[cross-posted from Connected Principals]

Cheating is a plague upon schools across our nation, and it appears to be on the rise.   During my time visiting schools, 21 in all, private and public, during my 2008 good high school blogging project, I often observed cheating– sometimes blatant, “public,” shameless cheating in front of me.     But as severe as this problem is, it is not impossible for us as educators to respond, redirect, and resolve the crisis of cheating.

Two recent articles have recently surfaced the issue.   First, in Edweek’s section “Focus on Student Behavior,” Sarah Sparks has a piece entitled Studies Shed Light on How Cheating Impedes Learning.   Second, the APA (American Psychological Association) published a piece by Amy Novotney last spring with the appealingly succinct title, “Beat the Cheat.”

The two pieces overlap in the research they cite, the findings they report, and the recommendations they make.  Both are constructed with strong research  foundations; see their original pieces for the evidentiary basis of the claims quoted below.

Both are compelling, emphatic, and appalling in their articulation of the epidemic that is cheating.

From Edweek:

Of a nationally representative sample of more than 40,000 public and private high school students responding to the survey, 59.4 percent admitted to having cheated on a test—including 55 percent of honors students.

It continues, even worsens, in college.

From the APA:

 researchers found that nearly 82 percent of a sample of college alumni admitted to engaging in some form of cheating as undergraduates.

Cheating is not only, obviously, indicative of a deeply disturbing lack of integrity; it can negatively impact the quality of learning for all, students who don’t and students who do cheat.    Edweek:

Emerging evidence suggests students who cheat on a test are more likely to deceive themselves into thinking they earned a high grade on their own merits, setting themselves up for future academic failure. “We see that the effect of cheating is, the more we engage in dishonest acts, the more we develop these cognitive distortions—ways in which we neutralize the act and almost forget how much we are doing it.”

What’s worse still, cheating doesn’t stop on graduation day.  APA:

People who cheat on exams in high school are three times more likely to lie to a customer or inflate an insurance claim compared with those who never cheated. High school cheaters are also twice as likely to lie to or deceive their boss and one-and-a-half times more likely to lie to a significant other or cheat on their taxes.


Moreover, such self-deception can lead to a “death of a thousand cuts” for a student’s honesty, Mr. Stephens said.  “Kids start to disengage [from] responsibility habitually; cheating in high school does lead to dishonesty in the workplace as an adult,” he said.

For all of us who see ourselves as educating the future leaders, the future stewards, and the future innovators of our society and planet, the stakes are rising for the successful outcome of our efforts to end the cheating epidemic.

How do we do so?  Let me share with you five suggestions.

First, Promote healthy school culture and authentic learning.  We must recognize that the roots of cheating lie too often in the culture of the school and the perception by students of their academic enterprise.  If we convey to students that we think their job is exclusively to get good grades, if we frame their success as being defined by their GPA, if we demand or exact their compliance by issuing extrinsic rewards, our school cultures will become cheating cultures.


Ohio State University educational psychologist Eric Anderman found that how teachers present the goals of learning in class is key to reducing cheating. Anderman showed that students who reported the most cheating perceive their classrooms as being more focused on extrinsic goals, such as getting good grades, than on mastery goals associated with learning for its own sake and continuing improvement.  High school students cheat more when.. their motivation in the course is more focused on grades and less on learning and understanding.


Moreover, the more students learn to focus on grades for their own sake, rather than as a representation of what they have learned, the more comfortable they are withcheating.

Second,  Teachers matter enormously, and can have a huge influence over whether their students cheat by their pedagogical choices and styles.   Teachers who take time and make the commitment to develop trusting, strong, personal relationships with their students, view them as unique individuals worthy of respect, and treat them fairly will receive in return greater respect and less cheating.


High school students cheat more when they see the teacher as less fair and caring

But more than that, teachers who seek to genuinely engage students in their learning, and help students to find a personal stake in the work of studying, will also contribute to a decline in cheating culture.


 Studies by Mr. Stephens and others that show students are more likely to cheat when they are under pressure to get high grades, uncertain about their own ability, unengaged in the material, or some combination of the three. In addition, students are better able to justify cheating in classes where they feel the teacher is unfair or does not attempt to engage them in learning.

Third,  we can help make the learning goals transparent.  Why do we have to learn this? and when are we ever going to need to know this?  are familiar questions to everyone who has ever been in a classroom, but what clearly some educators do a better job than others actively seeking to answer these questions effectively, often without waiting to be asked.    When they do, when we go the extra distance to make abundantly clear to students why they should learn this and how they will use it, we will reduce cheating.


