College cheaters, caught and inspired

cheaters, college, professors, higher education
James M. Lang’s book challenges professors to do more than teach to a test.

As a longtime English professor at Assumption College, James M. Lang has dealt with plagiarism for a number of years. And along the way, he has developed a firm commitment to enforcing the rules.

But it wasn’t until he came across Duke University psychologist Dan Ariely’s research on cheating and dishonesty that he fundamentally re-examined his approach to the problem.

“When Ariely and his colleagues wanted to create a situation that nudged people toward cheating, they knew how to do it,” says Lang. “And it just hit me: If they’re capable of doing that, why aren’t we capable of creating an environment that leads people away from cheating?”

Lang’s latest book, ­“Cheating Lessons: Learning from Academic Dishonesty,” explores that very question. And his verdict is in: Professors are decidedly capable of decreasing cheating by subtly changing the framework of the classroom. For Lang, the key is a shift away from a “performance orientation” toward a “mastery orientation.”

“If the teacher is constantly pointing to the test and teaching toward the test, that can be a performance orientation. But perhaps a bigger problem develops when a teacher doesn’t give the student any choice in how they demonstrate learning,” says Lang. “They make students responsible for a huge body of material, but only give them a few tests to show they learned it. A better way is to say, ‘Show me what you’ve learned. Here’s 12 different ways to do that.’”

And there’s a huge fringe benefit to this shift, for both students and professors: “It turns out that when students have a performance orientation, not only do they cheat more often, but they actually learn less, even when they aren’t cheating,” reports Lang. “They tend to engage in shallower forms of learning, where they don’t retain much afterward.”


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