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3 Top Reasons Why Students Cheat

Gary Niels on Cheating - Part 1

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Boy looking at girl's paper

Boy Looking at Girl's Paper

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Editor's Note: Gary Niels is Head of Winchester Thurston School in Pittsburgh and the author of a very useful paper on cheating entitled Academic Practices, School Culture and Cheating Behavior. I am grateful to him for answering my questions. This is Part One of the interview with Mr. Niels. - Robert Kennedy

"Everybody does it." "Unrealistic demands for academic achievement by state education boards" "Expediency or the easy way out" are some of the reasons why students cheat. Are there other reasons of which you are aware?

The first thing to recognize about cheating is that the vast majority of young people (and adults for that matter) believe that cheating is wrong. Yet, by nearly every poll, most young people cheat at least once in their high school career. So, the most important question is why do young people behave in ways that are inconsistent with their stated beliefs? I believe the answer to this lies in a survival instinct. I am not a psychologist, but I believe there is a mechanism within each of us which triggers a need to "save face." Saving face can mean a desire to save oneself from the angry assault of a parent or teacher; it can mean avoiding embarrassment; it can mean economic survival or a perceived pressure be it self-inflicted or inflicted by some other extraneous force. Nowadays, college acceptance is the major instigator of this survival instinct.

Of course, the survival instinct isn't the only reason young people cheat. They might cheat because they find a lesson or a course to be meaningless -having no perceived relevance to their lives. They might also cheat because they belief something is unfair, so feel justified in cheating.

Let's examine each one of these reasons in more detail. First of all, "Everybody does it." To me that's like saying everybody cheats on their taxes or lies about their age. Does this signify a lack of moral conviction on the part of society as we head into the new millennium? Are parents setting the wrong example for their children?

Historically, sociologists and psychologists have studied cheating behavior under the classification of aberrant or deviant behavior. Psychologists and sociologists have applied theories of deviant behavior in order to understand cheating. However, cheating is no longer deviant behavior; it is now normal behavior. This change poses a significant challenge for those who seek to establish academic integrity in a school environment since the "student code" is stronger to break and is more prevalent. As for the role of parents, I'd like to come back to that a little later.

The demand for accountability has created a clamor for state testing of students. The pressures are enormous on both students and teachers. How widespread do you think cheating is in this area? Does state testing ipso facto encourage cheating to achieve acceptable results?

Although I cannot excuse it, I understand why an educator might find state testing to offer an unbearable pressure to cheat by in some way giving your students an unfair advantage. If you tell a school administrator that his school's existence or employment might hinge on his students' performance on a test, I believe you are tempting fate. Most human beings have a breaking point and when anything threatens a person's livelihood, income and/or social status, you put them in a survival mode. In other words, as you threaten that individual's existence, you tempt them to reach their moral breaking point.

Cheating offers an easy way out. Why bother studying hard and doing all those term papers by yourself if you can use somebody else's work? Would you agree that expediency is a major reason for cheating?

Expediency might be one reason for cheating, but I'm not sure its the main reason. In fact, strangely, young people will sometimes go to greater lengths to cheat than to study for a test. Occasionally, this is due to boredom. Studies indicate that there is a high correlation between certain pedagogical practices and cheating behavior: lack of clarity in a lesson, perceived lack of relevance, and too few tests offered in a grading period are just a few examples. I've even wondered at times if cheating isn't some form of student protest against certain types of curricular or pedagogical factors. One mathematics teacher had an interesting insight into a student who had gone to elaborate lengths to program his calculator to outsmart his teacher.

"I can't help but believe that a student who is so capable in using technology, couldn't ace an Algebra test. Also, I find when I prepare a test with calculator use, I emphasize the problem solving aspect, not the calculation. Those real world applications which we are encouraged by (the NCTM) Standards to employ in our classes actually defeat the need to cheat in classes, or don't provide the opportunity to cheat."

Without wishing to appear to be blaming teachers, it is necessary to point out that the way we present our curricula and the type of assessments that we offer can influence cheating behavior. We need to demonstrate to students why it is important for them to know the material we are presenting and the purpose it will serve in the bigger context of their studies and lives.

Continued on page 3.

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