Recommended Reading: Cheating Lessons by James Lang

Last summer, I was honored to be asked to read and review James Lang’s excellent new book, Cheating Lessons: Learning from Academic Dishonesty (Harvard University Press, 2013). James Lang is an associate professor of English and the director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at Assumption College, and he writes about teaching in a regular column in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Here’s what I wrote this summer about Cheating Lessons:

Lang’s book serves as an excellent introduction to principles of effective teaching—that is, teaching that leads to meaningful student learning. Happily, these principles also reduce student motivation to cheat, as Lang cogently argues. Faculty will find in Cheating Lessons many practical examples of ways they can implement these principles in their teaching.”

I meant to blog about the book when it came out in September, but the fall semester got away from me. Better late than never, right?All In

Lang begins his book by looking at the rates of cheating among college students over the years, marshaling a number of statistics to argue that, contrary to some media narratives, cheating rates are not on the rise. Unfortunately, that’s because they’ve been “sky high” for decades. Not great news, but I guess the situation could be worse!

Cheating LessonsWhat to do about cheating? Lang begins his exploration of this question by considering a few notable examples in the history of cheating: the ancient Olympics, civil service exams in imperial China, and, more recently, the cheating scandal in Atlanta public schools. From these examples, Lang derives four features of learning environments that tend to foster cheating:

  1. An emphasis on performance
  2. High stakes assessments
  3. An extrinsic motivation for success, and
  4. A low expectation of success.

Drawing on psychology and cognitive science research, Lang argues that reducing these features in the learning environments our students experience will not only decrease our students’ motivation to cheat but will also increase our students’ desire and ability to learn.

In the middle chapters of Cheating Lessons, Lang provides practical suggestions for designing learning environments that foster intrinsic motivation and learning for mastery, that lower the stakes on assessments, and that instill self-efficacy in students. Each of these chapters features a profile of a college teacher whose courses are particularly effective at reducing cheating and fostering learning, along with a set of strategies that can be adapted to a variety of college and university teaching contexts. Lang focuses in these chapters on the teaching choices made by individual instructors, noting that faculty have a high degree of control over the role the above factors play in the courses they teach.

Later in the book, Lang takes a look at institution-level initiatives aimed at reducing cheating, noting that some of the most effective initiatives involve nothing more than reminding students about academic honesty immediately before they take a test. There’s not much evidence that a “general effort to drill the virtues of academic honesty into students at the beginning of their freshmen year” is effective, nor is it useful to ask students to report incidents of cheating by their peers, nor are harsh penalties demonstrably effective at preventing cheating. Lang provides some tips for responding to incidents of cheating, focusing not on punishment but on education, and for talking with one’s students about academic honesty, but it’s clear that he sees the most potential for reducing cheating in the careful design of courses and learning environments.

My main criticism of the book is that some of the courses Lang profiles in those middle chapters, while interesting and illustrative, are so different from typical college courses that I think many instructors would have a hard time using them as models for their own teaching. I can’t see many teachers reading these case studies and saying, “Yeah, I could do that.” Each chapter certainly provides practical advice for the college teacher interested in designing more effective learning environments, but I worry that some readers might find the profiled courses a bit too ambitious.

With that caveat, I highly recommend this book. Lang’s focus on student motivation and its connection to both cheating and learning is insightful and important, and the course design strategies he shares are practical and transferable to almost any teaching context. And Lang’s Chapter 9 is perhaps the best exploration I’ve ever read of why and how we ask students to do original work in the courses we teach. That chapter alone is worth the price of admission!

Below, I’ll share a few questions that occurred to me as I read Cheating Lessons. Feel free to weigh in on these questions in the comments, whether you’ve read Lang’s book or not.

  1. In the chapter on fostering intrinsic motivation, Lang cites Ken Bain’s What the Best College Teachers Do: “Bain’s theories on motivation suggest that intrinsically motivating questions we pose to the students have to authentic ones—they cannot be questions to which we already have the answers, and toward which we slowly lead students in a step-by-step process” (p. 73). I like this notion, and it’s certainly in line with the “Students as Producers” theme at the Vanderbilt Center for Teaching this year. But I wonder about the Moore method, in which students prove, largely on their own, classic results in a particular field of mathematics. Does this approach, in which all of the questions already have answers, only really work for well-motivated students?
  2. Lang profiles John Boyer’s “World Regions” course at Virginia Tech, which enrolls over 2,000 students each year. In order to foster mastery learning, Boyer gives his students a long list of different assignments they can tackle. If they successfully execute enough of the assignments, they earn a good grade in the course. Again, I like this notion, particularly since it supports student autonomy, which we know is a key ingredient in intrinsic motivation, but it’s a little hard to reconcile with the importance of establishing learning goals for a course. How do you ensure that students master particular concepts or skills when you give them “choice and control” over their assessments?
  3. Writing about Michelle Miller’s cognitive psychology course at Northern Arizona University, Lang notes that her students “do not receive the answers to the [online reading] quiz questions as soon as they have taken them—a practice that you see, for example, in many online tutorials” (p. 118). I’m reminded of the requests I sometimes receive from my engineering students for the final numerical answers to my homework problems, so they can check their work before they turn in their problem sets. Providing students feedback on their learning is important, but perhaps immediate feedback is counter-productive. What, then, of intelligent tutoring systems that are built around such immediate feedback? Under what conditions is immediate feedback more or less useful?

Full disclosure: I was asked to read and review Cheating Lessons by Harvard University Press, and I was given a complimentary copy of the book for my effort. I’m also cited in the book twice, once for a blog post on the flipped classroom and once for my book on teaching with clickers. And, for what it’s worth, I interviewed James Lang about teaching first-year students for the fifth episode of the Vanderbilt Center for Teaching podcast, way back in 2008!

Image: “All In,” hjhipster, Flickr (CC)

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