Academic Integrity: Cheat or Be Cheated?

April 11, 2014
Photo Credit: Challenge Success

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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  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • Teaching Strategies

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