Students and faculty at Harvard note that the campus is "in shock" over the recent accusation that 125 students cheated on a final exam last spring. Parents at Stuyvesant High School are stunned to learn that 66 students were accused of using cell phones to cheat during an exam. But those of us who research student behaviors aren't surprised by the latest cheating scandals. We hear stories like these all the time.
In fact, 97% of the high school students in our Challenge Success survey admitted to cheating at least once during the past year, and 75% admitted to cheating four or more times.
Many students point to examples of cheaters on Wall Street, in government, sports and show business, and tell us that the standards for honesty are different these days: "Everybody cheats."
The problem is so prevalent and widespread that many parents and educators tend to throw up their hands in defeat. But we know something can be done about the rampant cheating in schools. We reviewed the research on cheating from the past 15 years and summarize our findings here to show you what really goes on inside the classroom and to help you find ways to increase honesty and integrity in your homes and schools:
Finding No. 1: The numbers are sobering, and the problem is indeed widespread. Several studies indicate that from 80% to 95% of high-school students admit to engaging in some form of cheating.
Finding No. 2: Kids still cheat in the old-fashioned ways that we saw when we were young -- copying from another kid's paper or sneaking in a cheat sheet on exam day, but kids are also cheating in new ways, often using technology to text answers to friends or download a paper from the Internet and turn it in as their own. For example, in an online survey with more than 1,000 teenage students, the Benenson Strategy Group (2009) found that 35% of teens who had cell phones reported using them to cheat at least once, and 52% reported that they had cheated by using the Internet.
Finding No. 3: High-achievers and low-achievers cheat. Don't assume that this only goes on in the low level classes. Cheating happens in all levels and all grades from elementary to college, with the peak in high school.
Finding No. 4: Students often know that what they are 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 pressured to get good grades, they have too much work to do and too little time, and they know that the likelihood of getting caught is pretty low.
Finding No. 5: Cheating can often be predicted. Students cheat more when they believe that their teachers and parents care more about the grades than that learning is taking place. Students are also less likely to cheat when they believe their teachers are competent and that they care about them as individuals.
So where does this leave us? Can anything be done to turn this situation around?
Educators can take a number of steps to improve academic integrity in their schools. They can strive for schoolwide buy-in for integrity and honest academic practices, emphasize mastery and learning more than performance and grades, encourage multiple drafts and project-based learning where kids are less likely to cheat, and create a caring classroom climate.
Parents can play an important role as well. We urge parents to try the following:
Model integrity and maintain high standards for honesty: Discuss with your child the importance of integrity and that cheating will not be tolerated.
Watch how you talk about grades: Students tell us that they know that cheating is wrong, but they don't want to let their parents down by bringing home a low grade. Instead of asking, "How did you do on the test?" -- which emphasizes grades and performance -- ask whether your child felt prepared for the exam, what is she most proud of, and what might she do differently next time.
Avoid external rewards for schoolwork: Some parents offer rewards such as money or privileges for students who complete their work and bring home good grades. This may reinforce the importance of grades without an emphasis on mastery and effort. Instead, try praising hard work and effort and help your child focus on intrinsic motivation - doing something to satisfy curiosity, find enjoyment and a feeling of pride after exerting effort.
Encourage positive school identity and belonging: Students who are more engaged in school and feel like they belong are less likely to cheat. Encourage your child to get involved with school activities, seek friends at school and get to know teachers and administrators.
Respond appropriately if your child is accused of cheating: If your child is accused of cheating, resist the immediate urge to take a side or lose your temper.
Ask your child to explain his/her side of the story and schedule an appointment with the teacher and administrator or counselor at the school to hear their account. Seek consensus about what happened and how to handle it. Emphasize that you will not tolerate cheating, and try to brainstorm more positive coping strategies with your child. Throughout the process, remind your child that you love him/her no matter what, and use the incident as a teachable moment.
It's both easy and logical to blame societal issues for what appears to be an increase in academic dishonesty.
However, at Challenge Success, we have effectively worked with school communities to combat the acceptance of a "cheat to compete" environment. When parents and educators engage in meaningful conversations with their kids about the importance of academic honesty, and follow the suggestions above, they can help foster more ethical communities. For more information, visit challengesuccess.org to download our organization's newly released white paper on academic integrity.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Denise Pope.
Editor's note: Denise Pope, Ph.D., is a senior lecturer at the Stanford University School of Education. She is co-founder of Challenge Success, a research and intervention project that provides schools and families the tools they need to raise healthy, motivated students. Her book, "Doing School: How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed Out, Materialistic, and Miseducated Students" (Yale University Press, 2001) was awarded Notable Book in Education by the American School Board Journal, 2001.