Your Child Cheated on a Test: Now What?

Anecdotally, parents and teachers realize that many kids will plagiarize, cheat, or pass off others’ work as their own before they graduate college. What if your kid is one of them?

The (Not-so) Surprising Research

Academic cheating is woefully common today. A 2012 Challenge Success report by Dr. Denise Pope of Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education reviewed studies that found cheating rates among high school students were well above 70 percent. She and her colleagues set out to look at the reasons why middle and high school students cheat and to advise parents what they can do so this problem doesn’t arise with their own kids.

It’s not just struggling students who succumb to the temptation to cheat. Dr. Pope’s white paper found that high-achieving students cheat just as much as their lower-achieving peers, which researchers believe may have to do with the intense class load and pressures that all students now face daily. “One theory about why cheating levels are so high,” says Dr. Joan Munson, Ph.D., a psychotherapist, parent, and contributor to Empowering Parents, “is that it’s related to the vast number of tests and assessments students are required to take.”

The Educational Testing Service has a fact sheet on academic cheating, which asserts that cheating may begin in elementary school when children bend or break the rules to win competitive games. It sets in at the junior high level — where there’s increased emphasis on grades — and reaches its peak in high school.

If Your Child Cheats

First and foremost, it’s important to stay calm in order to have an open conversation with your child, says Dr. Munson. If you immediately get furious and start punishing or taking away privileges without discussing the situation, the result may be that your child will continue cheating and just try harder to avoid getting caught, says Dr. Eric Anderman, an expert on student cheating and professor of Educational Psychology and Chair of the Department of Educational Studies at Ohio State University.

Getting to the heart of the problem is key. As Anderman says, sometimes students cheat because a class is difficult, they believe they’re dumb, or they get a thrill from it. To find out more, Dr. Munson suggests asking some open-ended questions:

  • What made you cheat?
  • What has taking this class been like?
  • Which parts of the class are easy? Hard? Stressful?
  • How prepared were you for this assignment/test/project?
  • What could you have done differently to prepare?
  • How available is your teacher to help you, and when can you meet with her?

This dialogue has potential benefits for both of you. Not only will it help you understand where your child went wrong, but ideally it will help her to learn what she can do differently in the future — and lower the pressure all around.

During this conversation, make it clear what your expectations are when it comes to cheating. Dr. Munson suggests using statements like, “We don’t tolerate cheating in our house. It’s dishonest and you learn nothing.” Explain how it can lead to continued cheating later, and give examples of people who have been caught cheating in the business world, politics, sports, and so on, as well as the consequences they faced as a result. “Sometimes kids only associate cheating with copying a paper or looking at someone’s test, but the scope of cheating extends far beyond school,” says Dr. Munson. “Make sure your child understands the association.”

Don’t accept the excuse, “But everyone cheats!” Shut this down by saying, “First, not everyone cheats. Second, I don’t care what everyone else does. I care about you, and this is not acceptable.”

Consequences for Cheating

Clear consequences should come out of this experience, says Dr. Munson. “The student should be required to talk to [her] teacher about what [she] did (if the teacher doesn’t already know),” she says. “This will be painful, but a necessary and appropriate punishment to ensure it doesn’t happen again.”

Depending on your child’s age, you may want to go with her to help navigate this conversation. For younger kids (elementary and middle school), a parent should absolutely be there, says Dr. Munson, so that the teacher and school know you are serious about curbing this behavior. High school students are old enough to handle this step on their own, but following up with the teacher is a good idea. This way you can make sure the discussion took place and that the teacher knows you’re involved in the process.

Dr. Munson says the consequence will likely be decided by the teacher and may involve redoing the work, receiving a failing grade for the assignment, or detention. Embarrassment and guilt will naturally result, but this is how your child will learn.

Another consequence Dr. Munson suggests is for your child to meet with the teacher to review the work she cheated on to be sure she fully understands the material before moving on to another topic. Not only will this help prevent falling behind, but it gives your child practice in going to the teacher if she needs help or is overwhelmed.

“If all of these consequences are enforced, there’s no reason to have further punishments,” Dr. Munson says. “The best ‘punishment’ is for them to acknowledge what they’ve done wrong, take steps to reconcile with their teacher, and learn to make better choices next time.”

Conversation With the Teacher

According to Dr. Anderman, research has shown repeatedly that students cheat more often when they’re in classes where the teacher is perceived as stressing the importance of grades and test scores. Teachers need to think about the messages they’re sending. “If the message is always ‘test, test, test,’ then there will be more cheating,” he says. “However, a different message that teachers can send is that what is most important is learning, not testing.”

This doesn’t mean we should eliminate tests, but rather focus more on why the skills and concepts are important, with learning, mastery, and understanding as the key outcomes. Parents can talk to teachers about these aims and let them know that they support a commitment to genuine learning, even if the school’s leadership emphasizes testing. This may establish an alliance and open dialogue between teacher and parent that can affect the learning environment for the student — but if not, you’ve at least let the school know where your priorities are.

Further Reading on Noodle

Sources:

Cheating Fact Sheet - RESEARCH CENTER - Cheating Is A Personal Foul. (n.d.). Retrieved April 17, 2015, from ETS.

Interview (n.d.) with Dr. Joan Munson, Ph.D.

Interview (n.d.) with Eric Anderman, Ph.D.

Pope, D. (2012, January 1). Cheat or Be Cheated? What We Know About Academic Integrity in Middle & High Schools & What We Can Do About It. Retrieved April 18, 2015, from Challenge Success.