Why Do Students Cheat?

by Eli H. Newberger, M.D. (6 December 2003)


Survey of cheating

Who's Who Among American High School Students surveyed 3,210 "high achievers" in 1997. Eighty-eight percent judged cheating to be "common" among their peers. Seventy-six percent confessed they themselves had cheated. Compare this figure to the results of a national sample of college students in the 1940s, only 20 percent of whom admitted to cheating in high school when questioned anonymously. The students queried in 1997 ranked copying someone else's homework as the most frequently practiced form of cheating (65 percent of the cheaters); cheating on a quiz or test next most often (38 percent); consulting a published summary in lieu of reading the book, third (29 percent); and plagiarizing published work, fourth (15 percent).

"Every single day I see cheating, a lot, in every single class I'm in," says a high school freshman from Madison , Connecticut . "They ask to see someone's homework, they write things on their hands or bring in little cheat cards to hold in their laps. It's bad."

Another type of academic cheating appears to have increased significantly in the past few decades. When William Bowers surveyed 5,000 college students in 1963, 11 percent admitted to collaborating with other students on work that was assigned to be done individually. Donald McCabe and Linda Trevino partially replicated Bowers's study in 1993 at some of the same colleges and found 49 percent admitting to the same kind of forbidden collaboration. My brother Henry's policy, when he discovers evidence of collaboration on work that was assigned to be done individually, is to grade the work on its merits, then divide the grade by the number of collaborators.


Getting away with it

The odds of getting away with academic cheating appear to be heavily in the cheater's favor. Ninety-two percent of the confessed cheaters surveyed by Who's Who said they had never been caught. As we shall see, temptation to try cheating may be encouraged by the uncertain application of penalties: from severe to nothing at all. The prevailing attitude of a majority of students about cheating is that "it's not a big deal."

"They are driven cheaters," says the high school teacher I've mentioned who was suspended from college for cheating. "They do it for grades, not because they're lazy or stupid or don't know the material. It's sad, you see, because they're so driven to have a high grade-point average so they can get into their first-choice college. I hate it, because they lose interest in learning. I tell their parents that it's okay if they get a B. It's more important to be a well-rounded, interested, bright kid. But that's a hard sell."



When Henry and I were schoolboys, the students who were believed to have the strongest incentive to cheat were the students in danger of failing. Is the primary incentive now to get into the college of one's choice? A Chicago area mother reflected the grade pressure recently when she complained bitterly to a teacher upon her son's receiving a B instead of the desired A. The grade, the mother argued, could make the difference between her son's "getting into Northwestern or having to settle for Northeastern." While one might give her credit for knowing how to turn a phrase, she doesn't appear ready to settle for a "well-rounded, interested, bright kid" who gets B's.

Eighty percent of high school students share the belief that college is the door to a successful career, and they may believe as well that the better the college, the better the chances of success later on. Only about 50 percent of the students in high school today will actually go on to college, but about 80 percent of middle school and high school students say they intend to go to college. While there are many ways to define success, and not all of them go through college, it's easier to see that later in life than it is as a teenager.


About 20 percent of high school students are in some kind of serious alienation from the educational system at any given time, surveys suggest. They are working too many hours in paid employment to cope with schoolwork, or they have been devastated by drugs or alcohol or crime, or they are distracted by psychiatric or severe family problems, among the more common reasons. What this means is that almost everyone except the alienated student is pushing toward the door to college. In that kind of environment, the temptation to cheat to get the coveted admission or scholarships must be very powerful indeed.

The self- and family-induced pressure to get into the "right" college is not unlike the pressure many adults feel as they try to balance their economic and social class aspirations with the realities of their incomes. When they sit down to subtract from disposable income what they owe in taxes, the temptation to cheat a little here and there, or a lot, is very powerful.

Attitudes and practices

Bill BrashIer, a journalist, decided to compare high school statistics on cheating to seventh-grade attitudes and practices by interviewing several classes of bright students selected for magnet programs. The seventh graders, especially the boys, were quick to tell him their methods. How they wrote information relevant to tests on shoe soles or wrists. How they covertly used pocket calculators when it was forbidden. How the class brain signaled correct answers to the others. Their methods were more traditional than the technique of some high school boys I read about who wrote crib sheet information on the underside of their baseball cap brims until their high school teacher said all such hats had to be worn backward during exams.

They all cheated, the seventh graders said, on tests, on homework, on reports. One of their teachers laughed off their talk as exaggeration, as a way of being cool. Only a few of them, he insisted, cheated as much as they all claimed. But why did they all claim to cheat?

The simple desire to take the easy road is sometimes advanced as the basic reason that students cheat. My brother says that in almost thirty years of teaching he has never ceased being surprised how many students "just never studied." So there would appear to be a certain portion of the student body disposed from the beginning to take the easy path: book reports off the Internet, for example. A mother writing to an Internet bulletin board provides a perfect example:


My 15-year-old son had an English paper due on Great Expectations. When I didn't see him working on it, I gave him a gentle reminder.

'Don't worry Mom: he told me. 'My paper's going to be great.'

And it was. In fact, it was so great that I became suspicious. I called up the file on our computer and discovered that he had downloaded the paper from the Internet! I was shocked. Even more shocking was my son's attitude when I confronted him with cheating. He didn't see it that way.

'Everyone cheats, Mom,' he said.

Is he right? What can I say to get through to him?


There certainly is a sizable pool of teenagers who resent the cheating going on around them for making it more difficult for them to succeed honestly. But other testimony, including that of my brother Henry, sounds plausible to me. Students, on the whole, are very tolerant of other students' cheating. The statistics, after all, indicate that only somewhere between a fifth and a third have the right to claim that they don't cheat. My guess is that the incentive in the majority of cases is to get a better grade, either to keep from failing or to build a superior academic record to facilitate getting into college; cheating as an easier path than actually doing the work would also be a motive, but one made all the more accessible by the prevalence of cheating for other reasons.

Of those who don't cheat in order to get better grades than they could get on their own, some certainly are collaborating with cheaters by giving them assistanceŚletting cheaters copy their homework or look at their papers during exams, for example. So they are endorsing cheating and contributing to it, even though they aren't benefiting from it. The mother of an eighth grader found giving answers to others during a test argued that his giving did not constitute cheating; only receiving information was cheating, she said, as she accused the teacher of pursuing a vendetta against her son.


In conclusion

There may be some social benefit for the bright collaborator in a system in which cheating is widespread. For the "brain" to give others the opportunity to copy his work, thus leveling the academic playing field to some extent, would be viewed as a "cool" thing to do in some schools. A bright student who refused to assist other students asking for collaboration in cheating might be ridiculed or excluded from high-status cliques and crowds.