Key to Reducing Cheating is to Create a Better Learning Environment

Academic Dishonesty is Focus of Lecture by James Lang

​HARTFORD, CT, September 14, 2012 – A recent study showed that 75 percent of students admitted to having cheated at least once during their four years of college, according to James Lang, an associate professor of English and director of the College Honors Program at Assumption in Worcester, MA.

“That’s a pretty big number,” acknowledged Lang, who is about to have a book published that will explain how building better learning environments can lower academic dishonesty rates. Lang was the featured speaker Thursday at an event sponsored by the Center for Teaching and Learning, which is part of an ongoing series, “Cultivating the Curious Student.”

The subject tackled by Lang, who spoke to a Common Hour gathering on Thursday, was “Building a Better Learning Environment: Lessons from Academic Dishonesty.” His research will appear in a soon-to-be-published book by Harvard University Press in the spring of 2013.

At the core of Lang’s work is the notion that flawed learning environments increase the likelihood that students will cheat and that there are practical measures that faculty can take that can foster a student’s desire to learn instead of having them focus on the end game, which is to obtain a good grade.

Among the measures that professors can take are those that promote internal motivation, orient students toward mastery learning, and give them the most effective set of tools for long-term retention.

Lang suggested that in too many classes, students are more focused on achieving a good grade than they are on mastering the course material and on actual learning. It’s particularly true among first-year students and tends to decrease as students become upperclassmen. The attitude that grades are more important than learning is a trend that must be reversed, Lang said, if academics are going to get their arms around this pervasive problem.

Interestingly, research has shown that if students learn material simply to get a good grade on a test, they are less likely to remember the material after the test is over. Lang called it “bulimic learning – it goes in and out it goes.”

Thus, if students are oriented toward how they perform on tests – a short-term goal -- they are more likely to cheat. He theorized that students might cheat less if professors were to give frequent quizzes and tests rather than having a grade ride entirely on a final exam.

He noted that the emphasis on standardized testing nowadays may be aggravating the problem because “teaching to the test,” especially in elementary and secondary school, has become commonplace because teachers are being judged on how well their students perform. In a growing number of places, teachers’ jobs are dependent on testing outcomes.

In addition, Lang told his audience that students are more likely to engage in academic dishonesty if cheating is “perceived as common and approved by their peers.”

Some of the ways to combat cheating, Lang said, are to emphasize the mastery of material instead of grades, and devising multiple ways to get an A, so that students have choices or “individualized learning paths.”

Lang is the author of two books on teaching: On Course: A Week-by-Week Guide to Your First Semester of College Teaching, and Life on the Tenure Track: Lessons from the First Year. He also writes a regular series of columns on teaching and learning in The Chronicle of Higher Education.