As a high school teacher, I’ve seen a lot of cheating. So much, that I’ve concluded most adults don’t realize how many kids, even otherwise good and honest kids, cheat in school.
If you think of cheating as simply acting unfairly or dishonestly to gain an academic advantage, many people reading this column might remember their own experiences cheating. Whether you actively sought to cheat, or the opportunity simply landed in front of you, many of us can recall at least one occurrence with vivid detail. Your heart raced, your palms sweated, and you felt that undeniable sinking in the pit of your stomach, all due to the fear of getting caught. Yet you still did it.
But why? Why continue the act even when the body sends all the signals identical to a near-death fight-or-flight response? For some, it may be for the sheer thrill. But I argue most people who are tempted to cheat choose the better of two evils, both connected to failure.
Today, more so than when you and I were teens, the pressure to excel is unbearable. From the parents who demand it and the peers competing for it, the colleges that require it and the “influencers” who embody it, the pressure to be perfect has become the driving force for many students. And when the need to maintain perfection trumps the actual learning that occurs, you’ll begin to override your body’s natural warnings.
Our kids cheat because they fear the consequences of failing. So many are raised in a bubble, completely protected from failure. Any time it may have approached, those around them, who love them very much, happily deflected that failure for them. So a disproportionate number of adolescents truly feel they are geniuses, that they can do no wrong.
Unfortunately, an educator’s job is to confront his or her students with challenging obstacles to overcome, and they won’t deflect that failure. This forces our inexperienced youth into a corner, and many react by ensuring their success by any means necessary.
I’m one of these educators, and I absolutely challenge my kids, but I made a decision a few years back that completely changed the culture of my classroom: I eliminated the need to cheat.
I made the decision that the goal of my science class was to learn and appreciate science. From that day, I recognized that to pull these anxious kids from the corner they’ve been trapped in, I had to entice them back to the center. I had to establish an environment that eliminated the fear of failing, and I did it with a few very basic but powerful methods.
First, I eliminated due dates within a unit and moved to a mastery grading model. There are many varieties of this, but in my model, the kids receive a list for the unit describing the tasks to be mastered by test day. For every activity, the kids were encouraged to copy from each other and work together, but their grades came from 30-second conversations I had with each student, when I’d ask a variety of questions to gauge their mastery on the topic. Completing an assignment meant nothing if it couldn’t be verbalized, so the kids quickly learned that copying without understanding was a waste of time in my class.
Then, I encouraged cheat sheets. I let students write or draw anything they’d like on the front and back of a 3-by-5 notecard. The card had to be hand-written and turned in with the test. Many teachers may argue that doing so would invalidate their tests, to which I say, if your kids can write the answers to your tests on a notecard, you write bad tests.
We’ve worked hard to build high-level questions that require students to expand beyond the basic content from a notecard, and the sheer process of internalizing and paraphrasing an entire unit into such a small space encourages that level of critical thinking for our kids; moving beyond comprehension and into application. Plus, I save their notecards and return them before semester and state exams, providing the most personalized, hand-written summative reviews they could ever create.
Finally, after taking the test once on their own, I let them take it again, this time in groups. After grading the exams, I assign them in homogeneous groups; As in one group, Bs in another, etc., but I don’t tell students their scores. Then, I hand them back their original exams to take again. They don’t know which questions are correct, so the intellectual debates that happen over each question are incredible. When they resubmit, the group score is averaged with a student’s individual score.
Of course, there are those who say we need to teach our kids responsibility, to prepare them for the real world by not allowing late work, cheat sheets or group corrections. But it’s these classrooms where cheating is rampant, and it’s specifically because no recovery is possible.
As for tests, consider what every major exam over the course of someone’s professional career has in common: SAT, ACT, CPA exams, MCAT, LSAT, teaching certifications. You can take all of these multiple times for full credit. So where did this fallacy begin that somehow my biology exam is more pertinent to their lives and future success?
In a world that’s constantly demanding risk-taking and creativity, we cannot continue to produce robots of compliance and task completion. As a young gymnast develops her technique, she rehearses in an environment developed to safely take risks, with balance beams low to the ground and foam pits into which she can fall.
So, too should be the goal of every classroom. When kids see that failure is recoverable, the demand to succeed the first time, by any means necessary, is eliminated, and they finally have the freedom to take a leap.
Ramy Mahmoud is a lecturer at the University of Texas at Dallas Teacher Development Center, a high school science department head in Plano and a two-time TEDx speaker. He wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.