Teachers can also help diminish students’ impulse to cheat by explaining the purpose and relevance of every academic lesson and course assignment.

“When students feel like assignments are arbitrary, it’s really easy for them to talk themselves into not doing it by cheating,” Rettinger says. “You want to make it hard for them to neutralize by saying, ‘This is what you’ll learn and how it’s useful to you.’”

Fourth, make integrity expectations explicit.  It may seem hokey, and I know that I sometimes prefer the implicit approaches, but the research demonstrates that calling students attention to our expectations of respect, integrity, and honor do make a meaningful difference.


Making students more aware of the importance of academic integrity and learning, not just grades, can make them less likely to cheat.

In a previous studyRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader, Dan Ariely, a professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke and a co-author of the Harvard-Duke study, found test-takers became less likely to cheat when reminded of a school honor code, or if they saw someone they considered an outsider cheating.

Ms. Chance and Mr. Fremer said teachers and administrators should reduce opportunities for students to cheat, help them establish classwide and schoolwide codes for academic integrity, and then stress the importance of that code before every assignment.


 Professors are also encouraged to explain the importance of academic integrity in their syllabi and to take time during the first week of class to talk about the behaviors that constitute cheating in their courses, as well as the consequences for engaging in those behaviors.

There’s also evidence that focusing on honesty, trust, fairness, respect and responsibility and promoting practices such as effective honor codes can make a significant difference in student behaviors, attitudes and beliefs, according to a 1999 study by the Center for Academic Integrity. Honor codes seem to be particularly salient when they engage students, however. In Shu’s study on the morality of cheating, for example, she found that participants who passively read a generic honor code before taking a test were less likely to cheat on the math problems, though this step did not completely curb cheating. Among those who signed their names attesting that they’d read and understood the honor code, however, no cheating occurred.

“It was impressive to us how exposing participants to an honor code and really making morality salient in that situation basically eliminated cheating altogether,” she says.

At our school, St. Gregory, we make a priority of this particular technique, posting in every room our academic integrity expectation and requiring students to put their signature on every test they take that they have honored the pledge.    It is good and wise that we do so, but in preparing this piece I realize both that it is time for us to review again the particular wording of our code, which strikes me as less than ideal, and to emphasize again our expectations that this pledge be referred to widely and often.

Fifth, Design less cheat-able assessments and assignments.   Remember the research above, cheating is a contagion, and the more opportunities kids have to do it, and the more often it occurs, the more it spreads.  If we reduce or eliminate the opportunity, even a little (and why not a lot), we slow or stop the spread.

Some tests and assignments are plainly easier to cheat on than others: multiple choice more so than essays; factual recall more so than rigorous analysis and application;  same-old, same-old assignments year after year rooted in textbook learning more so than original, authentic tasks rooted in real-world, contemporary issues.    What we can now see is that changing the tests to more authentic, analytic, creative tasks isn’t just an educational imperative for teaching for understanding, it is a moral imperative in battling the plague of cheating and promoting greater academic integrity.

“Open book testing” entails far less cheating than closed book; I think that open computer testing, (aka open internet testing or Open Network Testing) takes this practice to the next level of sophistication and further toward a cheating-proof experience, most of all because teachers are forced to ask richer, google-proof questions and force a higher level of thinking and analysis.

True, students on open networks can still communicate and collaborate with each other, inappropriately: at our school during open computer testing students sign pledge swearing they have not done so.  But what is next for us is to take it to the next level: how can you, how will we, design a test where it is ok for students to collaborate online, and embed that into the expectation, so as to reduce that much further the opportunity for cheating?  This is on our agenda at St. Gregory.

I have only scratched the surface here on the topic of designing assessments to be less “cheat-able.”   We all know that when we monitor student work closely, when we asked for multiple drafts as part of a writing process, when we assign students unique tasks and when we give them greater choice in what they will work upon, we will reduce the cheating temptation.

What is great is that all five of these practices are great practices in their own right, and not only because they will, research demonstrates, “beat the cheat.”  Teaching which is personal, engaging, authentic, and meaningful; teaching which facilitates lasting understanding and transferable application; goals for learning which are comprehensible, relevant, and motivating; integrity which is publicly celebrated and affirmed; tests which are rich and complex: all these are what we want for our schools and our students.  But that these same things are also what will best combat the scourge that is infecting our schools and potentially debilitating the future of our society makes them that much more compelling.

[Photo credit: Creative Commons:  Mr_Steinhttp://www.flickr.com/photos/5tein/2347819903/]