A Classroom Where No One Cheats

A new book says it's possible—but only if teachers get their students to care about learning for learning's sake.

When I catalog my personal top ten list of teaching failures, the first spot always goes to the same offense: cheating. The times I’ve caught the eye of a student whose glance has wandered on to a classmate’s test. When I’ve compared two identical, oddly misspelled answers two different quizzes. When I’ve found a sentence in an essay that doesn’t feel right and a quick search of the internet locates that same sentence in an published article. Oh, and the fallout: denials, tears, parents who insist, “My child simply would never do that sort of thing.”

While I’d love to place the blame for this offense fully on my students’ shoulders, I can’t. My teaching methods and classroom habits are often as much to blame as their response to them.  If my teaching practices create an atmosphere in which students resort to cheating rather than rely on their own hard work and discovery, I’m doing something wrong.

Eradicating cheating from a classroom is a remarkably difficult task. Cheating is a many-headed hydra: Cut one offense off, and another one bursts forth in its place. Teachers struggle to keep up with students’ novel and ingenious methods of academic deception, and yet we forever remain one step behind our technologically and ethically flexible wards. Plus, cheating taps into teachers’ worst fears about both our ability to teach and our trust in our students. I never doubt my perceptions more than when I contemplate whether to confront a student about suspicions of cheating. No matter how the process shakes out, trust is broken, feelings are hurt, and everyone loses sleep.

One teacher, desperate to eradicate cheating at its source, has come up with a theory of cheating and a plan for what he calls “The (Nearly) Cheating-Free Classroom.” In his book Cheating Lessons: Learning from Academic Dishonesty, James M. Lang, Associate Professor of English at Assumption College, recounts his experience with cheating, and his personal journey to rid his classroom of its influence. Lang undertook his research on academic dishonesty because, “My personal experiences with cheating were probably a lot like yours: students occasionally cheated in my classes, it baffled and frustrated me, and I was never sure how to react.” Lang turned to the available research on cheating, searching for ways to fight back.

When Lang looked into the data on who cheats, and how often, the numbers varied widely. As most of the studies on cheating rely on student self-reporting, cheating statistics depend on students’ and researchers shared understanding of the definition of cheating, and that’s a high hurdle to clear. In one study, in which respondents were given clear definitions of academically dishonest behaviors, such as “writing a paper for another student,” or “copying answers from a text or other source instead of doing the work independently,” 75 percent of students admitted to at least one of the pre-defined cheating behaviors over the course of their college career—an uncomfortably large percentage.

After clearly identifying the problem, Lang presents his solutions for combatting the cheating epidemic:

First, teachers should be focused on encouraging mastery rather than performance on assessments. When Lang looked at research on how teacher’s goals for their students  influence cheating, he found that there are two types of learners, mastery- and performance-oriented. According to Lang, mastery-oriented students “pursue understanding,” whereas performance-oriented students hope to “demonstrate their ability.” When students are more focused on their grade point average than the material they are supposed to be learning, they are much more likely to cheat. Worse, when students compete with each other around grades, they are far more likely to put their energy into demonstrating their ability than to pursue their own individual understanding of the material. If we want to curb student cheating, we should be aiming higher than the carrot and stick of grades and assessments and engage our students in learning for learning’s sake.

This relates to another cause of cheating, in Lang’s view: high-stakes testing. According to Lang, “The more pressure you load onto an exam or assessment of any kind, the more you are likely to have students who respond to that pressure with academically dishonest measures.” We all yearn to be seen as competent and smart, but when the consequences of one assessment can means the difference between graduation and flipping burgers at minimum wage, the temptation to cheat can overwhelm the better angels of our otherwise morally stalwart nature.

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Jessica Lahey is a contributing writer for The Atlantic and an English, Latin, and writing teacher. She writes about education and parenting for The New York Times and on her website, and is the author of the forthcoming book The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed.

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