I went through this and still can't fathom why cheating isn't black-and-white. Nevertheless, https://www.csusm.edu/dos/studres/wwwc.html says,

"A cheater receives through deception what honest students work hard for; and in classes graded on a curve, he lowers their grades to boot."

Ok, I get why people don't cheat(moral fortitude) and why people don't rat(social fortitude); and that's just me saying I'm on the "I'll force all you cheaters to pay for your injustices" side; but is it the grading system that makes it bad for honest students? If honest students honestly receive high marks, but are "curved down" in rank because cheaters get near perfect marks, then grading based on a curve must be one of the only things that makes it unfair.

--- clarification: Grading on a Curve: means to statistically conform grades of all those measured to a curve that measures performance based on a norm-referenced assessment.

Would cheating still be considered unfair if we drop the concept of grading according to a curve? (which we should)

2 Answers 2


Would cheating still be considered unfair if we drop the concept of grading according to a curve? (which we should)

Of course!

Let's assume that without cheating 10% of students get As. Therefore, students who earned As are a small group. Having an A might help getting funding, or finding an internship or a job. Now let's say that with cheating, 50% (no normalizing) of students get As, now an A is no longer that valuable because a lot of people have them. Therefore, the value of As that honest students earned has diminished.

  • 14
    In other words, grading is on a curve in reality regardless of the actual marking scheme. With or without the presence of a formal curve, people will invent their own for particular purposes. Ultimately the consideration is "this person has a degree: what does that mean to me?". The presence or absence of large numbers of cheats among those with degrees affects the answer to that question. Commented Apr 15, 2014 at 2:10
  • Chose it because the question was answered; sorry. Commented Apr 15, 2014 at 2:53

Cheating is unfair regardless of how you handle grading, but how unfair it is depends on the grading scheme. Let's assume that the cheater's efforts earn him among the highest raw scores in the class.

No matter how you adjust the grades (unless you flip high and low grades!) the cheater will have a higher grade that they deserve, and anything which is grade dependent and competitive (e.g. getting a job, getting into grad school, etc.) will be unfairly easier for the cheater and unfairly harder for everyone else. So there's a baseline unfairness to cheating.

If, additionally, you keep the percentage of A's fixed (grading on a curve), the cheater will bump someone out of an A, which will likely impact them negatively (career, grad school, etc.). Someone else may be bumped out of a B, etc, down to where the cheater would have been if they hadn't cheated. So there is direct and noticeable harm to the cheater's fellow classmates. It's a pretty rotten thing to do. (This is also related to why students fight so ardently for every grade or grade step.)

If you keep the requirements fixed, then everyone will get the same grades they would have, save the cheater, but the average fraction of A's will go up. The net impact is the same--a 3.2 average now looks worse than it did before because the averages have gone up--but the negative effects are not felt by individual classmates but rather averaged over everyone from the university with cheaters. By spreading the harm among more people, in some ways the effects are less acute; aside from the cheater, everyone else is still going to have the same relative standing.

So, especially if cheating is rare, it's even more unfair if you're grading on a curve* since those people who have the bad luck to be stuck with a cheater will be unfairly punished in addition to the cheater being unfairly rewarded.

* There is an argument for grading on a curve, however: there is also unfairness due to differences in grading schemes between universities. Grading on a curve helps to combat this, as instead of measuring various different expectations of mastery (e.g. if Harvard expects you to do more to get an A than does Yale, then your GPA will be lower if you go to Harvard than Yale), it just measures students against each other, and there are enough of those for statistical sampling help even out the other differences (e.g. if the incoming classes to Harvard and Yale are of similar quality, and both grade on similar curves, regardless of which one you'll know who was in the top 10%, and those top 10% will be similar regardless of where they went).

  • If Harvard expects you to do more to get an A than Yale, it would seem unreasonable to suppose that Harvard expects the same of you to get in as Yale does. So why would the incoming classes be of similar quality? Fundamentally if you want your grade to mean something to somebody, then that somebody needs to have some notion (probably not a very accurate one) of how demanding the course was. Whether it was demanding according to a fixed schedule or demanding because of the calibre of students you competed with, employers will still be pretty close to clueless about the details ;-) Commented Apr 15, 2014 at 2:19
  • @SteveJessop - There is not necessarily any connection between a grading scheme and difficulty of admission; our hypothetical Yale might try to compete with Harvard for the better (but not absolutely best) students by having a reputation for being less stingy with A's. It is true that most employers will be clueless about the details, and even graduate admissions committees will only have a vague idea of a few of the biggest names. (A school that gives everyone A's for everything will quickly get a bad reputation, though.)
    – Rex Kerr
    Commented Apr 15, 2014 at 4:14
  • Agreed, there isn't necessarily any connection. But it's not reasonable to assume there isn't and hence to compare positions within the class between the two. At least, it's no more reasonable than to compare GPAs between the two. Commented Apr 15, 2014 at 9:04

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