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Jul 13, 201201:37 PMEducation Matters

The Slippery Slope of Cheating

Jul 13, 2012 - 01:37 PM
The Slippery Slope of Cheating

A few months ago, one of my teenage daughter’s friends accidently left her cell phone behind in a classroom. The teacher found it and was dismayed by what he saw on the message screen.

The friend had texted another student to ask how a test for the class had gone earlier that day. That student had texted back to say that the test wasn’t too hard. She mentioned that her friend should study a certain topic.

Was that cheating?

The teacher certainly thought so and contacted the parents of the two girls, both good students with strong academic records.

When I discussed the incident with my daughter, I was surprised to find out that she and her classmates disagreed that the messages were a form of cheating. Everyone asks each other about tests, she says. And she didn’t seem too bothered by the fact that one student had basically given another student an advantage that she herself didn’t have when she took the test.

My daughter did, however, admit to feeling uncomfortable and being evasive if classmates pressed too hard for test details.

The students’ attitudes are troubling because they signify a slippery slope—a sort of moral relativity—when it comes to gauging cheating. And news of a 2010 study on academic honesty didn’t provide much comfort.

The study of 100 juniors at a large Midwestern high school found that many of those students cheated on tests and homework and in some cases, like the situation with the cell phone, didn’t find cheating out of line.

Only 47 percent of students participating in the study by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln said that “providing test questions to a fellow student who had yet to take a test was academically dishonest, and nearly seven out of 10 admitted to doing so,” according to a university news release.

“The results suggest that students' attitudes are tied to effort. Cheating that still required students to put forth some effort was viewed as less dishonest than cheating that required little effort," said Kenneth Kiewra, professor of educational psychology and one of the study's authors.

Kiewra goes on to say that “divulging test answers was likely perceived more dishonestly” than “divulging test questions because receiving test questions still requires some effort to uncover the answer.”

The researchers also found that most of the study participants had cheated on tests and homework, and that they carried “misperceptions about academic dishonesty.” Students’ perceptions were less defined about what constitutes cheating when it comes to homework and work outside of class, the study found.

For example, just 23 percent thought that doing homework with someone else was dishonest and only 39 percent said that writing a report based on a movie instead of reading a book wasn’t cheating.

These results raise the question of whether students really understand what constitutes cheating—beyond the obvious glancing at someone else’s exam for answers—especially in a world where they see so many examples of adults who cheat. Think of this week’s news about a “shadow campaign” that secretly poured more than $650,000 into the 2010 mayoral race in Washington, D.C.

An ABC News Primetime report in April found that pressure to get good grades—or the ends justifying the means—is a strong motivator for high school and college students who admitted to cheating.  And that the use of technology—such as a cell phone and the Internet—can make it that much easier.

No local Montgomery County public high schools reported “serious” incidents of academic dishonesty during the 2010-2011 school year, but is that just because kids weren’t caught? 

So what should we do?

Educators say we need to make sure that our kids understand that they are short-changing themselves when they cheat.

"We need to promote integrity. We need to get students to understand why integrity is important — as opposed to policing dishonesty and then punishing that dishonesty. Because they can beat the system," Professor Don McCabe, the head of the center for academic integrity at Rutgers University in New Jersey, told Primetime.

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