The obvious explanation isn’t the only explanation.
There’s evidence that cheating is more common now, especially in online environments. One reasonable response to this trend is to try to find ways to detect cheating, but it’s also worth considering why it happens in the first place. Sometimes, of course, the simple explanation is the best one: some of the cheaters simply want to do well on tests without putting in the work or acquiring the relevant skills.
But that can’t be the only explanation, and I know this because I’ve seen an uptick of cheating among my students, and I’m a test prep tutor. I’m not talking about cheating on the actual exam, either. As hard as this may be to believe, I’m seeing more and more students who are cheating on their practice exams and reporting better scores than they actually earned.
Wait, what? Why would they do that?
I know, I know. It’s baffling. Why would someone lie to their tutor about their practice test performances? It makes no sense, because if they lie to me, then it’s much harder for me to help them get better scores on the real test, and that’s the whole point of the experience. And yet that’s what happens sometimes, and more than ever.
How do I know this? Well, sometimes, the cheating is obvious. When students who have extensive weaknesses in math suddenly claim to have earned perfect scores without practicing, I get skeptical. I’m good, but I’m not good enough to raise scores by my presence alone. I also get suspicious when I ask students to explain how they got certain questions right and they either have no explanation or claim that they “guessed right” over and over again. Eventually, cheating becomes the likeliest explanation, outweighing both my tendency think the best of people for as long as possible and the fact that this kind of cheating makes no sense.
Or does it? Maybe this behavior is explainable, even when it leads to negative consequences in the long run. Consider these factors:
For some people, the tests, school and life itself are so stressful that they’ll do virtually anything to make the feeling go away. This is awful, of course, but it’s also the predictable result of educational cultures that pile on endless, uninspiring work and threaten ferocious punishment for those who fail to comply. While these approaches are not the only factor putting young people’s mental health at risk, they are likely an important factor.
Cheating on practice tests makes the stress go away, at least in the short run. It’s sort of like ignoring your credit card bills because you just can’t face them. At some level, you know that you’ll have to deal with them eventually, but you keep putting it off because the reality is so awful. And of course, the longer you wait, the worse they get, but that just increases the incentive to ignore them even longer.
I’ve seen this play out with some of my test prep students, and if I catch it early enough, it’s possible to recover. Confronting them is extremely delicate, but once everyone knows that everyone knows the truth, we can have an honest conversation: we all have strengths and weaknesses, mistakes are inevitable, and we have to forgive ourselves for our imperfections so that we can learn and grow.
Some students have an image of themselves that is so strong that it filters out conflicting evidence. When they lie about their results, they’re really lying to themselves first. They see themselves as academically successful, or at least competent, and evidence that contradicts that view gets explained away. So they give themselves extra time, change their responses after they see the answer key, give themselves “do-overs” or decide that certain results “don’t count.” Eventually, reality kicks in, but by the time it does, they’re just as surprised as everyone else.
Self-delusion has many potential causes. Prominent among them is being insulated from adversity and consequences. Failure is always stressful, but it’s more stressful if you’re used to succeeding easily. And while some students react constructively when they learn about their weaknesses, others solve the problem by convincing themselves that their weaknesses don’t exist. Nudging those individuals to a healthier and more accurate self-image is a delicate process.
Young people are not exactly famous for making great decisions under pressure. Adults don’t have an unblemished record, either, but the young are even worse. Indeed, we’ve learned that executive functioning, which includes the ability to plan, is a developing competency that isn’t quite formed during the school years. For some, short-term temptations consistently win out over long-term consequences. In these cases, cheating is really about maturity more than dishonesty.
In this scenario, the students know exactly what they’re doing, but they don’t care because they’ve had it with school, with tests and maybe more. Sometimes it’s hard to blame them. Think about what we demand of them, how uninspiring school can be and how tentative the rewards might be. In this world, it’s easy to see why so many students are taking the off-ramp. Cheating on practice tests is one way to demonstrate defiance, especially when the cheating is so obvious that it can’t be denied.
Playing the System
Some students can maintain the deception even after their real test results come out. When the real results are much lower than the practice ones, they can say that they were stressed out or “just don’t do well on tests.” Without clear proof, they can get away with it, and some will go to extreme lengths to keep the illusion going. In one recent case, a student doctored a score report to make it look like her score was much better, but she didn’t do a perfect job. When I asked about some details that didn’t make sense, her internet connection immediately “failed,” and then she stopped answering her phone.
Even though I’ve seen quite a few of these cases in the past few years, it’s hard to know how much has really changed. They may be isolated cases. But it sure seems like this is a much bigger problem than it used to be. Why would that be? There are lots of candidate explanations, including increased anxiety, pandemic learning loss, delayed maturity, overinflated self-esteem and an educational system based on compliance and punishments. Perhaps it’s a combination of these and other factors, and each case is different. Still, I strongly suspect that something is going on, and it’s much more complicated than it seems.