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Recently, there’s been a virtual tsunami of stories about artificial intelligence and its impact on education. A primary concern is how easy programs like ChatGPT make it for students to cheat. Educators are scrambling to rethink assignments, and families are struggling with another addition to the ever-growing list of online tools that cause concern.

Yet, the conversations we have heard so far are really missing the point. Instead of asking “How can we prevent students from cheating?,” we ought to ask why they are cheating in the first place.

From our research on hundreds of thousands of middle and high school students over the past decade, we have learned that cheating is often a symptom of a systemic problem.

In traditional schools, students move quickly through multiple classes each day, and teachers feel obligated to cover a certain amount of material each term. The students take tests and quizzes to help “prove” that learning has occurred. In exchange, teachers give students marks that they can show for future college and job applications.

This transactional model often teaches students to prioritize grades and test scores over individual curiosity, deep learning and integrity. To change this, we must seek a balance between extrinsic measures of success and intrinsic motivation.

Such balance can be achieved when we value each student for their unique identities and assets, make space for educators to invest in relationships and provide opportunities for students to find connection, purpose and meaning in their classes. By doing so, we can increase learning and academic integrity.

Instead of asking “How can we prevent students from cheating?,” we ought to ask why they are cheating in the first place.

Without this balance, from a teenager’s perspective, it might make sense (at least to their not-yet-fully-developed prefrontal cortex) to cheat under certain circumstances. Perhaps they have too much homework and not enough time to do it. Maybe the assignment feels like pointless busywork or they don’t understand the instructions.

Other students may cheat because they are struggling with the material and are not able to get the help they feel they need.

Likewise, it might make sense to a teen to cheat if they have to work that evening, or if they feel the weight of being the first in their family to go to college or believe that they have to graduate with a certain GPA. They might also consider cheating as a reasonable option when material rewards are at stake: things like money, screentime or other privileges if they don’t do well on an assignment or test.

Many students report that they are overwhelmed by the pressure to perform and are keenly aware of family expectations. Thus, it should come as no surprise that many students tell us that while they knowthat cheating is wrong, they don’t want to let their parents/guardians down by bringing home a low grade.

Related: Another problem with shifting education online: Cheating

According to our research, 77 percent of high school students admit to engaging in at least one academically dishonest behavior in the last month. The good news is that we know from our research that students are less likely to cheat when:

  • they feel a sense of belonging to a community that values integrity and effort
  • they believe the teacher truly cares about them and their learning
  • they care about the teacher’s opinion of them
  • they feel invested in building their own knowledge and skills and see the purpose of the assignments in helping them to do so.

In light of ChatGPT and the many technological advances yet to come, we need to increase students’ genuine engagement and deepen their sense of belonging in order to change their motivations and mitigate cheating.

Here are some concrete ways we can collectively create environments where the focus is on learning and belonging:

  • Emphasize curiosity and effort. Foster students’ intrinsic motivation — the desire to do something to satisfy curiosity, find enjoyment and take pride in the effort. Teachers can offer students choices on assignments and invite them to weigh in on curriculum offerings. At home, adults can encourage students to explore activities and classes that truly interest them and where they are more likely to want to do the work instead of cutting corners.
  • Encourage positive student/adult relationships. When students feel respected and valued by the adults in their lives, they are more likely to engage in learning and act with integrity. Schools can build in more time for students and adults to get to know one another via conferences, advisories and lunchtime activities. Teachers can make their classrooms safe spaces where all students feel like they belong and can contribute, and families can encourage students to reach out to educators when help is needed or they feel overloaded.
  • Understand the role of assessment. The Latin root of the word assessment is “to sit beside.” When we partner with students to gain a better understanding of what they’ve learned and where they need to go next, we are truly sitting beside them. Educators can offer more frequent, low-stakes assessments; be more flexible with deadlines; and allow test corrections and revisions to promote ongoing learning. Family members can watch how they talk about grades at home.
  • Invite conversations about integrity. The news is full of examples of poor choices when it comes to honesty and integrity. Adults can leverage these opportunities to talk about their own values and ask students what they think. Students learn from adult role models who walk the walk when it comes to integrity.
  • Keep your cool. When cheating does happen, do your best to stay calm. The goal should be to find the underlying reason for the choice and brainstorm more positive coping strategies to use in the future.

Our hope is that as conversations about cheating come up in schools and homes, adults will pause and ask themselves what they could do differently to support kids who are struggling to make good choices. Investing in student belonging might be just as effective, or more so, than ramping up the academic integrity police.

Denise Pope is co-founder of Challenge Success and senior lecturer, Stanford Graduate School of Education. Drew Schrader is a school design partner at Challenge Success.

This story about ChatGPT and student cheating was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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