Classroom practice - Are teachers creating classroom cheats?

Inflexible, high-stakes tests can promote dishonesty - but a few simple changes to your teaching could make all the difference

James M Lang

Today's strategies to prevent cheating tend to focus on a mix of technology, fear and subterfuge: teachers now have clever anti-plagiarism tools aplenty to deploy alongside the more traditional weapons of threatening severe punishment for perpetrators and ensuring that test papers are locked down in impenetrable fortresses.

The trouble is, these solutions are not having much impact on the number of children cheating. And a new line of research suggests that a more effective strategy may be for teachers to look instead at the learning environment.

Data on incidences of cheating in schools is difficult to gather because of the complexity of what is and is not deemed cheating and the number of informal assessments that take place. However, a propensity to cheat can be ascertained from the higher education studies that have been conducted. Professor Donald L McCabe of Rutgers University, working from surveys compiled between 2002 and 2010, found that 60-65 per cent of American students reported cheating at least once in their college career.

That rate represents a decrease from the 75 per cent of acknowledged cases that doctoral student William J Bowers discovered in 1964, but considering the advances in technology to catch cheaters and the heightened awareness of the practice, that fall is a minor one.

Clearly, we need a new tack. Some push the notion that a decline in moral values in our culture is responsible for cheating in schools. So argues David Callahan, author of The Cheating Culture, who suggests that bad behaviour by adults in recent decades has led to increased cheating by children. But once we abandon the narrative that cheating is on the rise we have to seek some other explanation for it happening in our schools.

An alternative theory comes from new research on dishonesty conducted by behavioural economist Dan Ariely, whose book The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty argues that what prompts people to cheat or not is what he calls "the structure of their daily environment" - rather than, for example, their moral character or their fear of punishment. For schools, the implications of Ariely's work are that the most important factors in determining whether or not a student will cheat sit directly within teachers' control: namely, the structure and design of the learning environment and the daily classroom practices of the teacher.

Indeed, a small number of features of the learning environment have been shown to have a substantial influence on whether students cheat. If we pay attention to those features, we can build classes and classroom environments that reduce the incentive and opportunity for students to cheat. The pay-off for doing so comes not only in the form of reduced cheating but in increased learning. For it turns out that the very factors that reduce the incentive for students to cheat also lead to deeper learning.

So, to design classroom environments that increase learning and reduce cheating, focus on these four elements:

Give frequent, low-stakes assessments

Cheating rates rise when students have few opportunities to demonstrate their learning and earn their grade. The smaller the number of assignments or exams you offer, the more pressure you load on to each of those assessments and the more you induce students to succeed in those high- stakes tests by any means necessary. You are also depriving your students of the opportunity to try, fail, receive feedback and try again - one of the most important processes in achieving deep learning.

Pose problems, questions, challenges

When students are motivated primarily by extrinsic factors - such as the desire to earn a good grade or obtain the highest score on an exam - they are more likely to cheat. Extrinsic motivation goes hand in hand with lessons or lesson units that demand students memorise dates, facts or formulae without any attempt to convince them why they matter. Instead, focus on intrinsic motivation. One of the surest methods we have to promote this is to pose problems, questions or challenges to students in areas that they either care about already or that we can convince them to care about, such as conservation of the environment or the impact of technology on their lives.

Instead of asking students to memorise the themes and major works of the Romantic poets, for example, ask them to engage in a local debate about land conservation by drafting a letter to the town council that relies on the words and arguments of the Romantic poets on the importance of nature in our lives. In addition to fostering intrinsic motivation, these types of locally grounded assignments make cheating almost impossible.

Offer different ways to show learning

Asking all students to use the same means to demonstrate their learning - a single series of standardised tests, for example - encourages them to compete with one another, and hence will nudge the most competitive students towards cheating. By contrast, when you offer some choice and control over how they will earn their grade, each student carves his or her own individualised path through the lesson material.

In addition to reducing competitiveness in the classroom, this kind of lesson design can help to foster intrinsic motivation by allowing students to pursue the paths that interest them the most.

Some students will welcome the opportunity to write an essay; others would rather give a presentation; still others may prefer the good old-fashioned exam. When you provide them with some choice over how to demonstrate their learning, however small it may be, you reduce the emphasis on performance or surface learning and increase the emphasis on mastery of a subject or deep learning.

Help children to assess themselves

Cheating sometimes happens when students sit down for an exam confident that they have mastered the material and receive the rude shock that they are woefully underprepared. In response, they sneak out their phone and begin searching for answers. Students frequently overestimate their own learning, and as a result they under-study and underprepare.

Give students frequent opportunities to see precisely how well they know the material. For example, at the end of each class period, ask them to take five minutes to write down the most important concept from that session and one question that remains. This will give them an immediate sense of their own understanding and will allow you to assess their learning and discuss it with them in the next lesson.

To build a completely cheating-free classroom environment may be an impossibility but that doesn't mean we should throw up our hands in the face of cheating or bemoan the declining moral values of today's youth. Cheating happens for understandable - if unacceptable - reasons, and the best means we have for reducing classroom dishonesty lie within our own control.

James M Lang is associate professor of English and director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at Assumption College in the US and author of Cheating Lessons: learning from academic dishonesty.

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James M Lang

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