Cheating in the Digital Age

Senior Assistant Editor, Wintergreen Orchard House

Nov   2012



Cheating studentsTwenty-first century technology has improved our lives in countless ways. Information is disseminated in the blink of an eye, the goings-on of both our friends and the world at large are forever at our fingertips, and though we may be suffering the slings and arrows of waning face-to-face contact, our society is more interconnected than ever. No longer reliant on the archaic vestiges of yesteryear’s paper-based learning environments (card catalogs, hand-written notes, and even books), your students have greater access to science, literature, current events—everything under the sun—than any generation in history.

Yet with this great power comes great responsibility, as the saying goes, which is a lesson that many students have had to learn in the hardest way possible in recent months. A rash of cheating scandals has erupted among high-achieving high schoolers who are recklessly determined to excel on exams and standardized tests, by any means necessary.

A recent New York magazine article, “Cheating Upwards,” investigated the epidemic, focusing on a case in which a student at elite Stuyvesant High School in New York City used his iPhone to take pictures of pages from a Regents Exam and to pass along answers to his classmates. Now he may not be allowed to return to the school and the bright future his parents worked so hard for him to achieve is in jeopardy. And his story isn't unique. Dozens of similar cautionary tales are emerging from the halls of America's high schools, which begs the question . . .

Why are students cheating?

The article notes that it’s impossible to tell whether these recent events are indicative of a surge in cheating, but they do highlight a disconcerting problem. The piece points the finger at an increased emphasis on testing, suggesting that “success in school today depends not just on the SAT, but on a raft of federal and state standardized exams, often starting as early as fourth grade and continuing throughout high school.” Many students believe that their collegiate futures are dependent upon their test performance, and that overwhelming pressure drives them to cheat. And the fact that admission at top schools is more competitive than ever, particularly in a lackluster economy, serves to bolster that temptation.

I would also venture to guess that the very technology that has given students unbridled access to information and made their studies both broader and easier is equally conducive to rampant cheating. Only a decade ago, this act of defiance was carried out by such rudimentary means as surreptitious glances, stealthily passed notes, and church-quiet whispers. But today, as in the case of the student at Stuyvesant High School, smartphones and other electronic channels allow cheaters to spread their answers faster than an airborne plague.

What can you do to help stop it?

Obviously, cheating will never be entirely eliminated. According to the New York article, research shows that around 85% of high schoolers cheat at least once. But I believe you can take steps to stem the flow of dishonest test taking in an age when cutthroat admission and speedily transmitted information seem to have combined into a perfect storm:

  1. Maintain a frank and open dialogue with your students about the importance of standardized tests. Yes, they are important, but no, they are not everything. Remind them that if it comes down to it, they can retake their exams. And you might consider pointing some of your students toward schools that don’t even require the SAT or ACT for admission. Reduce the pressure, reduce the cheating.
  2. Work with teachers to minimize or eliminate the use of personal electronics in the classroom. Your students' texts and Tweets and status updates can wait until after school.
  3. Know thine enemy: Research all the latest tricks of the trade. A quick Google search of “how to cheat on a test” reveals a litany of clever tactics for cheating that “really work.”
  4. Then, research the ways in which teachers can stop them in their tracks, such as administering two versions of an exam or arranging their students' desks in a way that makes cheaters easier to spot.
  5. As a counselor, you may occasionally end up with cheaters in your office. Ask them about their motives for cheating and discuss why and how they can avoid it in the future. Whether it was a lazy lack of preparation, a deep-seated fear of failure, or plain old peer pressure, help them understand that the instant gratification of academic dishonesty is hardly worth the long-term ramifications.

Have you experienced an uptick in cheating and/or the use of technology as a tool for cheaters at your school? If so, what has been your response? Discuss in the comments.

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About Stephanie Farah

Stephanie Farah

Stephanie is a Writer and Senior Editor at Wintergreen Orchard House, where she manages the collection of data from schools in the Northeast and Midwest regions. Stephanie holds a B.A. in English from the University of Texas at Austin and a master's in journalism from the University of North Texas. At various times she has been: an uncertain undergrad, a financial aid recipient, a transfer applicant, and a grad student with an assistantship and a full ride. Stephanie is an avid writer, traveler, cook, and dog owner. She looks forward to sharing her experiences with college-bound students and the counselors guiding them along the way!  

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