This year, for the first time in a decade, fewer high-school students admitted to cheating, according to a survey by the Josephson Institute of Ethics.

Of students who participated in the poll, 51% said they cheated on an exam in the past year, down from 59% in 2010, and 55% said they lied to a teacher, a drop from 61% in 2010. Officials say the shift is due to a greater focus on character at home and at school.

The survey is “a pretty good sign that things may be turning around,” said Michael Josephson, the founder and president of the Josephson Institute. “I’m quite optimistic this is the beginning of a downward trend.”

Among the highlights from the survey, which is done every two years: 

  • Students who said they had cheated on an exam in the past year plunged from 59% in 2010 to 51% in 2012.
  • The number of students who said they lied to a teacher in the past year about something significant fell from 61% in 2010 to 55% in 2012.
  • In 2010, 27% of pupils said they had stolen from a store in the past year. In 2012, 20% said they did so.

One reason for the decline may be more attention to character. “Changes in children’s behavior of this magnitude suggest a major shift in parenting and school involvement in issues of honesty and character,” Josephson said in a statement.

Brian Jacob, a professor of education policy at the University of Michigan, said providing students with more information is a way to help curb cheating in schools. For instance, Jacob, who has looked at plagiarism in college, said research shows that you can help students understand, through tools such as an online tutorial, what constitutes plagiarism and strategies to avoid it.

Though the Josephson Institute survey suggested overall improvement, it found that boys are more likely than girls to engage in dishonest conduct. Forty-five percent of boys said they believe “a person has to lie and cheat at least occasionally sometimes in order to succeed,” compared with 28% of girls.

Boys have a tendency toward aggressiveness and competitiveness, said David Walsh, a developmental psychologist in Minneapolis. There has been research around the most prominent male hormone testosterone, which is associated with competitiveness, but the influence of parents, teachers and peer groups are also important, he added.

“We want our sons to be able to channel that energy in a positive direction,” said Walsh, the author of the books Smart Parenting, Smarter Kids and Why Do They Act That Way?“Some boys end up being leaders and being outstanding.”

The 2012 survey’s margin of error is less than 1%.

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