05/04/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Cheating 101 (Part I)

Kids cheating on tests, papers and projects to increase their grades is not new; what is new is society's reaction to it. So says Dr. Gregory J. Cizek, who penned Cheating on Tests: How to Do it, Detect It and Prevent it.

"Cheating is not getting more prevalent, it's that kids are admitting to it now," says Cizek who has been studying cheating for more than two decades at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, where he is a professor of Educational Measurement. "Now, it might be socially rewarding to cheat. It might be what the 'cool' kids do. It might just be necessary to keep up, to stay with the system. It's remarkably common." 2010-03-04-9780805831450.jpg

Statistics on cheating, or the "study" of cheating, date back only to the 60's. While there is research from the 1940's, it is William J. Bowers 1964 study of cheating that is considered the benchmark for all future cheating research. The pioneering survey of 5-thousand students found that three-fourths of the students had cheated during their academic careers. In 1980, a similar study suggested that the cheating rate had more than doubled in the 30 years between the 1940's and the 1970's. Cizek estimates that the numbers continue to trend upwards, estimating that 80 to 90-percent of today's students cheat.

While researchers who study cheating often disagree on just how egregious the numbers really are, the numbers are no doubt daunting because they mean that someone's child is cheating. Not just someone's child - a lot of people's children. And while many of us say things such as, "I know it's not my child, it must be his horrible ex-friend Johnny," the numbers tell us that more likely than not, it's Johnny as well as our own perfect little angel. Considering that so many adults cheat every day, can you blame a teenager? "Adults are cheating on their taxes, they are going over the speed limit ... [performing] little dishonesties all around. Kids see and report that it's going on in the culture all around them," says Cizek.

"It's hard for those who are adults right now to understand the culture that these children are coming of age in, in the media in terms of the scandal of the week, if you will," says Dr. Tom Gamble, a clinical psychologist in the Dresden School District in New Hampshire, a district that suffered a cheating scandal in 2007. "They are inundated. I think it's important to be somewhat empathic to their plight and understand more where this sort thing of arises from rather than just saying it's a weakness in character and you just shouldn't do that. These kids live in a world where there are an awful lot of confusing messages."

Agree or disagree with that point as you will, the question here is, what motivates an adolescent to cheat? Is it just because it's on TV? Is it because their parents do it? In other words, what specifically causes a teen to go over the so-called edge?

2010-03-04-0123725410.jpgDr. Eric M. Anderman, a professor of educational psychology at Ohio State University who, along with Tamera B. Murdock, wrote the book The Psychology of Academic Cheating, says it's pressure -- and that pressure began combusting ten-fold with the passing of the "No Child Left Behind" (NCLB) Act of 2001. "There's so much pressure on teachers to get those test scores up because there are so many negative consequences if schools don't. Decrease in funding, teacher and administration firings ... So the pressure put on kids to do well on tests is very different now than it was 10 years ago."

Despite these pressures across the board at schools throughout the country, Anderman says, not all students cheat and, most important, not all cheaters cheat in every classroom. This fact, he says, is the key to understanding the motivation to cheat, really the answer to the cheating problem -- something educators and lawmakers, alike, must not only take a look at but actually focus on.

Anderman was the first to show that "when kids are really focused on intrinsic outcomes, on test scores, on getting good grades, on getting rewards from Mom and Dad, they are more likely to cheat and they are more likely to think cheating is acceptable." Additionally, Anderman found that in classrooms where teachers emphasize the value of learning, or why each particular lesson matters, cheating doesn't occur. "If you stress that you are studying [a topic] because it's on the test on Friday, you're going to get a lot of cheating. If you stress mastering and learning the material and not the test score, you don't get cheating in those classrooms. And that's been consistent over every study we've ever done."

A longitudinal study published by Anderman in 2004 in Contemporary Educational Psychology further supports his argument because it focuses on kids who "buck the cheating trend." Looking at the same kids over two years, Anderman's study found that kids who didn't cheat in classrooms where teachers who discussed mastery, did cheat in classrooms where teachers focused solely on testing. "I don't like the findings but it was a good study because it was a study that really showed that environment makes a difference. You can take the same kid put him in a different environment, same subject area different teacher, and you get less cheating. [In this study], they were all kids in math, but it was the teacher who made the difference. It really says a lot: we can fix a lot of this."

Next time, how exactly can we fix academic cheating? Plus, who's to blame and how should schools handle cheating?