Design Principles that Promote Learning & Honesty

As part of #cheatmooc (the MOOC that I am currently hosting on Understanding Cheating in Online Learning Environments), we had an excellent guest speaker, Dr. James Lang (You can watch a recorded session here.).  I invited him to speak to the participants (and anyone else who might be interested) as part of our week on the role of instructional design in addressing matters of academic honesty.  Dr. Lang has a refreshing and important perspective on the topic of cheating in academic environments (You may also be interested in reading his articles on the subject in the Chronicle of Higher Education or ordering his new book entitled, Cheating Lessons: Learning from Academic Dishonesty.).  Rather than focusing upon the moral and ethical aspect of cheating, he asks other important questions. Under what conditions are people more or less likely to cheat? Is it possible for us to design learning experiences in such a way that people are less inclined to cheat?  This line of questioning leads us to not simply review the literature on how to decrease cheating.  It also encourages us to think about how to create highly engaging and effective learning environments of all kinds.  With that in mind, here is a summary of what I consider to be important statements from Dr. Lang about the role of design in promoting a culture of academic honesty and integrity.  Just as important, these are also statements about how to design humane and high-impact learning environments.  The statements in bold are quotes or notes from Dr. Lang.  Following each statement is short commentary or reflection from me.

“The degree of student cheating depends upon the structure of the learning environment.”

In many cases, educators blame cheating (as well as failing to learn) on the students.  There is certainly truth to this matter.  After all, educators do not force students to cheat.  At the same time, we all know that one’s environment does have a role to play on a person’s behavior.  If you make the stakes high enough, add intensive competition, mix in a culture that values high marks above high levels of learning and mastery, then you create a space where more people are likely to cheat.  It raises stress levels, and it also happens to make for a less pleasant learning environment.

Design courses that pose a big problem, question, or challenge and you can leverage intrinsic motivation.

This statement from Dr. Lang resonates with my overall philosophy of education. Frequent readers of this blog know that I write often about project-based, inquiry-based, and authentic learning. Dr. Lang posed a simple challenge that fits very well with my philosophy of education.  It is not necessarily teacher-centered or student-centered.  Instead, it is questioned-centered, problem-centered, and/or challenge-centered about to instructional design.  If you are an educator, imagine designing a course from scratch where every unit, even the entire course, was designed around a provocative and important question for society.  Or, imagine units driven by a compelling and important challenge or problem that clearly needs attention in our world and in the lives of the students.  Then what if the rest of the learning experiences (and the types of learning experiences) were designed around those questions, challenges, and problems.  This has a better chance of tapping into some sort of intrinsic motivation in the learners.  It helps them to see the course content as being about more than earning a good grade.  It is about learning something, growing academically to be able to answer the question, seeking solutions to the problem(s), or to face the important challenges set forth in the class.  This helps to create an authentic and potentially high-impact learning community where cheating is less of consideration for many learners.

Imagine if your work was driven by a personal goal of finding a cure for cancer.  Would you be tempted to fake your knowledge about the subject.  Or, what if you had a garden that was getting eaten by wildlife, and you desperately wanted to find a way to keep the animals out.  You would not pretend to research the subject.  You would review the many options available to you, weigh the options, and then make a decision.  You would likely not pretend to research the topic because that would not help you find a solution to the problem.

What if we thought about learning environments more like this?  How might we design them in a way that helps tap into authentic motivations of the learners?  It doesn’t solve all problems, but it certainly makes for a more interesting and meaningful learning experience for all.

Formative assessments can reduce cheating.
Do you want to increase cheating? Design a course with infrequent high stakes tests. 

What is a formative assessment?  I don’t remember where I first heard this, but someone along the way pointed out to me that formative assessments are like the checkup at the doctor.  Summative assessments are like the autopsy.  With the former, you get feedback and can adjust your lifestyle, take the proper medication, or seek the needed procedure to address any heath concerns.  A checkup is preventative and proactive.  It gives the patient and doctor a sense of how the patient is doing with regard to the goal of health and physical wellness.

