Last week I visited a high school that has a really spectacular Honor Code. There are no locks on the doors, and all the exams are unproctored. For more than 100 years, kids at this school haven't cheated.
But recently, they did. Under pressure to get their grades up for the next round of college admissions (Early Decision 2), a group of students stole an exam.
These cheaters aren't alone, of course. Kids see cheating everywhere: at school, but also in business and politics. One study shows that more than 60% of 9th and 11th graders say they cheat. In the 1940s, 20% of college students reported cheating, but 75-98% of college students today now report cheating.
We are raising a generation of cheaters. In the past, kids struggling in school were more likely to cheat than high-achievers, but today we've created such a fixed-mindset environment in our schools that it is the college-bound students who are the most likely to cheat as they struggle to reach the seemingly super-heroic levels of achievement required for college admissions. It isn't enough to be a star Ballerina, fluent in Mandarin, student body president, and chief volunteer coordinator: kids today also have all A's. As my best friend, a professor at Northwestern, just posted on Facebook, "when did an 'A minus' become a grade that one can challenge with a straight face and even indignation toward the prof?" It shouldn't be a surprise that kids are willing to cheat when an A- is a disaster (don't even talk to these kids about the nightmare that is a B+).
Why do kids cheat? They report lots of reasons (see below), but cheating is more about fixed-mindsets and perfectionism than anything. Research shows that growth-mindset individuals don't cheat—and they perform better in high school even without cheating.
What parents and teachers can do to discourage cheating:
- Foster the growth-mindset. I think this is the most important thing we can do to stop raising cheaters. To learn more, go here:
- Tell your kids—or your students—where you stand on cheating. Studies show that although children are born with the capacity to be moral, parents and schools need to further nurture and encourage these values. Discuss different kinds of cheating behaviors and talk about why they are self-defeating.
- Make sure your own behavior models the importance of trustworthiness and honesty. Kids who overhear adults bragging about undeclared income on their tax returns or how they talked their way out of speeding tickets may on some level learn that it is similarly okay to cut corners to get good grades.
- Foster a love of the learning process. Research shows that students who believe that their schools and parents value extrinsic variables (performance, GPA) over intrinsic variables (learning, improvement) are more likely to cheat.
- If a student does cheat, ask if it is an isolated incident or part of a larger pattern of dishonesty. Cheating once isn't necessarily reflective of dishonesty overall, and just talking about cheating can often address isolated incidents. But if it seems to be only part of a larger problem, address it as such.
- Teachers need to be supportive, respectful, and fair when dealing with students. Research shows that students will reciprocate with respect in turn, and refrain from cheating. Consistent and fair grading policies also help.
- Emphasize effort over performance. Instead of making your approval contingent upon achievement and grades, stress the importance of effort and growth. Studies show that the more involved and interested students feel in the learning process itself, the less likely they are to cheat.
Kids rob themselves of many things, of course, when they cheat. Their real academic performance, as well as how much they enjoy learning, suffers profoundly. Our society and institutions suffer, too, when people cheat. Kids who cheat in school become more likely to lie on their resumes and cheat at work.
Do you think the kids in your life cheat? If so, why do they do it? What can we do collectively to create a growth-mindset culture devoid of liars, cheaters, and thieves? If you are a high school student, we'd love your comments, too. Have you cheated? Why? What can parents and teachers do to help you be more growth-mindset?
9 Reasons Students Cheat
- Students today are under considerable pressure to achieve; studies show that these pressures can lead to cheating.
- Peers have a tremendous influence. Peer groups can both teach academic dishonesty and provide support for it: studies show that one of the top reasons they cheat is because other kids do it.
- Knowing that others are cheating can create another form of pressure on already stressed-out kids: the non-cheater feels disadvantaged. In this way, dishonesty can become perceived as an acceptable or necessary way of getting ahead (or just keeping up).
- The academic environment can also influence how pervasive cheating is. Research shows that when kids believe that their school or classroom stresses performance goals—their primary academic task is to get a good grade or demonstrate one's ability to others—kids start to believe that cheating is acceptable, and they report higher incidences of cheating.
- Students who tend to self-handicap (those who do things to make it look like external factors are responsible for their poor performance, like blaming others and making excuses when they are intentionally not trying hard) are also more likely to cheat. Both self-handicapping and cheating are used by students who are concerned about looking incompetent.
- Teens who worry about school are also more likely to say they cheat.
- Whether or not a school has a clearly articulated Honor Code makes a significant difference. Not surprisingly, schools that lack clear policies about what constitutes cheating have more problems with more academic dishonesty.
- Similarly, students are more likely to cheat when they feel that there is little chance of getting caught, that the penalties for cheating are inconsequential, or that faculty don't whole-heartedly support academic integrity. Students who observe that cheating is overlooked or treated lightly by teachers are more likely to cheat just to "keep up" with other students (who are also presumably cheating).
- Finally, students with poor study habits and time management skills more often feel the need to cheat just to keep up.
© 2009 Christine Carter, Ph.D.
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