Righting The Wrong

By Tom Roebuck

June 5, 2009 5 min read


Cheating has changed, but the reasons haven't

Tom Roebuck

Creators News Service

Life in the classroom changes along with the times. Students of all ages now show up to school with cell phones, as text messaging has replaced passing notes for the best way to relay juicy gossip, and computers are as common as chalkboards.

However, all of the latest technology has not been effective in preventing one of the biggest threats to academic achievement: cheating. In fact, it's probably gotten worse.

Surveys on cheating that allow students to answer anonymously indicate that at least 50 percent have engaged in some type of cheating. Some surveys go as high as 80 percent. Those alarming numbers tell us that it's not just a few bad apples that are too lazy to do their own work, or that it's something that only happens in public schools. In 2008, a scandal shocked Harvard-Westlake, a top-tier private school in Los Angeles, when six students were expelled for stealing two midterm exams.

It's a problem that requires attention from everyone involved in the education process, including administrators, teachers, parents and the students themselves.

Gary Niels is the head of school at Winchester Thurston School, a private school in Pittsburgh, and the author of an acclaimed paper on cheating, "Academic Practices, School Culture and Cheating Behavior." He wrote it more than 10 years ago, but the issue clearly isn't going away: He said he still gets calls about it at least once a month.

In the year it took him to research the paper, his views on the origins of this behavior were turned upside down. It disturbed him that 90 percent of students claimed that cheating was wrong, yet so many kids still cheated.

"What is it about the academic environment that causes kids to behave in ways that are inconsistent with their stated moral beliefs?" Niels asked. "Going into this I really believed that cheating was solely a moral issue. So if a kid cheated, it was because their convictions weren't strong enough. I came out on the other end saying that certainly moral factors were involved in kids' decisions. But, in fact, the highest correlation of cheating occurred with classroom academic environment behaviors, usually of the teacher."

Niels found several factors that increased the likelihood that cheating would occur. Among them were fact-based classes, where students simply regurgitate information; courses where kids don't understand the relevance of the curriculum; classes that have fewer evaluation instruments, like a trimester course with one pressure-packed exam; and teachers who don't relate well with students.

"If the teacher is impersonal and demanding, the students are more likely to cheat in those situations than when the teacher is personable and the kids understand the relevance of the course," Niels said.

Naturally, parents want their children to succeed in school. But if their expectations become unrealistic, that can pressure the student to cut some corners, so parents should keep things in perspective, advised Kat Eden, director of community management for education.com.

"Kids we know often cheat because they see it as the only way they could possibly measure up to the expectations that their parents or their school puts around them. So I think one thing to do is avoid applying too much pressure," Eden said. "It's great to have high expectations for your kids, but the key is that they know that you expect them to do their best, not to be the best."

With scandals surrounding corporate boardrooms and seemingly every sport, it's no wonder that kids pick up a win-at-all-costs attitude.

"Kids are going to be hearing from their coaches and from sports stars that they should do whatever it takes to win, so you can't blame them for applying that to the classroom," Eden said. "If they're hearing, 'Do whatever it takes to win,' then whatever it takes to win for them might be cheating."

Despite the best efforts of teachers and parents, most students will engage in at least one act of cheating by the time they graduate from high school. If parents are informed that their child has been caught, they should find out why they felt they needed to cheat.

"Is the workload too much? Is there just too much homework for them to get done at night and they feel they have to cheat?" Eden said. "They definitely should experience a negative consequence for cheating, but they should also know that you're going to help with the bigger picture so they don't need to cheat again."

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