Focus on learning over results promotes academic integrity

January 12, 2015 | Posted in: Early Learners, Elementary, High School, Middle Years | with 0 Comments

A story about cheating at Dartmouth College provides an opportunity to discuss with school-age children the importance of academic honesty.

The Ivy League school in Hanover, N.H., often described as one of the nation’s elite private colleges, has accused 64 students of cheating in a sports ethics class. The students, many of them athletes, allegedly skipped class after passing off to classmates their “clickers,” personal handheld devices used to indicate attendance and answer questions. (You can read details of the story in the Valley News.)

Aine Donovan, director of Dartmouth’s ethics institute, told Bloomberg that a growing number of students are cheating in college. She attributes the rise to a culture in which students are “raised with the notion that they are the best, not with the notions of integrity, responsibility and self-sacrifice.”

“Self-regulation is a difficult notion for an 18-year old,” Donovan told Bloomberg. “Our society doesn’t encourage that anymore.”

It’s a sad statement about our society, and one that we, as parents, must move to change.

While there is clearly some irony in athletes being accused of cheating in a sports ethics class, the real issue is this: Does the drive for success mean children learn it’s better to cheat than falter or fail?

Eric Anderman, Professor of Educational Policy and Leadership at Ohio State University, is a recognized expert on student cheating. In his research, Anderman has found that cheating is less likely to occur in classrooms where the focus is on mastering the material – in other words, learning and understanding what is being taught – rather than on test scores and grades. His research showed that “when students perceive that the ultimate goal of learning is to get good grades, they are more likely to see cheating as an acceptable, justifiable behavior.” Dangle an additional carrot in front of children, such as a financial reward from parents for good grades, and students are even more inclined to cheat, Anderman discovered.

Research also shows the incidence of cheating increases as children move from elementary school to middle school, and again from middle school to high school. Why?

“During those transitions, teachers start changing how they talk to students. While earlier in school, teachers emphasize how learning is fun, as students get older teachers begin saying things like ‘Now it’s serious. Your grades matter.’ That’s directly related to cheating,” Anderman said in a story on the Ohio State University website.

It makes sense that when students receive that same message from home, cheating becomes a viable option for ensuring good grades.

Yet, what we really want is for our children to learn, understand and be able to apply that knowledge in a meaningful way.

Perhaps the first place for parents to start is with our own expectations. Rather than put our focus on grades (the outcome), we should put our energy into encouraging a love of learning. That’s not to say grades aren’t important, because how well a child does on a test can indicate an understanding of material. But helping a student develop a love of learning means they will be more inclined to want to understand the material, to develop a mastery of skills. (And, in fact, Anderman’s research showed that when the focus is on mastery, “Students will learn better, remember the material longer, cheat less, and still do just as well, if not better, when they do standardized testing.”)

Teaching young children about academic honesty can help them be their best long after elementary school.

A few things to remind children:

  • When you cheat, you don’t learn – so in essence you’re cheating yourself. Sure, you may get a better grade on the test, but it doesn’t help you build knowledge and develop important skills. Since learning tends to build on previous lessons, it’s important to master skills at each level in order to move to the next.
  • Cheating is wrong, just as lying and stealing are wrong.
  • Copying homework is a form of cheating. Ask your child how she would feel if a classmate got the same grade on a homework assignment but didn’t put any work into it. Would it seem fair?
  • When you cheat, you compromise your relationship with your teacher, classmates and parents. Breaking trust damages a relationship, and it can be hard to regain that trust.

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