power intellectual growth with a valence of stress, trained helplessness and being cheap. It has made learning a means to an end rather than an end in itself. We must solve this problem, and the solution needs to happen in all academic institutions from kindergarten to graduate school. In order to solve this issue, grades should be dropped for social maintenance and periodic intellectual growth checks and followup, and the reinforcement from intrinsic interest. School should create a behavioral trap that capitalizes on fascinations, curiosity and the desire to develop intellectually in a community of thinkers, and decontextualizes learning from a thing that happens just in class to something that happens all the time. Math, reading and writing should be presented as tools to engage in personal, natural interest, rather than something that has no bearing on the immediate interest of a person’s life. Education needs to become human and move away from educating and more towards a community of learning, where ideas still have their intrinsic, unconflated power. And, where the tools of learning become associated with the powerful, natural, valence of beauty and accessibility of learning and ideas.
It is the context of education—the tertiary goals and the punishing valence where ideas have lost power—that promotes cheating, plagiarism and weak learning. If ideas were meaningful to the student, they wouldn’t cheat—cheating wouldn’t makes sense. They would seek to learn all the time. However, it is moral for them to cheat, or for teachers to have weak classes because the students aren’t really going to learn, the power of ideas is weakened and there is so much on the line for these fledgling adults. Cheating is just human interest, like a happy life, against weak tokens and some indirect, gaunt idea of social fairness. It is not the students who cheat and don’t learn, or the teacher who keep the curriculum easy who are wrong; it is the overal context that steals the power of ideas that is unethical. Grades and the achievement orientedness of education have made cheating moral because it pits person against token, where it would be immoral to choose token.