Why Do Students Cheat?
H. Newberger, M.D. (6 December 2003)
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).
single day I see cheating, a lot, in every single class I'm in," says
a high school freshman from
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."
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."
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
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
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
Attitudes and practices
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
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?
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?
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.
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.
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.