Why Students Cheat—and What to Do About It
“Can you tell me why you cheated in high school?” I asked a dozen past pupils whether they had any thoughts on the matter.
“I wanted to get good grades and I didn’t want to work,” Sonya, who will graduate from college in June, explained her decision. [The names of the students in this story have been changed to protect their confidentiality.]
Sonya’s current students were less forthright than she was. Erin, a ninth-grader with straight As, made a vague and weak apology for her copied Cannery Row essay by claiming she was under extreme stress at the time. When Jeremy, a senior, was caught copying a review of the documentary Hypernormalism, he stood by his “hard work” and claimed that my accusation had wounded his feelings. Jeremy, however, did not agree.
A case in point is the widely publicized (and still ongoing) 2012 cheating scandal at New York City’s high-achieving Stuyvesant High School, which demonstrated that academic dishonesty is widespread and affects even the most prestigious of institutions. This is supported by the statistics as well. According to research published by the Josephson Institute’s Center for Youth Ethics in 2012, more than half of high school students acknowledged cheating on an exam, and 74 percent admitted to duplicating their classmates’ homework assignments. Another study conducted between 2002 and 2015 indicated that 58% of high school students from across the United States had plagiarized papers, with 95% admitting to cheating in some form.
So, why do students cheat, and how can we prevent them from doing so?
According to experts and psychologists, the underlying causes for these differences are exactly as diverse as the answers provided by my students. However, educators may still learn to understand the motivations for student cheating and to think critically about remedies that would prevent even the boldest cheats in their classes from repeating their actions in the future.
RATIONALIZING THE SITUATION
First and foremost, understand that students are aware that cheating is immoral; they merely believe that they are moral despite this.
“They only cheat to the extent that it allows them to preserve their self-concept as honest individuals. ‘They treat their behavior as an exception to a general norm,’ said Dr. David Rettinger, associate professor at the University of Mary Washington and executive director of the Center for Honor, Leadership, and Service, an institution on campus committed to honoring leadership, and service.
According to Rettinger and other studies, students who cheat might still consider themselves to be moral individuals if they rationalize their actions by citing legitimate reasons for their actions.
Some students do it when they don’t see the value in the work they’re assigned, such as drill-and-kill homework assignments, or when they believe there is an overemphasis on teaching subject that is tied to high-stakes examinations.
According to Javier, a former student, and recent liberal arts college graduate, “there was little critical thinking, and teachers looked forced to cram everything into their curriculum.” When you failed the test, they questioned you on information that had never been covered in class, and if you failed again, it became increasingly difficult to pass the next time.
Students, on the other hand, rationalize cheating on assignments that they believe are important.
Highly motivated students who are under immense time and pressure to achieve perfection (and Ivy League acceptances) may resort to cheating to get an advantage over their peers or to prevent a single poor test score from destroying months of hard work and dedication. Students and staff at Stuyvesant High Institution, for example, highlighted a competitive environment as a contributing factor to the widespread dishonesty that afflicted the school.
Furthermore, research has discovered that students who receive praise for being smart, as opposed to praising for effort and advancement, are more prone to exaggerate their performance and cheat on projects, most likely as a result of the pressure to meet high standards.
A STAGE IN THE DEVELOPMENTAL PROCESS
The majority of adolescent students are optimistic when it comes to risk management. Young people are physiologically predisposed to be more tolerant of unpredictability and less disturbed by declared hazards than their older counterparts, according to recent research findings.
“They’re risk-takers in high school because they’re still developing and don’t understand the implications of their actions,” Rettinger explains. “Even long-term implications are incomprehensible to them.”
While cheating may not be a thrilling experience, students who are already predisposed to defy curfews and experiment with illegal substances have a certain amount of familiarity with being careless. They’re prepared to take a chance if they believe they can keep up the ruse—and they’re even more likely to believe they can get away with it if they believe they can.
It appears that, among young people, cheating is nearly contagious — and that it may even function as a type of social glue, at least in contexts where it is generally tolerated. A study of military academy students conducted between 1959 and 2002 revealed that students in communities where cheating is tolerated are more likely to succumb to peer pressure, making it more difficult for them to resist the temptation to cheat out of fear of losing social status if they do not cheat.
Michael, a former student, noted that while he did not feel obligated to assist peers in cheating, he felt “unable to say no” because he felt “unable to say no.” He couldn’t stop himself once he got started.
A student attempts to cheat by writing answers on his palm.
