Alex RodriguezCompete against A-Rod?

I don’t think so.

Last year, our school’s student newspaper ran an article about the prevalence of cheating among our students, and it left me feeling a bit overwhelmed and overmatched. It’s clear I’m in no position to throw down with the likes of Ken Lay, R Kelly, the Postmaster General, or Bernard Madoff when it comes to influencing teenagers; mass media’s power and pervasiveness puts me at the disadvantage. There is no way I can vie with it for the attention of the teenage brain, much less aspire to actually influence that teen no matter how great a role model I might be.

And why should I even try? Some studies question whether a teacher with “good character” actually has any positive influence on a high school student’s character (Osguthorpe), so why should I bother? But that still leaves the very real issue of cheating and our desire to do something about it. The statistics the article’s authors cite are depressing and raise questions about the morality of our society in general, not just our school’s community. With numbers like 97%, 90%, 83%, 74%, we’re talking veto-override territory here. Maybe there’s some solace in seeing that our high school is little different from the rest of the world; what a relief to know that studies show our experience is consistent with the rest of the country (McCabe). So – without debating the ethics of cheating or the motives for it, the advantages gained, or the penalties and costs of being caught, or who’s doing it and why shouldn’t I – what can we do?

Reasons

The survey says...

Although the article’s purpose is primarily to raise questions about cheating, it does point us in the direction of an answer. Consider these cheating examples explicit and implicit in the comments of our students and teachers; they’re about homework and tests (“assessments” in education jargon):

“I’ve passed my test around.”
“I’m passing Physics because I’m sitting next to ….”
“… using a cheat sheet during a quiz ….”

These examples don’t even scratch the surface of the ingenuity students have applied to this area over the millennia. For kicks, Google “cheating methods and countermeasures” to see for yourself how creative we enhanced apes can be at avoiding real thinking. (And these examples are all low-tech – no iPhone required! The blank test gambit is my favorite.) Study the list and note the feature they all share: they only work when a person’s work can be copied and the teacher is unable to tell the difference between the original and the fraud. Doesn’t it seem obvious then that these cheating tactics can be undermined just by changing the nature of the assignments and assessments?

As educators and students we should participate in activities that focus on Thinking. Consider one teacher’s statement: “If it was more about the learning, you wouldn’t see the cheating.” Many may see this statement as directed at students, but we teachers need to take it to heart (and mind) as well. Where would the cheaters be if teachers assessed their students’ progress and achievement with activities that defy undetectable theft? What if multiple-choice/guess formats were replaced by tests that required evidence of understanding, not just recitation of “facts”? What if homework assignments were actively used in classroom activities so mere completion (or duplication) was not enough? What if, instead of “taking” notes, students “make” notes which include drawing conclusions and making connections?

Yes, instructors are challenged by lack of time and resources – not to mention the reality of addressing the needs of the high stakes testing – and regularly utilizing cheat-proof activities may seem like a luxury we can’t afford, but ironically, an authentic assessment approach can reduce instruction/learning time and also solves the testing riddle. “The more engaged we are in processing information, making sense of an experience (reflection) and in communicating it to someone else, the deeper the understanding (and the more permanent the memory)” (Vermette). I witnessed this last year when proctoring an algebra end-of-course exam for a teacher who constantly challenged his students to demonstrate understanding with exercises that defied copying or faking. He received the highest compliment when I overheard three students remark after the exam how “easy” it was and wondered why their teacher couldn’t have made his tests throughout the year “just as easy”.

I think they had just answered that question.

So, here’s our challenge: Let’s find more ways to engage teachers and students in learning experiences – tests and assignments – which are cheat-proof and truly foster and offer opportunities to demonstrate understanding. As it stands now, by training teenagers to expect and “master” activities that contain built-in shortcuts, we’re doing them (and our society) a grievous disservice: why should we be surprised when they continue to look for and take shortcuts as adults? The idea here is not to catch or penalize cheaters, but to create and encourage thinkers. Providing opportunities for authentic learning experiences in which successful cheating is prevented and understanding is rewarded gives all students experience in engaging activities in which they practice success without resorting to shortcuts, experiences which may very well guide their decisions in our future.

When I see A-Rod jerseys in the hallway between classes, I know no one’s going to be wearing one with my number on it (3.14), but maybe there’s something I can still do. For all his popularity and millions, A-Rod took a shortcut that’s put an asterisk next to his number 13 for the rest of his life. I have to wonder who helped him take his first shortcut.

