It‘s disheartening when we discover that the work students submitted as representative of their learning is not their own. They may have copied the work of others without attribution. They may have had someone else do the work for them. They may have devised a way to secure test questions in advance or otherwise submitted work that wasn’t a product of their learning. The list could go on.
Of course, many reasons explain why students decide to cheat. Some students have poor time management discipline and run out of time to prepare. Some students believe they need to get a high grade and assume they won’t achieve it on their own. Some students believe others are cheating, and they too must cheat to compete. Other students aren’t interested in what they’re asked to learn, and cheating seems like a workable shortcut. Still others just assume they won’t be caught.
The wide range of forces and factors that lead to cheating argue for more than a single strategy to counter the behavior. We need to think beyond threats, punishments, and logistical strategies that may challenge cheating but fail to address the root causes. Our efforts to counter the behavior needs to be multi-part and responsive to what typically motivates students to cheat. Here are six strategies we can consider, adapt, and adopt.
We can start by being clear about what constitutes cheating. Students typically are aware of the most blatant forms of cheating, but they may not have thought about other behaviors that fall within its definition. We might provide examples, share stories, and engage students in conversations about what cheating is and what it’s not. We might explain legal considerations related to plagiarism and similar issues, depending on the ages of our students. We need to be clear that cheating is dishonest, unacceptable, or a sign of poor judgement. Most importantly, we need to communicate to students that it violates the trust we place in them, trust which is central to our relationship. For many students, this step alone is enough to have them hesitate and reconsider cheating as an option.
A second strategy is to avoid over-emphasizing grades and placing excessive pressure on students to attain them. For example, we need to provide multiple low stakes opportunities for students to demonstrate and measure their learning throughout teaching and learning cycles. We can remind students that grades are intended to reflect their learning; they aren’t the reason for it. Additionally, we need to avoid student-to-student competition that drives status and image, which can leave students feeling pressure to find shortcuts to winning.
A third strategy is to make sure learning is meaningful and purposeful for students. When students are interested in what they’re learning, see utility in skills they develop, and feel ownership for their progress, cheating becomes less attractive. The secret for us is to connect what students are asked to learn, to what we know about them, and to what motivates them to learn. For example, we might give choices about how students will approach their learning, what materials they may use, and how they’ll share and display their work. Of course, when we show interest in what students are learning and sincerely engage with them in the learning process, we create a more authentic and engaging experience.
A fourth approach is to focus on the process of learning over its product or outcome. We can focus our attention on the learning path students experience. We can offer feedback, praise their efforts and strategies, and engage them in conversations about their learning. Even a short conversation can indicate whether a student is learning and where they might be struggling. Interestingly, the more students know how much we know about their learning progress the more difficult is their decision to cheat.
A fifth strategy is to treat cheating as misbehavior and consider teaching over punishment. Cheating, like other misbehavior, is an error in judgement and reflects poor decision-making. We can think about what lesson needs to be learned, not what punishment to exact. Our goal is to have students not repeat the behavior. While there may be consequences, we also need to give students strategies to deal with situations in which they might choose to cheat. As examples, they might come to us for additional assistance, request an extension for submitting a project, or learn better time management strategies.
A sixth and final strategy is to provide structures and supports that discourage cheating. We might construct assessments that have students compose responses rather than select from a list or provided options. We can construct assessments that focus on deeper understanding than dates and facts. We also need to be clear about resources students can and cannot access and use during the assessment. Of course, the more our assessments involve learning performances, explanations, and applications, the more difficult it is to cheat.
As noted earlier, there’s no one way to prevent students from deciding to cheat. Students look for shortcuts for many reasons. However, we can provide a learning environment and community that makes cheating less necessary and attractive. And when cheating happens, we can use it as an opportunity to teach rather than punish.