Cheating Themselves out of an Education: Assignments That Promote Higher-Order Thinking and Honesty in the Middle Grades

Article excerpt

Students generally report little cheating during their elementary school years (Cizek, 1999); yet, by high school, students consider cheating to be a widespread and serious concern (Evans & Craig, 1990; Finn & Frone, 2004; Schab, 1991). Of 30,000 high school students surveyed in a recent study, 64% admitted to cheating on a test during the past year, with 38% doing so two or more times, and 36% admitting to using the Internet to plagiarize an assignment (Josephson Institute of Ethics, 2008). Given that students cheat so infrequently in elementary school and yet by high school cheat so routinely, the question arises, "What happens to students during the middle school years?"

The conditions that lead to such a drastic change in student behavior may be tied to a number of environmental factors evident as students advance to higher grades-more challenging course material, a greater emphasis on grades, and, at least for the students in this study, the higher stakes associated with gaining access to further educational opportunities. In concert, these factors may contribute to an overall learning experience in which the classroom culture-both in terms of its structure and student perceptions of the purpose behind their learning-grows increasingly performance-based. That is, rather than learning for the inherent value derived from mastering material through an assignment or demonstrating such mastery on a test, students are motivated largely by isolated performances and the grades they receive for their work, sometimes regardless of how they attain those grades.

To better understand how this shift occurs and the learning conditions that seem to promote an honest effort by students to truly master coursework, we designed a study to explore the meaning students assigned to the work they did in school and, accordingly, how they approached that work. In addition, we considered how faculty conceptualized course assignments that promoted both subject mastery and student honesty.

Goal orientation theory

Goal orientation theory attributes student motivation for learning to the structure of the classroom environment as being either performance- or mastery-oriented (Stephens & Gehlbach, 2007). Differences between these two conceptions of academic success influence how students think about their academic aptitude, the work assigned, and the nature and purpose of learning (Ames, 1992).

Performance orientation

A classroom environment that focuses on performance can promote a culture where achieving a particular grade becomes more important to students than learning. When classroom practices emphasize such extrinsic motivation and rewards for performance, students seem to assume that what is not graded is not worth learning (Ames, 1992). And research suggests that such perceptions may be well founded. That is, when creating purely evaluative assessments, teachers tend to "reshape instruction ... [to] lower the complexity and demands of the curriculum" (Shepard, 2001, p. 1067), emphasizing "rote and superficial learning" (Black & Wiliam, 1998a, p. 141), largely because of a preoccupation with measuring and comparing their work to that of their peers. Students may see little value beyond the classroom to the work they do and may have little concern for how they complete that work. Consequently, cheating becomes a viable strategy.

Moreover, in performance-oriented environments students tend to emphasize peer comparison and competition (Anderman, 1997). They tend to view achievement as a largely comparative phenomenon, focusing on how their aptitude measures up to others. Under these conditions, a central concern for students is to appear competent and smart (Stephens & Gehlbach, 2007). Common assessment and evaluation practices such as class rank, percentile scores on standardized exams, curve grading, and grade point averages often reinforce this perspective. Further, when teachers rank students, generally by how they grade, students tend to view success as dependent on natural ability (Ames, 1992). …

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