Why Cheat? More Importantly, Why Not?

Reports of academic dishonesty – within prestigious universities, on high school exit exams, by authors of bestselling books – have been widespread this fall. In the wake of cheating, academic communities rush to bolster or clarify disciplinary procedures. New or repeated sessions about proper citation techniques are added to the curriculum. Teachers ask students to leave backpacks at the door and phones on the front desk.

Then we all pause and ask, “Why?”

The answers may vary slightly each time, but they usually include some variation of the following:

“I just didn’t have time to really ‘do’ the work.”
“Because I could – it is so easy.”
“I don’t care about the material – it’s totally irrelevant to my life.”
“The teacher doesn’t even care or check.”

And most often:

“Because I can’t mess up.”

In our current high stakes system where every test or assignment seems to be a critical step on the pathway to adult success, students frequently feel that they have no room for error. The process of learning the material pales in comparison to the importance of earning a top grade. In addition, they may doubt their own ability to accomplish the task. Combine fear with some doubt, and copying someone else’s ideas may seem like a pretty good option.

How can we help students become invested in the process of learning as much as, if not more than, in the product? How do we help students develop authentic confidence in their own competence? How can we help students take more pride in and responsibility for their own effort?

Beyond the work we are doing at Challenge Success, there is a solid and rapidly growing body of research exploring these questions. Carol Dweck, Angela Duckworth, James Heckman, and Eric Anderman are just a few people actively investigating what is often referred to as ‘character education.’ The research is varied, but three suggestions for educators and parents consistently emerge:

  1. Foster intrinsic motivation.
  2. Encourage persistence in face of failure.
  3. Nurture grit and stick-to-it-ness in pursuit of mastery.

While I still grapple with cheating incidents each year, I have tried to honor the ideas above in multiple ways. I let learners design projects, write some of their own test questions, and choose areas to explore. Students are allowed to revise and resubmit assignments multiple times. I involve students in creating assessment standards, participating in peer evaluation, and developing self-evaluation skills. With every task, I ask them, “So what? How might this relate to your life outside school?” Any time they can connect outside interests to something we investigate in class, I cheer. At school and at home, we talk about people who display integrity and people who don’t. We discuss why they might have made the choices they did and what we might have done in a similar situation. Was the short-term reward worth the long-term result?

Learners need to feel some authentic connection to and engagement in a task, they need to recognize small failures as a healthy aspect of the learning process, and they need to develop an understanding that true mastery and pursuit of a passion may take years. Essentially, we need to help each individual find her own answer to the question, “Why not cheat?”

Stephanie Rafanelli is both a school coach and a parent education facilitator for Challenge Success. Stephanie has been a middle school science and math teacher for nineteen years. In addition to almost two decades in the classroom, she has served as department chair, both academic and also grade level Dean, a parent and faculty educator, and a leader of curriculum reform. She has founded and run several summer and afterschool programs such as Sally Ride Science Camp for Girls and Menlo Summer Explorations. Stephanie is an educational consultant for multiple organizations. When she is not thinking about education, Stephanie is usually creating chaos with her three children.

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