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What might we learn from cheaters?

College students’ self-reports of cheating  have remained stubbornly high over the past five decades, with anywhere from 60 to 80 percent of students having admitted to violating one kind of academic integrity principle or another. What, besides its ubiquity, can be said of this startling phenomenon?

One of the most recent contributors to the conversation of academic integrity in college is James M. Lang, Associate Professor of English at Assumption College and author of Cheating Lessons: Learning from Academic Dishonesty (2013). In his book, Lang argues that faculty and administrators need to pay attention to the environmental factors that might influence the tendency of students to cheat in any given course.  He identifies four structural forces in an educational environment that might contribute to a student’s willingness to cheat (italics in original):

    1. An emphasis on performance;

      Photo of student cheating

      A student using a cheat sheet. Photo by Mr_Stein (Flickr)

    2. high stakes riding on the outcome;
    3. an extrinsic motivation for success;
    4. a low expectation of success. (35)

He then offers four solutions to the above in the form of detailed case studies that faculty and administrators can adopt to help shift an academic environment away from one that might incentivize cheating.

Intrinsic Motivation

First, teachers should focus on ways they can foster students’ “intrinsic motivation” to master a subject rather than merely perform well in class. Lang draws from Ken Bain, author of What the Best College Teachers Do (2004), for strategies on encouraging such motivation in students. In Bain’s words, “People learn best when they ask an important question they care about answering, or adopt a goal that they want to reach” (Lang 62).

One way teachers can encourage this type of motivation is by explicitly linking the bigger questions their courses raise with questions their students might share. These sorts of questions can encompass both the technical or professional kind, “How can I begin creating my own websites?” to the more philosophical or ethical kind, “What does South Africa’s history of apartheid mean to me?” Either way, students’ motivation to learn increases when they are able to make connections between their own lives and the subject matter of their courses.

Learning for Mastery

The second approach Lang offers is similar to the first: How can students’ learning environment be tweaked to encourage “learning for mastery” versus simply learning to pass a class? Here Lang draws from John Boyer, a faculty member at Virginia Tech who teaches in the Geography department. What Boyer has done with his very large teaching sections (nearly 3,000 students large!) is give students options for successfully completing his World Regions course.  Essentially, students can choose from a variety of assignments—quizzes, exams, essays, etc. —that are each worth a certain amount of points. Students complete these assignments at their own pace, and as long as they score above a certain threshold by the end of the semester, they earn an A (or a B or a C, etc.). By structuring his course this way, Boyer is not only able to teach a large number of students (a feat in itself), but he’s also able to give students multiple pathways to succeed. And multiple opportunities to practice, and hopefully master, the course learning objectives .

One practical application of Boyer’s course that might work here at DePaul is setting up weekly quizzes in D2L. In order to encourage student mastery of the subject, consider allowing students the option to take the quiz as many times as they want. (Remember that old adage, “Practice makes perfect”?). Boyer describes the weekly quizzes he gives to students in this way:

These quizzes are open-notes, open-book, open-website and can be taken as many times as you like. In other words, keep taking the damn thing until you get a 100% on it. Each weekly quiz will be posted on Tuesday after class and will be available until the following Tuesday before class begins, when it will be replaced by the new quiz for that week.

Learn how to set up quizzes in D2L using this handy Quickguide (PDF).

Lowering Stakes

The third structural change Lang recommends to teachers is that they increase the number of times they assess students on the material being covered in their classes, thereby lowering the stakes of each assignment. The simplest reason Lang cites for this recommendation is that the higher the stakes are and the less frequent the assessment is, the likelihood of cheating increases. (Lang reviews a host of historical sources and social science findings that supports this claim). The more complicated explanation is that frequent testing has been shown to actually increase memory recollection, as evidenced by cognitive research done both in lab settings and in controlled environments online.

Instilling Self-Efficacy

Finally, Lang emphasizes the importance of metacognition—particularly in the sense of students’ ability to critically self-reflect on their own knowledge, skills, and abilities—for student learning. He draws from the work of Stephen Chew, a psychology professor at Samford College who has produced a series of YouTube videos on study strategies for college students.  Students who are adept at metacognition likely have a better understanding of the extent to—and limits of—their knowledge of course material. These students are also able to identify effective study methods to help them close any gaps in their knowledge.

One means of encouraging  student metacognition is by incorporating ePortfolios or other assignments into your courses that ask students to engage in the work of self-reflection. Learn how Katie Wozniak, an SNL faculty member, assigns her students both ePortfolios and weekly “meta-notes” that ask her students to discuss how they’re applying course concepts into their writing projects.

Further resources from the DePaul Teaching Commons

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2 Responses to What might we learn from cheaters?

  1. Lauri Dietz January 16, 2014 at 9:09 pm #

    Thanks, Joe, for bringing attention to Lang’s book! I appreciate how you connect his findings to the context of DePaul. As someone who spends a lot of her time talking with people about writing and teaching writing, I think all of these solutions can be applied to writing assignments as well to decrease plagiarizing:

    1. Intrinsic Motivation: Allow students to shape their research questions or paper topics as much as possible.
    2. Learning for Mastery: Give students opportunities to write drafts and revise based on outside feedback (whether from a peer, tutor, or the instructor). Scaffolding writing assignments helps students learn about the genre and style conventions of a discipline and has the added bonus of ensuring that instructors aren’t just grading a bunch of first drafts.
    3. Lowering the Stakes: frequent, informal writing not only helps students learn course content better but also helps students improve their writing overall.
    4. Self-Efficacy: Assigning a cover letter with each assignment that asks students to explain their writing process, choices, revision strategies, etc. can go a long way in helping students identify strategies and skills to apply to future writing contexts.

  2. Joe Olivier January 17, 2014 at 4:06 pm #

    Absolutely, Lauri! Thanks for contributing some excellent ideas for extending Lang’s framework to writing assignments. For even more ideas, check out Assignment design strategies for deterring plagiarism on the Teaching Commons.

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