Preventing cheating?

As part of my summer book list, I’m reading Cheating Lessons by James Lang.  In the book, Lang discusses the contextual factors that exist in learning environments that promote student cheating.  While I know that ultimately students choose to cheat, Lang discusses different curricular features that can pressure individuals into cheating. Beyond introducing the classroom features, he discusses case studies and research to help ground his work.  While I’ll leave the classroom features for another blog post down the road, I wanted to discuss an interesting research study that Lang introduces early in the book.  Published in a 2011 issue of the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, the study examined different factors that lead to elementary aged children cheating.  The children were given a difficult task (throwing balls at a target from behind their back with their non-dominant hand) and were offered prizes if they could hit the target a certain number of times.  In the study, the students were broken into three different groups.  One group was unsupervised.  Another was monitored by an adult.  The last group was told they were being monitored by an invisible princess named Alice.  An elaborate tale was constructed about the friendly princess and part of the study involved the children being asked whether they believed in her existence and ability.  This stated belief formed a major part of the research.

Most of the results from the study aren’t that surprising.  The unsupervised children cheated the most and the supervised children cheated the least.  The interesting part of the study comes from the “Princess Alice” group.  Those students who said they believed in Princess Alice were less likely to cheat than the group who didn’t believe in her.  The belief in the presence of an external monitor, even a supernatural one, influenced students’ cheating. While some of my more religion-minded friends may divine other aspects from this study, I want to take a look at this issue academically.

In an article published today on Inside Higher Education, researchers examined the use of Turnitin and other plagiarism detection software to identify student academic dishonesty.  In a few comprehensive studies, the researchers found that plagiarism detection software didn’t work that effectively.  When presented with sample plagiarized papers, the software missed many instances of plagiarized sections and detected others instances that were due more to clumsy writing.  Despite the costs of the plagiarism detection services, many universities rely on the systems as a way to prevent and detect cheating.  But what if the systems aren’t reliable?  Will this undermine the prevention?  Much like the presence of Princess Alice, are these services only valuable when students and faculty believe in them?  In some ways, the data reminds me of those traffic signs that say, “Speed limit enforced by aircraft.”  With watchful Princess Alices flying overhead, drivers are expected to follow the rules of the road.  But I’ve never heard of anyone getting a ticket via aircraft or spotted a helicopter, airplane or blimp monitoring the roads.  I’m sure this undermines the effectiveness of the signs as a prevention system.

In some ways, the same can be said of plagiarism detection systems.  When students start to realize that Princess Alice isn’t real (or isn’t reliable), how will that impact their choices?  I’m sure Lang would argue that students’ academic honesty isn’t solely connected to their fear of getting caught and that larger academic factors are at play.  The juxtaposition of the Princess Alice study and the Turnitin article, however, provides some opportunities for reflection.

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