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Aditi Mehra DHS, OTR/L
Aditi Mehra DHS, OTR/L

Why People Take Shortcuts

The aftermath of a university bribery scandal.

I recently wrote an article on cognitive misers, and I could not resist the temptation of revisiting that here. After the famous New York Times article revealed disturbing details about how certain children from wealthy families deceitfully gained admission into prestigious universities—people have been talking. The questions surrounding this issue are swarming. What moral messages are parents sending to their children? How can they deprive deserving students of legitimate seats? How can these scandals be run under the guise of charitable organizations?

While those are certainly legitimate ethical questions related to cheating, I wanted to bring the issue back around to the “cognitive miser” subject I referenced above. Live Science described a cognitive miser as “someone who seeks solutions to problems that take the least mental effort.” Simply put, we take mental shortcuts. Now, let’s take a moment and re-frame the university bribery scandal. Rather than thinking about it in terms of cheating, let’s instead evaluate it from a “shortcut” point of view.

The Child Shortcut

When parents paid test proctors to alter exam results, wasn’t this a short cut? Of course it was. Those children did not have to devote countless hours to test preparation as traditional students had done. Their results were simply handed to them. Realistically, the shortcut was about more than just hours, right? According to this article in edsurge.com, “Doing well on tests is the result of years of accumulated knowledge and cognitive abilities.” Those students who “bought” their results likely circumvented years of devout academic rigor and knowledge retention.

The Parent Shortcut

According to this article in cbslocal.com, “Parental involvement in the study process has been shown to help kids score higher than they would otherwise and can also help assuage the anxiety most kids feel leading up to test day.” This statement is completely accurate, but with one key caveat. Any mother or father knows that parenting is about more than providing support in the weeks or months leading up to an exam—it’s about years of continuous dedication and nurturing. Parents who committed bribery were able to take shortcuts of their own and likely circumvented many years of beneficial study sessions and support activities with their children.

A Teacher’s Perspective

As an occupational therapist of twenty years, and owner of a science-based learning lab (www.fitlearnersil.com) in the Chicago area, I’ve encountered a wide assortment of children and parents. There are some parents who are very proactive and enroll their children at young ages, recognizing the need to combat learning gaps before they surface. On the other hand, there are some parents who arrive at our lab with their high school-aged children, seeking “emergency” interventions.

Please understand that I applaud any parent’s decision to get help for his or her child, regardless of how late it may be. The unfortunate nature of learning gaps is that they perpetuate year after year until eventually forming somewhat of a gaping abyss. Gaps are largely recoverable, but an abyss is something of more catastrophic proportion. Gaps can be confined to academic deficiencies, whereas the other is a more destructive force that spills into the realm of psychological turmoil. When children enter this world, they can spiral into an endless cycle of self-doubt, depression, rebellion, or worse, suicidal thoughts.

No Shortcuts in Education

To a certain extent, shortcuts are human nature. When driving, we strategically seek out the shortest route from Point A to Point Z, and GPS devices have taken a lot of the guesswork out of this process. Unlike the benefit that can be derived from driving shortcuts, however, there isn't a rewarding shortcut on the road to academic success. There is definitely no GPS to help navigate the best scholarly route. To assure the smoothest pathway to college admissions, the following two ingredients are essential:

1. Fluency

Think about the alphabet. Does anyone really have to even ponder the ABCs? Not only do kids recite their ABCs, but they sing them—joyously no less. That is the most fundamental example of fluency. For a moment, imagine the idea of a little child singing the alphabet and skipping along to its rhythm. There is a happiness that comes from the idea of having seamless knowledge.

Imagine if everything a child learned in school was that seamless. It can be, but it requires fluency-based learning. Unfortunately, teachers and schools are strapped for time and resources, so curriculum can’t possibly be taught to a fluent level.

In an article by Carl Binder, he stated, “In order to acquire and attain competence on a given skill, both accuracy and speed are prerequisites.” Our academic system is very tuned to the “accuracy” component of learning but not as much to the “speed” part of the equation. Speed is the driving force behind fluency, which is vital to knowledge retention.

2. Reinforcement

Everything that we “enjoy” doing in life is because we feel reinforced by it. Why do kids enjoy playing video games over studying? The simple answer is that video games are more reinforcing. Fluency and reinforcement go hand in hand. When a child reads faster, he has a better understanding of what is being read, and then feels more reinforced by the act of reading.

Parents play an integral role in this process. The simple act of providing “positive reinforcement” or praise when children exhibit the desired behavior will go a long way toward encouraging productive outcomes. This can get tricky. As parents, what if we always reinforce the good grades, but never reinforce the act of studying for those good grades? Consider this from an article in the Psychological Record, which stated, “cheating is a function of operant contingencies, specifically the avoidance of negative social consequence such as low grades and social disapproval.” I’m sure one can see the glaring relevance of this in the “university bribery scandal.”

Conclusion

Both fluency and positive reinforcement take years of continuous practice and hard work to gain the desired results. There are no shortcuts to these practices. Most students who would have a legitimate shot at Ivy League admission have become fluent in their learning, and that has translated into a strong retention of knowledge. Remember that admissions tests likewise require fluency, as they do more than test knowledge—they also test how quickly one can recollect that knowledge. They are, after all, timed tests.

As for the reinforcement side, who doesn’t seek recognition and praise? Certainly, the prestige of an Ivy League education can do wonders for one’s credibility and status, but at what price? Positive reinforcement is intended to reward desirable behavior. In the university bribery scandal, what was the behavior being reinforced? Cheating.

While it is obvious that neither parents nor university admission departments should ever reinforce cheating, that is not the bigger issue here. The issue is the shortcut. If parents invested years reinforcing desirable behaviors like proper study habits or a love of reading, then perhaps last ditch unethical solutions would not be deemed necessary.

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About the Author
Aditi Mehra DHS, OTR/L

Aditi Mehra, Ph.D., is a pediatric occupational therapist with 20 years of experience within the field.