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.
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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.

Another factor that affects cheating is self-efficacy—as Lang puts it, when students have “a belief in their ability to succeed.” Lang reports that students with low self-efficacy “are more likely to resort to cheating.” This is where a teacher’s attitude and approach to education really becomes a vital part of a student’s success. Kids need to feel that someone – anyone – believes in them, even when they don’t believe in themselves. Self-efficacy, according to Lang, means “students have to believe that they have the skills or knowledge necessary to succeed on the task” and “they have to believe that when they sit down to complete that task, they will be able to do so.” I’ve taught students who drove me up the wall with their lack of effort and casual disregard for learning, only to figure out that they were waiting for me to prove that I had faith in their potential.

Even in the toughest cases, teachers need to find opportunities to praise student effort. One such student, whose stubborn refusal to do any work in my class morphed into a career favorite when he handed me just such an opportunity in the form of a thoughtful essay, and from that moment on, our relationship shifted from one of mutual frustration to mutual respect.

In order to earn our place at the front of a cheating-free classroom, educators are going to have to own our share of the blame for the atmosphere of high-stakes testing and extrinsic rewards that we’ve created. Cheating is not solely the fault of our students or the declining ethical standards of the millennial generation, but a product of our testing-oriented and performance-obsessed culture. The American educational system should focus on the handing down of knowledge and skills rather than test preparation and administration. The same conditions that encourage cheating discourage our students’ mastery of content and skills. And while we waste our time attempting to catch cheaters in the act of deception, we are distracted from our higher goal: catching students in the act of learning.  

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Jessica Lahey is a contributing writer for The Atlantic and a former English, Latin, and writing teacher. She writes about education and parenting for The New York Times and on her site, Coming of Age in the Middleand 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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