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High targets encourage pupils to cheat

Pupils who are taught in high-pressure environments are more likely to cheat in exams and tests, according to research.

Studies in the United States show that pupils' attitudes towards cheating change if they believe that performance is deemed more important by teachers than mastery of a subject or improvement in knowledge. However, they are less likely to cheat if they like the teacher or feel they are being taught well.

Research presented to the AERA conference, found that while cheating had always been common among college students, it was becoming increasingly prevalent among teenagers.

Eric Alderman, of the University of Kentucky's Department of Education and Counselling Psychology, surveyed more than 1,000 students as they moved from elementary to middle schools between 1999 and 2000.

He found that boys were more likely to cheat than girls, and that maths and science were the easiest subjects to cheat in.

There was little, if any, evidence of academic deception in elementary schools, but cheating tended to increase following the transition to middle school. Low-achievers were also more likely to copy someone else's work.

His report found that "students who moved from elementary-school classrooms that did not stress performance goals into middle-school classrooms that did stress performance goals reported greater cheating than did students who moved from low performance to low performance classrooms".

Eric Alderman said government initiatives, such as the No Child Left Behind Act, a strategy to improve achievement among low-attaining groups, were partly responsible for the problem. "Cheating is what happens when you move towards performance and away from mastery. We might end up with higher achievement but at what cost?" he said.

Pupils' perceptions of their teachers' competence also had an impact, his research found. Where teacher support, or competence, was perceived as low, students were more likely to cheat even when in a low pressure environment.

A separate study from Tamera Murdock of the University of Missouri, Kansas City, found that up to 70 per cent of students in middle and high schools admitted to cheating.

And technology was making cheating easier and more sophisticated, she said.

One child admitted taking a photograph of an exam paper with his mobile phone and sending it on to friends in other parts of the city.

Dr Murdock said that students tended to cheat when they had the opportunity to do so, and if they thought that the demands being placed on them were unfair or excessive. However, the levels of cheating depended on the perceived severity of punishment.

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