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Desperate Kid Cheats Under Pressure -- What Else Is New?

04/16/2013 02:42 pm ET | Updated Jun 16, 2013

I caught a kid cheating on a quiz in class last week. It was all fairly routine, until we had the expected conversation about why he shouldn't have done it. That part should have been a pro-forma exercise for both of us, but his comments made me realize we have been focusing on the wrong issue. More on that in a minute, but first... some context.

Cheating is a deceptively complicated topic. Cheating is, by definition, "wrong." It's a violation of rules. While there may be some situations in which violating the rules is "the right thing to do," those are the rare exceptions that make for interesting ethics discussions. They are not the garden-variety cheating episodes.

Then, there is the kind of rampant cheating NPR reported this week -- not in education, but in the Texas construction business. In the first of his two-part series, Wade Godwyn explained that undocumented construction workers are routinely exploited by Texas employers who underpay them (or don't pay them at all) and who compound their offense by failing to pay the appropriate employment taxes. The next day, Godwyn described how the prevalence of this behavior has overwhelmed the legal system, is supported by customers who benefit from lower prices, and makes it impossible for anyone who wants to play by the rules to survive in the industry.

Honest contractors in Texas cannot hope to compete against those who cheat. The situation is like the one described last summer by South African swimmer Cameron van der Burgh. He's the guy who justified cheating to win his Olympic gold medal by saying that everyone does it, the judges don't stop it, and breaking the rules is the only way to compete. Proving his point, while it's difficult to find sponsors for the sport in South Africa these days, van der Burgh still has his contracts, and his expenses are still being paid by his government.

Under the circumstances, it would be naive to say that Olympic swimmers and Texas contractors should "Just Say No" to cheating.

Cheaters -- Desperate and Under Pressure

The analogous situation in education arises as pundits look for mitigating factors in cheating scandals around the country. The Atlanta schools provide the most dramatic example, as people line up to argue whether standardized testing is the real culprit in the saga. The argument goes like this: High-stakes tests create pressure on educators who become desperate and wind up cheating to succeed, because they see no other alternative.

For a real eye-opener, just pop the words "cheating," "pressure" and "desperation" into Google and see what comes up. The search engine result reveals that it is becoming axiomatic: Kids who feel pressure to succeed become desperate, then resort to cheating. It's becoming the new normal!

But the argument just doesn't apply to most classroom situations.

What's an educator to do?

The student I caught cheating had tried to do the first two problems on the quiz, but he was stuck. His work made it clear that he really didn't know what to do next. The answers he put in the answer column showed that he decided to copy what his neighbor had written. Unfortunately for him, his neighbor had a different version of the quiz.

When I confronted the student, he had no comment. He hung his head, quietly confirming that he had cheated, but offering no response.

In most first-offense cases, consequences include a failing grade on the quiz, a record of the incident, and a recommendation from the dean that the student smooth things over with the teacher. So I wasn't surprised when the student came in at lunch.

I listened as he explained how he had panicked. He didn't know what else to do. He copied. But now he understood that he would have been "better off doing nothing."

I've heard a lot of kids give this speech, as they try to say what they think I want to hear. I know what he meant, of course. Leaving the problem blank would have been better than copying the wrong answer from his neighbor. But "doing nothing"? Did he really think that was the alternative to cheating?

The purpose of quizzes, I explained to the student, is to help us both figure out what needs to be done next. Failing a quiz doesn't have to be a catastrophe if it helps us both see what needs to be done next. If he understood that, I told him, then he would know there's no cause to panic. Instead, it should be all about figuring out what he needs to learn. That's the alternative to cheating on a quiz!

Learning to Weigh the Alternatives

Final exams and high-stakes standardized tests aside, the interim assessments we use to guide instruction shouldn't be generating the kind of pressure and desperation used to justify cheating. Students need help to see those assessments for what they are: guideposts that reveal areas where the students and the teachers need to focus more attention as they move along through the process of education.

Any student who feels enough "pressure and desperation" to resort to cheating on classroom quizzes and tests doesn't understand what is going on.

We should be teaching students that these interim assessments are part of the learning process. Although it might seem counterintuitive, we should be getting students to relax a little about the tests. We should be helping them to focus on the real goal -- learning -- by developing alternative, measured responses that use their time and effort effectively.

"Pressure" is inevitable for students today. The question is, how do we teach our students to evaluate the reality of the pressure they feel and to deal with it appropriately?

"Desperation" implies that no alternative other than cheating is available -- or, at least, visible -- to the student under pressure. Nothing could be (or should be) further from the truth.

Our job as educators is to make sure that students feeling pressure know what their options truly are, and that they should be making better choices long before a sense of "desperation" sets in and cheating looks to them like the only way out!