Today, cheating is ubiquitous.
Here’s just a recent smattering: the current controversy over Asian students’ SAT scores, a cheating scandal in an Atlanta school district, and new research that suggests college courses might actually encourage cheating.
The National Education Association notes that at least 80 percent of students admit to cheating at least once during high school. The rates are similarly high for college students.
Why is cheating so prevalent?
In part, it’s our obsession with winning or getting the right answer, which places too much emphasis on the end result instead of the process. Test scores tied to federal support increasingly put pressure on teachers and students to produce singular right answers.
In science and math learning, though, cheating is a major roadblock. Fundamental concepts and complexities build on each other. Simply jumping to the perceived end goal without understanding how to get there or why may yield high marks in the short-term. But it doesn’t lay the foundation for long-term success and achievement. When we first learn something, we may not yet understand that there are often many different solutions that can produce that same “right” answer.
That’s why trial and error, asking questions, and learning to persevere to reach an answer are all so important.
Thus, while the most common way to assess student mastery of material (or education quality) is exams, a high test score may not actually be representative of student achievement if teachers teach to the test or students simply learn how to take tests.
What we need instead are projects that allow students to engage in creative problem solving, to let them learn how to learn, and to try different solutions to solve a problem (including many that fail!). Creativity and problem-solving skills are the key drivers in new scientific discoveries and technological advances, not standardized exams.
One innovative effort that focuses on teaching students these skills is the National Science Foundation Materials World Modules. Middle school and high school students are trained in inquiry and design-based learning in STEM. Groups of students engage in hands-on experiments and then explain what they observe. For example, I contributed content to a module on Nano-patterning, in which students figure out why butterfly wings and opals have the colors they do by learning how to fabricate micro- and nanostructures. They are not, at the outset, given the right answer to interpret their observations. Student responses have been overwhelmingly positive and they have shown high achievement gains. We need more programs like this.
At the college level, creative approaches include SCALE-UP (Student-Centered Active Learning Environment with Upside-down Pedagogies), where the physical space of classrooms is redesigned so that class-wide discussions can occur as students are organized into groups. Another successful strategy is the Freshmen Research Initiative where integrated coursework and research is carried out by groups of students in dedicated lab space.
In STEM, learning how to learn is critical. Let’s figure out ways to test that.