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Cheated Out of Learning

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Experts Say Focus Must Go Beyond Scores To Keep Students From Taking Shortcuts

From grade school to grad school, students are taking shortcuts in record numbers, sparking an epidemic of cheating — and in the process shortchanging themselves and the system.

Student cheating has become “prolific,” according to Eric Anderman, an Ohio State University professor who’s director of educational policy and leadership at the university’s College of Education and Human Ecology.

Anderman, an expert on student motivation and cheating behavior, points to the polls as evidence of this epidemic: More than half of the teenagers in the United States have used the Internet to cheat on schoolwork, according to a survey released in June by Common Sense Media. A Josephson Institute poll found an even worse state of affairs, with 64 percent of students having cheated on at least one test in 2008. Other surveys put the cheating levels as high as 80 percent for top-achieving teens and 75 percent among all U.S. college students.

The consequences can be dramatic: This year, Anderman said, an Ohio high school graduation was cancelled when a student hacked into the school’s computer system, stole an exam and distributed it — involving 50 of 97 graduating seniors. And last year, 690 Advanced Placement (AP) tests at a California high school were invalidated because of cheating.

And the problem is not confined to the United States. “From Beijing to Bristol, the rates of academic cheating have skyrocketed,” according to a 2006 Newsweek International story, which offered a depressing litany of examples: Nearly all of India’s ultra-competitive entrance exams have been stolen and sold to students at least once during the past five years; rampant cheating was found in British national exams; and in China students were paying look-alike experts to take important tests for them.

A lot is also known about cheating trends, Anderman said, citing research that cheating increases when students move from elementary to middle school and from middle school to high school. Research also shows that males cheat more often than females, that both impulsive and hard-driving “type A” students cheat more, and that cheating is more common in business studies, engineering and the hard sciences.

In addition, the Internet, cell phones and texting technology have all made cheating much easier. In response, faculty and test administrators now routinely use software that scans for Internet plagiarism. Newsweek International also noted that electronic fingerprints, digital photos and even metal detectors are being deployed to catch cheats.

Yet Anderman says the solution is much simpler. It lies not in the testing but in the teacher — and not taking cell phones away from students but rather giving them inner reasons that make cheating unattractive.

“We know when kids cheat, why kids cheat and how kids cheat. [And] we know how to motivate kids so that they are much less likely to cheat,” said Anderman, outgoing president of the educational psychology division with the American Psychological Association. Anderman spoke at the association’s August convention, where he gave his keynote address on how to stop the cheating. He believes there’s a solution to the cheating epidemic that is simple, cheap and effective — so why aren’t more schools doing it?

Answer Cheat Sheet Cheating or not cheating is a matter of motivation, Anderman argues, and students who want to master a subject for personal and inner reasons are less likely to cheat. These students typically say things like, “I just really want to learn this stuff because it’s interesting,” or “It’s important for me to know this material so I can get into college … so I can become a writer … so I can become a doctor,” etc.

On the other hand, students who want to perform well to look good for external reasons are more likely to cheat. These students say things like, “I need to keep my mom or dad happy,” or “If I make straight A’s they’ll give me 0,” or “It’ll look better if I’m on the honor roll.”

A classroom climate will encourage either inner mastery or external performance — and the teacher is the one who determines this, Anderman emphasized. Thus teachers are, often unwittingly, ramping up or damping down cheating every day.

“A performance teacher will talk about grades all the time and will say, ‘Learn this for the test Friday.’ He or she will compare high-performing students to low-performing ones, and put only the best papers on the bulletin board,” Anderman explained.

According to a survey Anderman developed for his research, students in a classroom focused on performance externals are likely to say things like, “My teacher points out students who get good grades as an example to all of us, or calls on smart students more.”

In contrast, Anderman says, “In a mastery classroom, the teacher will focus on the importance of the subject matter, not the testing. All the students in a class will have an opportunity to shine for something they’ve learned, and papers on the bulletin board will include ‘the most improved,’ ‘the most creative,’ papers showing hard work, or papers without grades on them.”

Thus in a mastery classroom, students are likely to say their teacher “wants us to understand our work, not just memorize it,” or “wants us to enjoy learning new things,” or “recognizes us for trying hard.”

In his research, Anderman also demonstrated that when a group of students moves from a performance classroom to a mastery classroom, cheating goes down. Vice versa, when teachers emphasize performance ratings over mastering the subject matter, cheating goes up.

Is Anderman dreaming an impossible dream in today’s climate of mandatory and frequent testing, in which low-scoring schools are penalized and college admissions are highly competitive?

He insists not. “This is not about getting rid of tests. It’s about the day-to-day focus in the classroom,” he said. “I argue that you can teach the same material and kids can learn it without talking about testing all day long. For example, you can tell a class to memorize the plot of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ for a test on Friday, or you can break them into groups and tell each to act out an alternative ending to the play. The acting groups will have to learn the plot.

“If you reward only the students with the best test scores,” Anderman continued, “the ones with the top scores are tempted to cheat to stay ahead and the ones with the low scores are tempted to cheat to get attention and look good. If a classroom is all about testing, students are more likely to cheat.”

So what can parents do to discourage cheating? “Think about how much stress they’re putting on grades,” Anderman advised. “Rather than ask, ‘What grade did you get?’ ask ‘What did you learn?’ Say, ‘Tell me something really cool you learned in chemistry today, something interesting.’”

Anderman says parents can also be more vigilant about what’s happening in the classroom. “Look at what’s posted on the bulletin boards. If necessary, ask teachers in a gentle way to talk more about why an assigned book is important and not just emphasize the testing.”

About the Author

Carolyn Cosmos is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on July 7, 2014