You Decide. Is It Cheating or Clever Studying for Tests?

Look at the following scenarios. As you read through the list, make a mental vote for each one. Is it cheating? Vote yes, no, or it depends. Consider sharing one or more of your thoughts in the comment area.

  1. A student finds a publicly posted version of the unit test online and studies from it.
  2. A student find a free collection of answers to questions in a textbook test bank, and uses that to study for the test.
  3. A student pays a fee for membership to a web site that posts answers to text bank questions for textbooks, using it to study for tests in one or more classes.
  4. A student has a friend who took the class before, so he/she interviews that friend to get tips on what to look for on the test.
  5. A student hires a tutor to help study for a test (I realize most would not consider this cheating, but I include it to set up for the next two).
  6. A student hires a tutor to help study for a test. The tutor subscribes to a web site with answers to textbook test bank questions to use as a resource in tutoring the student.
  7. A student hires a tutor who took the class before (and has copies of the old tests) to help study for a test.
  8. A student buys an instructor copy of a course textbook to gain access to the test bank.
  9. A student uses copies of old tests from the same class to study for a test.
  10. A student uses copies of old tests from the same class to study for an open-book test.
  11. A student steals a copy of the test and studies from it before test day.

Here is my concern with many of these scenarios. There are contexts in which most of these are considered cheating, and others where the instructor is alright with them. In addition, most academic integrity policies do not explicitly address these types of nuanced situations. Context is important. What is considered acceptable in one class is defined as cheating in another. This is often true even when there is a school academic integrity policy.

So, how do we deal with this? I suggest three great places to start.

1. Create Better Assessments

The best way is to create new types of assessments, to be more creative in how we go about tests and measurements in learning organizations. Look at test banks from publishers and you will often see poorly written and often confusing questions. Well-trained educators can usually create better tests on their own.

2. Revisit Grade-Focused Teaching and Learning

Our ultimate goal is to ensure that students maximize their learning, not that they earn a specific grade on a test or quiz. As long as we persist in making courses and school about earning grades, and not about learning new knowledge and skill, we will continue to run into these conundrums. Or, the other option is to create a massively detailed list to do’s and don’ts, but who wants to enforce such a thing and how would they do it?

3. Teach about Academic Integrity and Dishonesty

The reality is that the connected world is changing the way we think about teaching, learning, studying, sharing, collaborating, and cooperating. We live in a world of crowd-sourced knowledge generation, and this impacts how people think about issues like academic integrity. If you were teaching a group of students and gave them a quiz with the 11 statements above, I guarantee you that there would not be consensus on whether each constitutes cheating. At minimum, this means that we need to be more explicit and intentional in teaching about our expectations and the overall concept of academic integrity and academic dishonesty.

7 Experiments in Designing a Mildly Massive Open Online Course

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.

What is Successful Cheating?

If we are going to study cheating as a way to promote a culture of academic honesty and integrity, then it is valuable to agree upon some definitions. This Wikipedia article does an excellence job providing us with some initial definitions for academic cheating, dividing it into eight distinct categories: plagiarism, fabrication, deception, cheating, bribery, sabotage, professional misconduct, and personation.

The purpose of this short article is to offer yet another definition, “successful cheating.” If the goal of cheating is to earn a higher grade, then what is successful cheating?  Before answering this question, I should explain that I’m not condoning cheating.  I’m simply defining successful cheating in comparison to unsuccessful cheating.  I propose a simple working definition for successful cheating that has three important elements.  Successful cheating is an academic act that requires minimal effort, entails little to no chance of getting caught and results in a higher grade than one would have earned without cheating.

  1. It requires minimal effort. If it takes more effort to cheat than it would have to study or complete the assignment, then why cheat?  Interestingly, some people invest enormous amounts of time striving to subvert the system, when it would have been much easier to simply complete the assignment or study for the test/quiz.
  2. There is little to no chance of getting caught. If there is a high risk of getting caught, then the risk is greater than the small chance of being rewarded with a higher grade.
  3. One’s grade is better than if one had not cheated. Consider the scenario where students plagiarize or buy a paper only to discover that they earned a low or even a failing grade.  Chances are that the students could have earned a higher grade with minimal (perhaps close to no) effort.

Again, I’m not arguing that one should cheat or use this as a guide for how well you are cheating. Instead, it is simply a proposed definition for successful cheating.  If you have to spend hours on end cheating, then studying or doing the work offers you just as much potential for a good grade.  If you have a very high chance of getting caught, then you don’t simply risk a low grade.  There may be even more severe consequences.  Or, if the cheating doesn’t give you a better chance of getting a higher grade, then why do it?

Of course, all of this misses the arguably larger fact that cheating reduces one’s chance of learning.