Back-to-school special: Understanding academic dishonesty and test anxiety

As a teacher, it is my job to issue consequences for academic dishonesty (like cheating on tests and plagiarising papers) but as a psychologist, I totally get it. I know this behaviour comes from a psychologically legitimate place and I also know that simply issuing consequences won’t solve the problem. Here’s why.

First, the science… Cheating might be the result of something called test anxiety. This issue occurs when the thought of test-taking causes an individual to enter their fight-or-flight system. In other words, test anxiety happens when an individual (often unknowingly) views test-taking as a life-or-death matter. When students have a pass-or-suffer-the-terrible-life-altering-consequences attitude, test anxiety will inevitably ensue. …and sure, it’s easy for an outsider to say, “Hey, don’t worry about it. It’ll be fine.” But we have to consider the level of desperation students experience. Whether it be from escalating competition or parental pressure, a student might not react well when you simply tell them to “relax.” Their excessive worries cause desperation which then yields the motivation to cheat and plagiarize. …so what do we do?

Often, students have a very rigid sense of successful school performance. In my experience, their story goes something like this, “Take tests. Do well. Apply to the next step or degree. Gain acceptance. Finish well. Get a good occupation or position of choice.” Over the years, I have realized that it is my job (in my psychologist role) to help students see their rigidity and show them that delays or alterations to their original plan does not need to end in catastrophe and crushed dreams. It is their catastrophic thinking and overestimation of a miserable outcome that causes test anxiety. This anxiety then influences them into cheating on their tests, with little remorse, if any. 
Now, how do I reduce this sense of student catastrophe in my office? I play the What-If game which is an already established CBT technique that can really help. Here’s an example.

Example of the What-If Game

Therapist: So, what if you do, fail that test? 
Client: I will likely fail the class.
Therapist: What if you fail the class?
Client: My GPA will decrease.
Therapist: What if your GPA decreases?
Client: Well, I won’t get into my next program and I won’t do anything good with my life.

As you can see after playing the What-If game, an individual’s catastrophic thoughts emerge in little time. In the case of the student above, failing a test equates rejection and a meaningless life. These are distorted thoughts that need to be confronted. The therapist will challenge these thoughts in a variety of ways. The therapist, for example, might explore the multitude of possibilities that come out of failing a course. The student above truly believes that failing will inevitably lead to bad things. The therapist might spin this interpretation to include possible positive outcomes. For example, “Failing that test led you to take the course again with another teacher. This other teacher was the perfect match for you and you ended up having multiple conversations with this teacher that eventually led to a job in the teacher’s research lab.” This type of intervention helps the client practice positive thoughts about the plethora of possibilities and outcomes that exist in the future.

Individuals worried about catastrophic outcomes do not balance their thoughts about the future. To them, the future is bleak and that is all. It is therefore important that these clients practice thought balancing to ensure that they consider the possibility of both positive and negative future outcomes. If they forgo practicing thoughts about positive outcomes, the anxiety will continue to be in the driver’s seat. Students with test anxiety therefore need to practice and consider the multitude of ways in which failing a test is, in fact, not the end of the world. While this is an achievable feat, it is easier said than done. It is therefore my suggestion that test anxiety be treated with the help of a therapist or counsellor.

Anna-Maria Tosco, or our Sassy Psychologist, has two masters degrees in the field of psychology and has studied and worked coast to coast. She has worked in both psychiatric and community settings in some of Montreal's most respected healthcare organizations and institutions, and has also given a variety of talks and workshops on neuroplasticity, meditation, and uncovering barriers to love.