Roman Pelesh is a fictional character created by author Roman Pelech.
The results of a poll conducted among 70,000 students across the United States revealed that 95 percent of pupils admitted to cheating in some way.
IT IS MADE EASIER AND NORMALIZED BY TECHNOLOGY.
Nowadays, students have easy access to rapid answers and content that they can copy for examinations and papers, thanks to smartphones and Alexa, which are at their fingertips. According to studies, technology has made cheating in school easier, more convenient, and more difficult to detect than it has ever been.
Students’ usage of social media, according to Liz Ruff, an English teacher at Garfield High School in Los Angeles, might damage their grasp of authenticity and intellectual property. Because students are accustomed to sharing photographs, repurposing memes, and viewing parody films, they “perceive ownership as hazy,” according to Ms. Sullivan.
As a result, while they may wish to avoid being penalized for plagiarism, they may not consider it to be wrong or even realize that they are plagiarising in some cases.
This confirms the findings of Donald McCabe, a Rutgers University Business School professor, who published a book in 2012 in which he discovered that more than 60 percent of surveyed students who had cheated considered digital plagiarism to be “trivial”—in other words, students believed that they were not cheating at all.
STRATEGIES FOR REDUCING CHEATING IN THE WORKPLACE
Even moral students, according to Dr. Jason M. Stephens, a researcher at the University of Auckland’s School of Learning, Development, and Professional Practice who studies academic motivation and moral development in teenagers, require assistance in acting morally, he added. According to Stephens, instructors are in a unique position to instill a sense of responsibility in students and assist them in overcoming the rationalizations that lead them to believe that cheating is acceptable in the classroom.
1. Reduce the pressure in the pressure cooker. Students are less likely to cheat on assignments in which they have a personal stake. Multiple-choice assessments invite cheaters to take advantage of the system, while an original, multiphase writing assignment testing competencies can make cheating considerably more difficult and less appealing. In addition, according to studies, teachers should consider developing take-home activities that encourage students to think critically and elaborate on class conversations. Teachers may also allow students to receive one free pass on a homework assignment each quarter, or they could allow them to remove the assignment with the lowest grade they received.
2. Pay close attention to the words you use. According to research, adopting language that reinforces fixed mindsets, such as praising children for being brilliant rather than rewarding them for work and success, demotivates youngsters and increases their likelihood of cheating in school. It is recommended that you use terms that emphasize effort, such as “You made tremendous progress on this paper” or “This is fantastic work, but there are still a few places where you may improve,” while giving feedback.
3. Establish honor societies among students. By establishing honor councils, students will have the ability to enforce honor codes and draught their own classroom/school bylaws, which will allow them to have a comprehensive awareness of how cheating impacts themselves and others. High school students at Fredericksburg Academy elect two members of the Honor Council for each grade level. They teach the Honor Code to fifth-graders, who then explain it to lower primary school children, so contributing to the establishment of a student-driven culture of integrity in the school system. Every assignment includes a commitment of authenticity, which students must sign. In addition, if an honor code violation occurs, the council convenes to examine the possible repercussions.
4. Employ metacognition to your advantage. A growing body of evidence suggests that metacognition, sometimes known as “thinking about thinking,” might assist pupils in better understanding and processing their motives, objectives, and behaviors. When discussing moral dilemmas with my ninth students, I turn to a centuries-old resource: Shakespeare’s drama Macbeth. Preparing for their meeting with the infamous Thane of Glamis, the students role-play as medical school applicants, soccer players, and politicians, determining whether or not they would use cheating, injury, or lying to attain their objectives. I encourage students to think about the steps they need to take to get the results they want. What causes us to behave in the ways that we do? What will we do to achieve our goals? And, more importantly, how will doing those things alter our identities? Every tragedy, I believe, is about us, not just about a guy who succumbs to “vaulting ambition,” as in the case of Macbeth’s character.
5. Integrate the concept of honesty into the curriculum. Teachers can incorporate a discussion on ethical behavior into their lesson plans. As a result, Ruff and many other teachers have been inspired to incorporate media literacy lessons into their classrooms to help students understand digital plagiarism and navigate the abundance of secondary sources available on the internet, with guidance from organizations like Common Sense Media.
In the case of student cheating, experts and researchers believe that complex psychological dynamics are at play. As important as enforcing rules and sanctions is, understanding what is truly motivating students to cheat will assist you in fostering integrity in the classroom rather than simply punishing those who do cheat.