How To Create Cheat-Free Classrooms

Most high school students say they've cheated on a test in the past year, and even more say they've copied homework or other assignments, according to a recent survey. Author Jessica Lahey says it isn't all the students' fault. Lahey and Professor James Lang speak with guest host Celeste Headlee about creating cheat-free classrooms.

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CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:

I'm Celeste Headlee and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, civil rights activist Medgar Evers' voice was silenced 50 years ago when he was gunned down in front of his own house. Now a celebrated poet imagines the voices of the people closest to Evers - his wife, his brother, even his killer. More on that in just a few minutes. First, though, we're going to back to school a little early to talk about cheating.

More than half of high school students admitted to having cheated on a test over the past year. Even more say they've copied homework or other assignments. That's according to a recent survey by the Josephson Institute. And of course, it's very easy to blame the students, but our next guests say there's more blame to go around. Jessica Lahey wrote about this recently for The Atlantic and the New York Times. She's also author of the forthcoming book "The Gift of Failure" and a former middle school teacher. And James Lang is a professor at Assumption College in Massachusetts. He's author of "Cheating Lessons: Learning from Academic Dishonesty." Welcome to you both.

JESSICA LAHEY: Thank you.

JAMES LANG: Thank you.

HEADLEE: I mean, I have to ask you both if either of you cheated in either middle school or high school?

LANG: I did not cheat myself, but people chewed off me. And I allowed that to happen, so I would count myself guilty.

HEADLEE: Yeah, that happened to me, too, James. Jessica, did you cheat ever?

LAHEY: I actually planned to cheat once, and I rolled up a piece of paper with some vocabulary words on it inside of a ballpoint pen around the ink shaft. And I'm glad I didn't use it because that teacher of that class is now a mentor of mine today.

HEADLEE: Oh.

LAHEY: So I can now look him in the eye and feel good about that.

HEADLEE: But, Jessica, this is pretty straightforward, right? If you cheat, you're at fault. I mean, how is it more complicated than that?

LAHEY: It's more competent in that the environment that we've created in education today is really one of memorize and regurgitate, of get stuff shoved into your short-term memory so you can give it back to the teacher in the form they want it. There isn't a lot of creative mastery, getting at answers that are more difficult to discover, which would make cheating a lot more difficult. Teachers are kind of setting themselves up for a situation in which they're going to have to constantly be vigilant because it's just so easy to cheat. And it's really easy also to not to care about what you're learning.

HEADLEE: I can hear people's voices in their heads right now going, wah (ph). You know, they've made it easy for you to cheat. How is that the teacher's fault?

LAHEY: It's not the teacher's fault, per se. I'm just - James Lang, in his book and in my article, we both make an argument that we could be doing more for the students in terms of coming up with strategies that would make it so that cheating doesn't even need to happen.

LANG: You know, another way to think about this is we can think about cheating as a moral failure on the part of the student, and that's true. It is. But we can also look at it as a failure in the teaching-learning transaction. And if we look at from that perspective, then that makes us want to think, all right, well, what went wrong here? To give you a very simple analogy, if you, you know, love chocolate and it's not good for you, you know, you try not to keep it in the house. And so that's a way that you try to make things - you make it easier for yourself to do the right thing. And we want to try and do that with students as well.

HEADLEE: So, Jessica, you actually got a letter from a college student in response to your piece on cheating in The Atlantic. So he confessed to cheating all throughout high school. He was named valedictorian, and he says - I'm going to quote from his letter - he says, I cheated because the grade I would have otherwise been given was not reflective of my true learning. That, to me, strikes to me as an excuse, somebody trying very desperately to justify having cheating and being awarded valedictorian. What was your response to it?

LAHEY: I absolutely agree with you. I think what this student read in my Atlantic piece was that I had some sympathy for the circumstances that tend to promote a cheating culture. And that's about as far as my sympathy for his reasoning goes. He referred to what he was doing as principled cheating. And unfortunately, I think what he's done is abdicated his responsibility and abdicated his character because he was looking for anyone other than himself for blame. The problem for me is that I want learning to work. I want education to work, and if he's bringing up these points, it's really important for me to explore where that's coming from. And while I don't agree with his reasoning and I don't agree with what he did, I do agree that there are some things about education that need to be changed.

LANG: You know, for example, one of the points that he was making was that he felt that no matter what work he did, he wasn't going to be fairly evaluated for it. And if you do look at the research on why students cheat, that is one of the major factors. It's called self-efficacy. If the student feels that they're not capable of doing the work that they have been assigned, or if they feel they're not going to be fairly evaluated, they are more likely to cheat.

Now that doesn't excuse it, but one of the things that that tells us is that maybe we can do a better job of convincing students that they're capable of doing the work that we've assigned to them, or we don't do things like, for example, that you often see in sort of hard science classes where a faculty member might walk in and say, look to the left and look to the right of you, one of you is not going to make it to the end of the semester. Well, kind of what you're doing right there is saying to a group of students, look, cheating might be the only way you're going to get by in this course. So we have to be careful about how we talk to students about their capabilities.

