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Teaching Tip: Why Students Cheat–And What You Can Do About It

May 29, 2012

The Wall Street Journal (May 26-27, 2012) reviews a fascinating new book by Duke U. Professor Dan Ariely called “The  (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty“. The essence is why normal everyday people (and, of course,  students) cheat and lie. It turns out that everybody has the capacity to be dishonest, and almost everybody cheats—just by a little. The purpose of locks, says one  locksmith,” is to protect you from the 98% of mostly honest people who might be tempted to try your door if it had no lock.”

Ariely found many reasons why students might cheat. A common one was having another student in the room who was clearly cheating. Watching a mini-Madoff  cheat on a test encouraged the remaining students to also do so. Cheating, it seems, is infectious.

Does the prospect of flunking or other punishment make a student less likely to cheat ? “It may have a small effect on our behavior,” says Ariely,  “but it is probably going to be of little consequence when it comes up against the brute psychological force of ‘I’m only fudging a little’ or ‘Everyone does it’ .”

So what can we as instructors do? Here are Ariely’s suggestions: (1) Just before a quiz or assignment, tell students to recall the Ten Commandments. In his experiment doing so, Ariely found  cheating dropped to zero! The same happened when he reran the experiment, reminding students of their schools’ honor codes instead of the Ten Commandments. (2) Having students sign a vow not to cheat at the top of the exam, rather than the bottom, likewise decreased cheating. While ethics lectures and training seem to have little to no effect on students, reminders of morality—right at the point where people are making a decision—appear to have an outsize effect on behavior.

(Note: My own prosaic advise: (1) Don’t leave the room during a quiz or exam and (2) Use MyOMLab with algorithmic assignments so each student works with a different data set.)

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