In 2015, three teachers in Atlanta were convicted of changing student answers on standardized tests and sentenced to
seven three years in prison, Volkswagen admitted to programming engines to run differently during emissions tests than in daily use and set aside billions of dollars to deal with the situation, and countless students across the country cheated on exams. Although the scope and consequences of these actions vary widely, James Lang’s 2013 book Cheating Lessons suggests that they have similar origins. On page 35, Lang lists the “four features of a learning or competing environment that may pressure individuals into cheating,” including:
- An emphasis on performance
- High stakes riding on the outcome
- An extrinsic motivation for success
- A low expectation of success
In Volkswagen’s case, their diesel engines since 2009 have emitted between 10 and 40 times the nitrous oxide allowed by law when being used normally. These cheats date back to 2007, when VW’s CEO set the goal of surpassing Toyota as the world’s largest automaker, pressuring employees to produce the larger, more powerful cars that Americans like while also increasing fuel economy to meet more stringent standards. VW has also maintained that executives did not know about the cheating, blaming it on the individual actions (however unlikely) of engineers.
For college students, Lang distinguishes between “mastery” and “performance” orientations. In VW’s case, there was intense pressure to meet the CEO’s goals (compared, perhaps, to improving engine technology for its own sake). This pressure also involved high stakes. Engineers who could not produce the products promised by the CEO may have found their jobs in danger. This was also an extrinsic motivation that must have, in the eyes of the engineers, seemed impossible to achieve (better fuel economy is typically associated with smaller, less powerful cars, which is why European countries with higher gas prices are often offered a wider range of lower-powered engines than Americans can choose from when shopping for a car). The same factors were at play in Atlanta, where an emphasis on performance (increasing test scores) combined with high stakes (job loss and/or school restructuring), extrinsic motivation, and a low expectation of success that led educators to change test answers. (Michelle Rhee’s time as Chancellor of Washington D.C.’s schools is similarly associated with extremely high stakes and accusations of cheating.)
Most college professors cannot do anything about VW or high school cheating scandals (even if we would like to reduce the reliance on standardized tests!) but we can work to prevent these factors from prevailing in our classrooms. James argues that by emphasizing mastery rather than performance, providing a wide range of exams and assignments rather than just a few heavily-weighted course requirements, reducing external pressure on students from parents, and communicating our belief that students can succeed we can create environments that will reduce cheating more than simply offering multiple exam forms or using assigned seating arrangements.
Some of these are easier than others, but I think that the examination of the context in which college learning and assessment takes place is really important in discussions of academic dishonesty.
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