It’s our time to step up to the plate.

By the way, I do return the extra change, but I’m just weird like that. So take that, Ken Lay!

1. Osguthorpe, R.D. (2009). “On the Reasons We Want Teachers of Good Disposition and Moral Character”.
2. McCabe, D. (2008).
3. Clabaugh, G.K. & E.G. Rozycki. (2003). Preventing Cheating and Plagiarism.
4. Vermette, P.J. (2008). ENGAGING Teens in Their Own Learning: 8 Keys to Student Success.

Here’s a revised version that showed up in The New York Times

The comments from \”G.M.\” of Rochester, MI are especially pertinent; we must ask ourselves how we as teachers might be contributing to the problem — and what we can do to prevent it, not just stop it.

To cheat or not to cheatLast year our high school’s student newspaper ran an article highlighting the prevalence of cheating among students. Although feeling a bit overwhelmed by the appalling statistics (90%+ freely admitted to cheating), I took heart in what a fellow teacher said: “If it was more about the learning, you wouldn’t see the cheating.”

Some might think this is directed at students, but we educators need to heed it as well. Where would the cheaters be if teachers measured students’ progress with activities and tests that defy undetectable theft?

The article cited numerous cheating tactics, and they all had one thing in common – they’re all about beating class work, homework, and tests. “I’ve passed my test around.” “I’m passing Physics because I’m sitting next to ….” “… using a cheat sheet during a quiz ….” And these examples don’t even scratch the surface of the sheer genius students have shown while trying to beat the system over the past few millennia. Just for kicks, Google “cheating methods and countermeasures” and see for yourself how creative we hairless apes can be at avoiding real thinking (the blank test gambit is my favorite). Note, however, that no matter how creatively devious they are, they all share one thing: they only succeed when one person’s work can be copied and the teacher can’t tell the difference between the original and the counterfeit.

So doesn’t it seem obvious then that all these cheating strategies can be undermined just by changing the nature of the assignments and tests?

We need to use even more activities focused on thinking and more tests requiring proof of comprehension. What if we replaced multiple-choice/guess formats with tests that required a demonstration of understanding, not just repeating back memorized “facts”? What if homework assignments were actively used in classroom activities the next day so mere completion (or duplication) was not enough? What if, instead of “taking” notes, students “made” notes which included drawing conclusions and making connections?

I don’t know how often activities not requiring true thinking are used at high schools, but it must be often enough to cause students to think that cheating frequently is a viable way to make it through high school (and life). Therefore, it appears we need to increase our emphasis on cheat-proof lessons, assignments, and tests, and work to significantly decrease dependence on activities containing built-in shortcuts. Sure, teachers often feel that the heavy demands on our time limit our ability to do this, especially with the requirements high stakes exams place on us all, but, ironically, this approach to learning activities actually reduces instruction/learning time and simultaneously solves the standardized testing riddle. The more engaged we are in processing information, making sense of the experience by reflecting on it, and in communicating it to someone else, the deeper our understanding becomes – not to mention the longer we remember it.

This was made clear to me just this last year while proctoring an algebra end-of-course exam for a teacher who constantly challenged his students to demonstrate understanding with exercises that defied copying or faking. He received the highest unintentional compliment when I overheard three students remark after the exam how “easy” it was and wondered why their teacher couldn’t have made his tests throughout the year “just as easy”. I think they had just answered that question.

So here’s our challenge: Let’s find even more ways to engage teachers and students in learning experiences – class time, assignments and tests – which are cheat-proof, encourage real learning, and offer opportunities to demonstrate understanding. This is so vitally important to not only academic success, but to the choices students will make after high school. As it stands now, by training young adults to expect and “master” activities that contain built-in shortcuts, we’re doing them (and our society) a grievous disservice: it should be no surprise to us when they continue to look for and take shortcuts as adults. The idea here is not to catch or penalize cheaters, but to create and encourage Thinkers. When we provide real learning opportunities in which successful cheating is not an option and understanding is rewarded, we give all students practice in activities in which they enjoy success without resorting to shortcuts. These are experiences which will affect their future decisions and actions.

We see A-Rod jerseys in the hallways and for all his popularity and millions, A-Rod took a shortcut that’s put an asterisk next to his number 13 for the rest of his life. That asterisk should make us all wonder who helped him take his first shortcut.

Are we creating or preventing asterisks?

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