Studies Find Cheaters Overinflate Academic Ability

By Sarah D. Sparks

Ed Week

 

That time-honored anti-cheating mantra, “You’re only hurting yourself,” may be literal fact, according to new research.

Emerging evidence suggests students who cheat on a test are more likely to deceive themselves into thinking they earned a high grade on their own merits, setting themselves up for future academic failure.

In four experiments detailed in the March Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers from the Harvard Business School and Duke University found that cheaters pay for the short-term benefits of higher scores with inflated expectations for future performance.

The findings come as surveys and studies show a majority of students cheat—whether through cribbing homework, plagiarizing essays from the Internet, or texting test answers to a friend’s cellphone—even though overwhelming majorities consider it wrong. The Los Angeles-based Josephson Institute Center for Youth Ethics, which has been tracking student character and academic honesty, has found that while the number of students engaging in specific behaviors has risen and fallen over the years, the number of students who have cheated on a test in the previous year has not dipped below a majority since the first biennial study in 1992. In its most recent surveypdf.gif, conducted in 2010, the study found that a majority of students cheat at some point during high school, and the likelihood of cheating increasespdf.gif the older students get.

Of a nationally representative sample of more than 40,000 public and private high school students responding to the survey, 59.4 percent admitted to having cheated on a test—including 55 percent of honors students—and one in three had done so twice or more in the previous year.

In addition, more than 80 percent of the respondents said they had copied homework, more than one-third had plagiarized an Internet document for a class assignment, and 61 percent reported having lied to a teacher about “something important” at least once in the past year. By contrast, only about 20 percent of students surveyed reported having cheated in sports.

“One of the sad phenomena is that, on average, one of the things they are learning in school is how to cheat,” John Fremer, the president of consulting services at Caveon LLC, a private test-security company in Midvale, Utah, said of students.

While most academic interest in cheating has focused on how students cheat and how to stop them, the Harvard-Duke study joins a pile of emerging research suggesting that the mental hoops that students must leap through to justify or distance themselves from cheating can cause long-term damage to their professional and academic habits. The findings also suggest that changes in both school climate and instructional approach can help to break the cycle of cheating and self-deception.

“We see that the effect of cheating is, the more we engage in dishonest acts, the more we develop these cognitive distortions—ways in which we neutralize the act and almost forget how much we are doing it,” said Jason M. Stephens, an assistant professor of educational psychology at the University of Connecticut, in Storrs, who studies cheating among secondary school students.

Moreover, the more students learn to focus on grades for their own sake, rather than ...

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