• Effective Approach to a Student Cheating (from Outside Research)


Imagine this situation: During a quiz, you notice a student glancing at another student’s paper.  You feel that you need to take some action.

Surprisingly, there was a social psychology study conducted in a hospital setting that can help us know an effective way to approach this student.

For many of us, our first inclination is to confront the student tell him that if he continues to cheat, he will fail the quiz.  However, in his book The Originals, Adam Grant shows that explaining how someone’s behavior will negatively affect him or her is less effective than describing how their action will affect other people.

In the “hospital” study, to encourage doctors and nurses to wash their hands more often the researchers posted one of two signs near the soap dispensers in patients’ rooms.   One said, “Hand hygiene prevents you from catching diseases.”  The other said, “Hand hygiene prevents patients from catching diseases.” (Emphasis added.)  Over the next two weeks, a member of the hospital unit covertly counted the number of times the staff members washed their hands and a researcher measure the amount of soap used.

Interestingly, the first sign (“…prevents you…”) had no effect.  The second sign (“…prevents patients…”) had a significant impact on hand washing; it resulted in a 10% increase in hand-washing and 45% more soap usage.

How we can apply this study to ESL students who cheat on a test

Knowing how our actions can affect other people can be a strong motivator, as we can see from the hospital study.  Thus, instead of telling the cheating student, “If you continue to cheat, you will fail the test,” we can say one of these:

  • “It looks like you are looking at your classmate’s quiz. I don’t think that you are cheating, but other students might think that you are, and they might get upset.”
  • “It looks like you are looking at your classmate’s quiz. Other students might think that you are, and they might get upset.”

I’ve used this “affect others” approach several times mainly because I wanted to let the student know that I noticed what s/he was doing but didn’t want to directly accuse him/her in case s/he wasn’t actually cheating.  It’s never failed to have the desired effect and caused no tension between me and the student.  Subsequently, I found this research, which, has given me a strong justification for continuing with this approach.

Also see 

• No Need to Show Anger or Frustration at ESL Students

• Shaping a Student’s Behavior: A Solution-Focused Approach

David Kehe

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