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Academic Integrity: Cheat or Be Cheated?

Denise Pope, Ph.D.

Senior Lecturer, Stanford University Graduate School of Education
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Stories of cheating in schools often make national headlines and are frequently met with widespread shock. How could such actions occur on the campuses of elite colleges and high schools? What's going on with kids these days?

A Culture of Desperation

It's easy for us to throw up our hands and say this behavior is the inevitable outcome of our students seeing questionable standards and dishonesty in sports, government and businesses. Yet Challenge Success, the organization I co-founded at Stanford University, doesn’t subscribe to the conventional wisdom that this is a societal issue too large to combat. From our own work with schools and our white paper reviewing 15 years of research on academic integrity, we have found that schools can use a number of effective strategies to reduce cheating rates.

Indeed, the numbers are sobering, and the problem is widespread. Several studies indicate that 80 to 95 percent of high school students admit to engaging in some form of cheating. Kids still cheat in familiar ways -- copying from another kid's paper or sneaking in a cheat sheet on exam day -- but students are also cheating in new ways, using technology to plagiarize essays or text test answers. They stay home on the day of a test or forge excuses from parents or doctors to gain more study time. Research also shows that academic integrity is a predicament on both ends of the achievement spectrum -- both high achievers and low achievers cheat. And, though students typically know that what they're doing is wrong, they justify their actions by saying that they just "didn’t have a choice -- it’s cheat or be cheated." They feel enormous pressure to get the grades and test scores they believe they'll need for future success, and they know the high stakes that are tied to their assessments.

5 Steps Toward Academic Integrity

So what can be done? We offer the following suggestions to help create a climate of academic integrity and curb cheating behavior in high school:

Strive for Buy-In of Honest Academic Practices

Launch school-wide discussions about expectations for integrity. Encourage students, parents and educators to work together to establish clear and consistent policies for handling infractions. Some schools have created an honor code -- a school-wide agreement about ethical behavior -- that parents sign in September and students sign each time they turn in an assignment, quiz or exam. Schools have also had success with student-led judicial boards and peer-to-peer counseling and intervention.

Emphasize Mastery and Learning Over Performance and Grades

Research clearly shows the benefits, including reduced rates of cheating and higher achievement, when students focus on learning the material in-depth and on mastering skills, instead of just cramming for tomorrow's test. One good way to focus on mastery is to encourage problem- and project-based learning where students have some choice over the content and can demonstrate their knowledge in multiple ways. When students turn in drafts of papers and projects, and when you monitor their progress over time, they are less likely to cheat and more likely to master the skills you're teaching them.

Establish a Climate of Care

When students perceive that the teacher knows them as individuals, cares about them, and cares about integrity, they are less likely to cheat. Focusing on students' social and emotional learning can improve the classroom climate and lead to several related benefits, including students who feel like they belong, are more competent, and want to put in the effort to do well -- all characteristics that are related to lower cheating rates.

Revise Assessment and Grading Policies

Instead of relying predominantly on unit tests, which may increase the pressure to cheat due to their high stakes, try using different ways to determine students' knowledge and skills, offering them more opportunities to shine. A mix of essays, projects, presentations, think-alouds, etc., along with traditional tests and quizzes, may more accurately reflect a student's knowledge and can reduce the anxiety (and subsequent urge to cheat) that may come from major exams. Schools have also reduced cheating by revising policies on late work, eliminating "zero" scores and class rankings, and allowing test corrections and occasional ungraded assignments.

Reduce Workload without Reducing Rigor

Since research shows that stressed-out and exhausted students may be more likely to cheat, schools should consider abiding by the "less is more" rule. Determine how much homework is really necessary, and be sure that students understand the purpose of each assignment. Avoid scheduling multiple tests and projects at the same time, allowing students enough time to study and complete their work without feeling the need to cut corners.

It's easy to blame societal issues for what appears to be an increase in academic dishonesty. However, the better course of action would be helping our schools change the "cheat to compete" mentality. The vodcast above details how schools have implemented these five suggestions to help foster more ethical communities. Please share your own experiences and solutions in the comments section.

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Hifi's picture
Character Education Researcher and Critic

Emphasize Mastery and Learning Over Performance and Grades. Ya think? Humans are smart and most of all efficient. If the goal is grades, they will find the most direct path.

Best thing that ever happened to me personally was attending a college where all classes were pass-fail. The emphasis was all on participation. No reason to be in the classroom at all if you didn't want to learn and participate, you could still pass. This was after dropping out of my first semester at a regular university years earlier where I found that I didn't need to attend class at all to excel because the tests were based strictly on the textbooks, and I was an expert test taker. Read the chapter the night before, take the test, get the best grade in the class, and forget it all the next day!

Jamie Lee Linker's picture

It really is so true, and sad really, that people feel as though cheating is just inevitable. I feel like this is only the case because we have allowed our students to do so. I'm not saying that teachers haven't tried to prevent cheating, but with technology these days we don't have any excuses. When I began pursuing my Psychology Degree at Regent University, I noticed very quickly that they had a very strict Honor Code. Not only did almost every assignment I submit have me electrically sign a pledge that I didn't cheat, but there were also special databases they used in order to make sure we didn't cheat. Our assignments, mostly research papers, would go through a certain database where our papers would be compared to other papers submitted by other students at regent, as well as articles, books, blogs and basically anything you can find on the internet. This would ensure that people wouldn't cheat or plagiarize. Who would honestly have the guts to steal their sister's old term paper or copy and paste a paragraph from a Google search when there is a possibility that when you submit your paper into that database, your teacher would know instantly. I feel like this is such a good way for students to be held accountable. It makes them too afraid to cheat, and sometimes fear is the only way to stop someone from doing something wrong. With technology these days, it should be very easy to prevent cheating; However, there are always ways around everything. And as teachers, we must try and help our students succeed. If we make sure that they have enough time to get assignments done in ample time, and we have made sure to cover all of the material in class so that the student truly understand the material, then students wouldn't feel the need to cheat. This was a really good article. I enjoyed it. Thank you!

kbfcs4's picture

I was really intrigued by this article. Cheating in my high school classroom has been on the rise the last several years, in forms such as copying work, cheating on tests, or looking up answers on cellphones.
It forced me to create several different versions of each test and add a clause to my syllabus that discuss my views on academic dishonesty and the consequences for it. However, it has not decreased the rate of cheating as I had hoped.
The part of the post that connected with me was the section on encouraging mastery and learning over performance and grades. This is something I have done for many years. I emphasize the skill of finding information, knowing where to look for information, rather than simple memorization. I teach my students that in the 'real world' knowing where to look for help or how to use the information in more important than memorizing or completing.
However, the rate not seeming to decrease, I am working on an academic dishonesty contract that the students and their parents will sign together.

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