Why not fill our courses and learning experiences with such checkups?  This provides important data for learner and teacher about how each learner is progressing (or not) toward a given learning goal.  As learner’s progress, such checkups give feedback and confidence that the learner can use to adjust their strategies, the amount of time devoted to the course, etc. As learner’s recognize that they are learning and progressing, they will see less need to cheat or pursue other ways to get the desired grade.  Why cheat if you really know that you can do well on your own?  Some may still cheat.  However, if we set them up for success like this, many will not even think about cheating.

Build early success opportunities and you increase self-efficacy and decrease cheating. Increased self-efficacy can decrease the perceived need to cheat.

When learner’s are confident that they can do something on their own, then they are naturally less likely to pursue a cheating strategy.  If this is the case, then why not find ways to help students gain confidence?  The best way to do that is to give them incrementally more challenging tasks, but starting with simple ones that they can master, providing them with a confidence boost and a motivation to pursue the more challenging tasks.  This works wonderfully for videos, so why not try it in the classroom?  What does this mean for a class?  Well, if the first assignment in the class is worth 10% of the overall grade, then failing it drastically decreases a student’s ability to earn an “A.”  Why not offer practice opportunities that help students learn and gain confidence before giving them such a high stakes assessment?

Frequent testing and assessment reduces cheating
Testing does not just measure learning. It increases learning.

While these statements overlap with some of the others, they point out the idea that tests do not need to be the problem.  Tests are powerful teaching and learning tools, but there is no need to always associate tests with grades.  Why not give learners lots of practice quizzes and tests as a learning device?  As noted by Dr. Lang, there is ample research to show that the simple process of taking and retaking quizzes or tests on a given subject can improve student learning.  These sorts of learning assessments can even be more effective than students studying or reviewing course material in a more traditional way.  Of course, some students catch on to this fact on their own.  Those are the students who turn studying into games and quizzes that they can use on their own or with classmates.  This rehearsal and review with feedback is powerful when it comes to learning something new. As noted by Dr. Lang, “The best way to reduce cheating is to build learning environments where the students learn the material really well.”  So, if this is such a valuable tool for learning, then why not design such quizzes and games right into the course?

Strive to create a culture that values mastery over performance. 

A performance-based culture highlights those who earned the highest grades.  A mastery culture highlights work that demonstrates deep learning.  A performance culture promotes doing whatever it takes to get the highest grade, and a mastery culture puts the focus upon the importance of mastering the content, often by pointing to why it is important outside of the classroom.  Creating a mastery culture can start by looking at the words we use and the way instructions are written.  As I see it, this is where a rubric (that focuses upon measures of mastery) can be much more helpful than an assignment that simply notes how many points equals a particular grade.  As a parent, I’ve seen the importance of this principle as well.  I don’t reward my kids for earning an “A” or a particular grade.  To me, that means very little from the perspective of authentic learning.  Instead, I seek to use encouragements and affirmations that focus upon specific things that they learned.  What if we designed our classes in a way that focused upon and recognized progress toward mastery rather than just scores, points, grades, and ranks?

All of these statements point to the important role that instructional design plays in not only promoting academic honesty, but is creating a rich, meaningful, and honorable learning community.  There is no need to create high-anxiety cut-throat classes that students dread, endure or simply seek to survive.  More students will learn more things if we simply reconsider and redesign the course with a few of these tips from Dr. Lang.  This leads me to a concluding thought, one that Dr. Lang did not address directly, but that I suspect is an important part of the matter.  All of this requires that teachers see themselves as servants of the student.  The educator’s job is not to make things as difficult as possible, but to facilitate a class in such a way that people learn or grow as much as possible (whether this be cognitive, affective, focused upon content acquisition or about developing new skills).  As I see it, teaching with these design considerations requires a teacher who is committed to servant leadership.

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About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is a President of Goddard College, author, podcast host, and blogger. Some of his books include Missional Moonshots: Insights and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, and Adventures in Self-Directed Learning. He is passionate about futures in education; leaner agency, educational innovation, and social entrepreneurship in education.