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Studies Find Cheaters Overinflate Academic Ability

By Sarah D. Sparks — March 24, 2011 7 min read

That time-honored anti-cheating mantra, “You’re only hurting yourself,” may be literal fact, according to new research.

Emerging evidence suggests students who cheat on a test are more likely to deceive themselves into thinking they earned a high grade on their own merits, setting themselves up for future academic failure.

In four experiments detailed in the March Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers from the Harvard Business School and Duke University found that cheaters pay for the short-term benefits of higher scores with inflated expectations for future performance.

The findings come as surveys and studies show a majority of students cheat—whether through cribbing homework, plagiarizing essays from the Internet, or texting test answers to a friend’s cellphone—even though overwhelming majorities consider it wrong. The Los Angeles-based Josephson Institute Center for Youth Ethics, which has been tracking student character and academic honesty, has found that while the number of students engaging in specific behaviors has risen and fallen over the years, the number of students who have cheated on a test in the previous year has not dipped below a majority since the first biennial study in 1992. In its most recent survey, conducted in 2010, the study found that a majority of students cheat at some point during high school, and the likelihood of cheating increases the older students get.

Of a nationally representative sample of more than 40,000 public and private high school students responding to the survey, 59.4 percent admitted to having cheated on a test—including 55 percent of honors students—and one in three had done so twice or more in the previous year.

Cheating: Delusions of Success

Test 1- The first test involved a short 10-item quiz in which some participants had access to an answer key, which they were not supposed to use. This group had much higher mean scores than the control group, suggesting they cheated.

Test 2- After taking the test, both groups were asked to predict how well they would do on a second test on which there was no way to cheat. Those who cheated on the first test were overoptimistic about their performance on the second test, and saw a much bigger gap between their expectations and actual performance than those in the control group.

26cheat C1s

SOURCE: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

In addition, more than 80 percent of the respondents said they had copied homework, more than one-third had plagiarized an Internet document for a class assignment, and 61 percent reported having lied to a teacher about “something important” at least once in the past year. By contrast, only about 20 percent of students surveyed reported having cheated in sports.

“One of the sad phenomena is that, on average, one of the things they are learning in school is how to cheat,” John Fremer, the president of consulting services at Caveon LLC, a private test-security company in Midvale, Utah, said of students.

While most academic interest in cheating has focused on how students cheat and how to stop them, the Harvard-Duke study joins a pile of emerging research suggesting that the mental hoops that students must leap through to justify or distance themselves from cheating can cause long-term damage to their professional and academic habits. The findings also suggest that changes in both school climate and instructional approach can help to break the cycle of cheating and self-deception.

“We see that the effect of cheating is, the more we engage in dishonest acts, the more we develop these cognitive distortions—ways in which we neutralize the act and almost forget how much we are doing it,” said Jason M. Stephens, an assistant professor of educational psychology at the University of Connecticut, in Storrs, who studies cheating among secondary school students.

Moreover, the more students learn to focus on grades for their own sake, rather than as a representation of what they have learned, the more comfortable they are with cheating.

Mr. Stephens, who was not involved in the Harvard-Duke study, quoted one high school student, “Jane,” who insisted that cheating on a test does nothing to lessen the value of the grade. “It says an A on the paper and you don’t go, ‘Oh, but I cheated.’ You’re just kind of like, ‘Hey, I got that A,’ ” she said.

That, said Zoë Chance, the lead author of the Harvard-Duke study, is where cheaters start lying to themselves.


In the first of the four experiments by the Harvard-Duke team, researchers asked 76 participants on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology campus to take a short test of “math IQ” and score their own sheets. Half the tests had an answer key at the bottom of the page. After completing the test, all participants were asked to predict how many questions they would answer correctly on a second, 100-question test without an answer key.

The other related experiments repeated the scenario with 345 students at the University of North Carolina, but required the participants to actually take the test after predicting how well they would do. In one variation, the participants were told they would receive money for the second test based on both the number correct and how close the participant’s predicted score came to the actual score.

Participants who had access to the test answers tended to use them. In the first rounds of testing in each scenario, mean scores were significantly higher among students who could sneak a peek at the answer key at the bottom. That fits with previous studies showing that, all else being equal, a majority of those who can cheat, do.

Yet the Harvard-Duke research also showed that cheaters lied to themselves.

In a preliminary experiment involving 36 Harvard students, participants were asked simply to imagine cheating on the first test and then taking the second without an opportunity to cheat. Those participants predicted that they would perform worse on the second test, without the opportunity to cheat.

When faced with the real situation, they weren’t nearly so objective. Across the board, cheaters tended to predict they would perform equally well on the next, longer test, though they knew they would not have a chance to cheat. In the experiment involving money rewards for the second test scores, cheaters missed out on getting money because their actual scores were so much lower than the predictions they made based on their first test scores. If participants received a “certificate of recognition” for scoring well on the first test, they became even more likely to be overly optimistic about their success on the second test.

“In our experiments, we find that social recognition reinforces self-deception,” said Ms. Chance, a Harvard doctoral student. If a student focuses on the high test score by itself, rather than cheating as the reason for it, she said, then “getting a high grade will lead ‘Alex’ to feel smart, and being treated as smart by the teacher will lead Alex to feel smarter still.

“Because Alex wasn’t conscious of cheating, there’s no reason to question the performance evaluation or the social feedback.”

That means students may feel they are getting ahead in class, but actually they are falling into a feedback loop in which they fall further and further behind, according to Mr. Fremer of Caveon, the test-security firm. His firm was not part of the Harvard-Duke study.

“If the test scores misrepresent what kids know, [teachers] may have the wrong sense of where they need help,” he said.

Moreover, such self-deception can lead to a “death of a thousand cuts” for a student’s honesty, Mr. Stephens of the University of Connecticut said.

“Kids start to disengage [from] responsibility habitually; cheating in high school does lead to dishonesty in the workplace as an adult,” he said.

Overwhelmed, Unengaged?

Not only does one instance of cheating lead to another, but the school environment can make it easier for students to mentally justify their dishonesty, research shows. Studies by Mr. Stephens and others that show students are more likely to cheat when they are under pressure to get high grades, uncertain about their own ability, unengaged in the material, or some combination of the three. In addition, students are better able to justify cheating in classes in which they feel the teacher is unfair or does not attempt to engage them in learning.

Yet the entirety of the studies also suggests that making students more aware of the importance of academic integrity and learning, not just grades, can make them less likely to cheat.

In a previous study, Dan Ariely, a professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke and a co-author of the Harvard-Duke study, found test-takers became less likely to cheat if they were reminded of a school honor code, or if they saw someone they considered an outsider cheating.

Ms. Chance and Mr. Fremer said teachers and administrators should try to reduce opportunities for students to cheat, but should also help them establish classwide and schoolwide codes for academic integrity, and then reinforce the importance of that code before every assignment.

“When it comes to recidivism, question your assumptions about motivation to inform your decisions about punishment,” Ms. Chance said. “Try out the assumption that kids cheat because they are stressed out about college, and afraid they aren’t smart enough.

“Think about helping cheaters find alternative means to get what they want,” she said, “so that they don’t react by cheating more or giving up.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 30, 2011 edition of Education Week


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