HEADLEE: If you just joining us, we're talking about creating cheat-free classrooms with education writer and former teacher Jessica Lahey, and you just heard Professor James Lang of Assumption College who's written about this as well. Let's talk then about how to create cheat-free classrooms. Branching off what you were just talking about, Professor Lang, I mean, it hasn't been so long that I don't remember high school anymore. And I remember friends of mine goofing off, frankly. They didn't want to do the homework. They didn't want to study. And so when the test finally came around, they were very busily out in the hallway either writing answers on their leg so they could pull up their shorts and take a look at their thigh, or writing them on a tiny piece of paper that they could unfold. To a certain extent, we're never going to be able to create cheat-free classrooms. Kids are always going to procrastinate and then try to cheat, right?

LANG: Absolutely. I don't think there's anyway that we can create a totally cheating-free classroom. But I think we can do a better job than what we're doing now. You know, my kids just had to do a project where they had to, you know, write a report on a region. And they were sort of, you know, researching this. It was like pulling teeth to get them to do it. They didn't see the point of it. And frankly, my wife, who's also a teacher - we didn't see much point to it either.

You know, we were just asking them to go to the Internet, sort of regurgitate some facts, put it in a form and turn it back in and then read it to a class of students who are going to be as uninterested in it as they were. Now my argument is that we need to think a little bit more creatively about what we're asking students to do and ways to motivate them to get them and get them interested in the assignments. So instead of that report, why not ask the kids to write a travel itinerary for a family trip into that region, or find other ways to try and link the learning to their own lives that are going to capture their interest and make them more likely to want to learn the material rather than want to just sort of get through it and get the grade?

HEADLEE: You know, Professor, the United States school system - public education system is definitely not among the best in the world. Are there other countries where we can look at as models where they are have standardized testing, but they don't have as big a problem with cheating or with kids becoming disinterested?

LANG: Well, I mean, actually, you know, cheating rates are pretty similar in most of - either similar to United States or, in some cases, higher than the United States around the world. So, you now, I don't think there's any country that we can look at and say, here's a cheating-free environment. And a lot of this is cultural. You know, there may be places where they're doing similar kinds of teaching practices here that we're doing or they're doing ones that we might think about as more restrictive and even sort of less inviting to the students. But because of other kinds of cultural factors, the students are less likely to cheat there. So it's hard to generalize across different education environments.

HEADLEE: Jessica, you're also a mom in addition to being a writer and a former teacher. How do you talk to your kids about cheating? I mean, I would almost be afraid to mention it because I don't even want to put the idea in their minds.

LAHEY: Well, it's funny you should mention that because 34 percent of parents don't talk to children about cheating because they don't believe their children would cheat. And 75 percent to 90 percent of students admit to cheating. So, clearly, we have got a bit of a disconnect there.

HEADLEE: Well, how do you do that? For example, if the parent of the kid who wrote to you were to find out what had been going on what could that parent now say?

LAHEY: Well, unfortunately the parent of that student does know what happened and she's supporting him in his stance that he undertook what he called principled cheating. But the problem is is that advancing that sort of thinking is going to set this kid up for thinking that he doesn't need to adhere to any moral or ethical standards unless he's getting exactly what he believes he deserves. And putting all those forces for why you do what you do out there into the world, and hoping that the universe is going to give you exactly what you need in order to behave is just not a good path for this kid to go down.

HEADLEE: OK, so let's give you a specific example - say my kid comes home from algebra - he's great in algebra, it bores him to tears - he says I have an algebra test tomorrow, I just have to regurgitate these terms and formulas, I'm not going to study for it, it's useless. What do I then say?

LAHEY: Well, I'm one of those parents that, you know, I think there's a fine line to be walked between giving an educational system what they're asking you because that's sort of the way life works sometimes, and I believe in that to a point. Sometimes you've just got to jump through some hoops in order to learn how to play the game a little bit. On the other hand, as a teacher I would want to know if an assessment that I was giving either unfairly or in a really boring manner was trying to assess student engagement. I'm hoping that what I do in my classroom is engaging - and if it's not, I really want to know how to change that. So please talk to the teacher if you don't feel like what you're experiencing in school is advancing your education.

HEADLEE: But let me give one last question to you Professor Lang because the fact of the matter is that in the United States many schools just have to give standardized tests. So what advice do you give to teachers who have to train their students to pass that kind of test but it maybe is encouraging cheating?

LANG: Well, actually there's plenty of research that shows testing students can help their learning. This is kind of counterintuitive to the way most of us think, which is that testing measures learning. There's a real well-established body of research on what they call the testing effect, which tells us that sort of getting things out of our memory is almost like a skill that we need to be able to practice so that the more times you try and get some thing out of your memory, the more you kind of strengthen the neural pathways that allow you to do that more easily. So if we have students that we know are going to be taking standardized tests, one of the best things we can do actually is give them frequent kind of low-stakes opportunities in the classroom to practice at those tests.

And if we're not doing that what happens is, you know, we may be having discussions and having them do all these kinds of other things in the classroom then they get in front of the test and they haven't really had a chance to practice the skill that they're going to need on that test. So give them those low-stakes opportunities to do it, to practice it, to get feedback on it, to know how they're doing. And then once they get to that test, they're not going to be so scared and concerned that they don't know the material that they're going to resort to academic dishonesty.

HEADLEE: That's James Lang, author of "Cheating Lessons: Learning from Academic Dishonesty." He's also a professor of English at Assumption College in Western Massachusetts, where he joined us. And Jessica Lahey is an education writer. Author of the fourth coming book "The Gift of Failure." She was with us from Vermont Public Radio. Thanks to both of you.

LANG: Thank you.

LAHEY: Thank you.

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