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Why Do Children Cheat?

The psychology of perverse educational incentives.

When we think of cheating in an exam, we tend to envision a solitary sneak who, if discovered, would receive opprobrium and rejection. Surely most students would look askance at a cheater and take comfort in drawing a firm boundary between the genuine hard-working student and the lazy student trying to gain marks by deception.

The recent exposure of wide-spread cheating on state exams in one of New York City’s most prestigious public schools raises huge questions about the real effect the emphasis on assessed merit is having on our children. (nytimes.com70-students-at-stuyvesant-to-retake-exams-after-cheating-case)

The 71 students (so far) who have been identified as using unfair means in an examination did not do so in hiding from one another. It is reported that one student photographed the exam on a mobile phone and sent information to other students, 69 of whom responded in ways that has resulted in the invalidation of their exam results. Another student engaged in similarly collaborative cheating by passing notes.

This is evidence of more than a few bad apples, though my experience as someone working in a prestigious college is that a so-called “bad apple” is responding in a tragic and counterproductive way to life in a barrel that has areas of rot. Student who are exposed as cheating tell me that they feel caught in a dilemma: they imagine that exam failure will expose them to parents’, teachers’ and even friends’ criticism and disdain, that they will make their parents unhappy and be seen as “ruining” their life chances or “wasting” a parent’s investment. They weight the risk of being exposed as less harmful than failing, or even simply failing to disitnguish themselves on an exam. The problem cannot be fixed by tough love, for example, by shaming the culprits and trying to inject moral fiber through disapproval; the problem has to address the culture and the underlying assumptions.

A students who cheats values an exam result above everything we hope a student values. A cheating student discounts the value not only his or her good name, character, and trustworthiness, but also the key element of education — learning. The student who cheats abandons faith in his or her ability to learn. Exam cheating is a symptom of profound self-despair and loss of confidence. Yet for the students at the high achieving Stuyvesant, this is unlikely to have been their starting point. Previously, they are likely to have delighted in learning and been thrilled to rise to its challenges.

A child has a natural born eagerness to learn. With exquisite attention, a growing child teases out knowledge, tests experience and thrills to new understanding. Human life begins with such dedication to discovery that babies have been dubbed “the scientist in the crib” (

In a healthy environment, this natural-born curiosity is later matched with a more deliberate persistence and concentration to help him or her excel exhibits. In fact, a belief that you have inborn talent can reduce your confidence; you are less willing to work hard at something lest failure expose the limit of your abilities. Someone who believes that work is necessary to achievement will read failure as one part of the long process of learning. Students who cheat take a shortcut to “achievement” and confuse good grades with ability. So confused are they about the meaning of self-worth and achievement that they may even feel good about themselves when they ace a test.

At school there are roughly three approaches to learning: surface learning, where material is skimmed for salient facts; deep learning, where much time is invested in exploring background and making connections, and targeted learning, where the point is to pass an exam or achieve a specific grade. Each of these approaches has some benefits and some drawbacks, but when targets trump deep learning, the system falls apart.

It is not only students who demean themselves by responding to perverse incentives. Two years ago teachers at an elementary school in Houston distributed a targeted study guide when they managed to view exam questions in a sealed standardized exam, and comparable practices were uncovered in several other areas, particularly when teachers’ tenure depended on the students’ exam results. What we lose when we configure educational goals as grades is our ability to encourage our children to learn and excel. Perverse targets can infect the educational environment and deprive children of lessons in how to learn.

More from Terri Apter Ph.D.
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