Special report: Lessons for cheats about fairness

By Geoff Cumming

Geoff Cumming meets an expert determined to help young people fight temptations of technology and stay honest.

Students have been caught using cellphones in exams, sneaking in notes, communicating with other students and even organising stand-ins. Photo / Getty Images
Students have been caught using cellphones in exams, sneaking in notes, communicating with other students and even organising stand-ins. Photo / Getty Images

It's a subject schools and universities don't like to dwell on - the likelihood that students may be cheating their way to academic success and higher qualifications.

Officially, there is little evidence of a problem. Just 360 students who sat NCEA external exams in 2011 were reported for suspicious activity, and 300 breaches established - a small fraction of the 140,000 candidates.

But unless New Zealand students have an ethical code uniquely superior to their peers in other countries, those numbers are the tip of the iceberg, says an expert on moral development in young people.

Jason Stephens, an educational psychologist from Connecticut University, is on a crusade to instil moral values in adolescents.

Dr Stephens has taken up a four-year lectureship at Auckland University's education faculty and hopes to involve New Zealand schools in his research developing programmes to minimise cheating.

The media captures snapshots of the problem: students using cellphones in exams or sneaking in notes; communicating with other students; impersonators standing in for candidates.

But overseas studies suggest cheating is much more widespread than teachers and parents may care to admit. Surveys in United States high schools consistently find at least four out of five students admit to cheating in some form, though it may be limited to texting friends for homework answers. But about 60 per cent admit to plagiarism from the internet, and 45 per cent to copying from books without citation.

Worse happens in exams. Cheating has become a major issue in American high schools and universities, with recent scandals rocking institutions as prestigious as Stuyvesant High School in New York and Harvard. Authorities in Italy and Taiwan have used military-grade cellphone jammers to stop answers being relayed into exam rooms.

In Vietnam, candidates were caught wearing wigs and shirts wired to call in questions and answers. Bangladeshi students were found using cellphones disguised as wrist watches.

New Zealand universities have caught students sitting papers on behalf of others.

Rather than creating a police state where schools are like prisons and teachers become guards, it's preferable for schools to develop a culture of integrity to discourage cheating, Dr Stephens says.

There's no mystery as to why students cheat - to gain an advantage; to pass a test; because the perceived reward outweighs their concept of what's right, he says.

But societal changes have made it more likely. The internet and advances in portable technology have increased opportunities to cheat. The information age has also made young people more aware of dishonesty and corruption in the adult world, from financial scandals to political deceit.

"In the US, kids are living in a culture where dishonesty is rife and seems to get rewarded, where the rich get richer," he says.

Not helping is the politically driven focus on measuring progress more often, with students feeling more pressure to pass tests and gain job qualifications.

"The goal is no longer to learn all you can but to get the credentials needed because that's what gets you the job, the nice house and car, the fun vacation."

In the US (and increasingly here), universities are demanding higher grades for scarce places.

"In that sense there's been this great commodification of education. Passing tests supplants what should be the primary goal and that's about learning and mastery of skills."

This pressure comes at a vulnerable age.

"Children and adolescents don't yet have a fully fused moral commitment, where they are willing to suffer the slings and arrows in order to do the right thing. They may not have the strength or the skills to complete the action honestly so they take an ethical shortcut. Then there's the group who know it's wrong to cheat but still find themselves doing it."

It's easy to rationalise cheating, through disengagement or by diffusing or displacing responsibility.

"Nobody wants to feel they are a jerk so they neutralise the sting to their ego - 'it's the teacher's fault'; 'the test was unfair'; 'a little cheating now will be worth it for the difference it will make to my life' ..."

What can schools do to combat the problem?

Telling kids not to cheat because it's against the rules or they might get caught has limited effect, Dr Stephens says. Far better to invoke a moral judgment - "it's not fair"; "it's a violation of trust"; "it's giving me an unfair advantage that may have consequences for others".

Dr Stephens and academic colleague David Wangaard are developing a programme called Achieving With Integrity, based on their knowledge of how adolescent morality develops.

The programme offers a process of raising moral awareness, increasing use of reasoning, strengthening commitment and developing the will and skill for moral action.

The pair hope to develop a pilot programme with New Zealand and American schools to progress research on what works for teachers.

Dr Stephens says a school-wide culture needs to be developed, involving students in committees and offering teachers professional development opportunities as well as classroom content.

"Rather than lecturing to kids it's better to involve them in discussions - it's almost a non-moralistic education in a sense.

"What it really comes down to is kids recognising that it's not fair."

Helping hand

84.5 per cent Copied homework (using a friend's notes)
60.4 per cent Plagiarised from the internet
44.5 per cent Used unpermitted notes in exam
60.5 per cent Copied off others in exam
Source: School Ethical Education.

Jason Stephens: Why students cheat (even when they believe it's wrong) and how teachers can turn the problem into a "teachable" moment. 4.30pm, Tuesday, June 18. J2 theatre, Epsom Campus, 74 Epsom Ave.

- NZ Herald

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