Why Students Cheat and How to Stop It

Why Students Cheat and How to Stop It

Cheating in our schools has reached epidemic proportions. Why do students cheat? What can we as parents do to prevent it? Here are some answers to these questions and much more in this article which features an in-depth interview with one of the nation's top authorities on the subject, Gary Niels.

Why do students cheat? Here are three reasons:

1. Everybody does it.

It's disturbing to discover that young people in middle school and high school think that it is acceptable to cheat. But it's our fault, isn't it? We adults encourage young people to cheat. Take multiple choice tests, for example: they literally invite you to cheat. Cheating, after all, is nothing more than a game of wits as far as teenagers are concerned. Kids delight in outwitting adults, if they can.

While cheating is discouraged in private schools by tough Codes of Behavior which are enforced, cheating still exists. Private schools which devise tests requiring written answers rather than multiple guess answers discourage cheating. It's more work for teachers to grade, but written answers do eliminate an opportunity for cheating.

2. There are unrealistic demands for academic achievement from state and federal education authorities.

The public education sector is accountable to government, largely as a result of No Child Left Behind. State legislatures, state boards of education, local boards of education, unions, and countless other organizations demand action to correct the real and imagined failings of our nation's public education system. As a result, students must take standardized tests so that we can compare one school system to another nationally and at the state level. In the classroom these tests mean that a teacher must achieve the expected results or better, or she will be viewed as ineffective, or worse, incompetent. So instead of teaching your child how to think, she teaches your child how to pass the test.

No Child Left Behind is driving most of the assessment teaching these days. Educators really have no option but to produce the best possible results. To do that they must teach solely to the test or else.

The best antidotes for cheating are teachers who fill children with a love of learning, who impart some idea of life's possibilities and who understand that assessment is merely a means to an end, not the end itself. A meaningful curriculum will shift the focus from learning boring lists of irrelevant facts to exploring subjects in depth.

3. Cheating is expedient. It can be the easy way out.

Years ago cheaters lifted whole passages from an encyclopedia and called them their own. That was plagiarism. Plagiarism's newest incarnation is dead easy: you simply point and click your way to the site with the relevant information, swipe and paste it, reformat it somewhat and it's yours. Need to write a paper in a hurry? You can quickly find a site which provide a paper for a fee. Or go to a chat room and swap papers and projects with students nationwide. Perhaps you'd prefer to cheat using texting or email. Both work just fine for that purpose. Sadly, many parents and teachers have not learned the subtleties of electronic cheating

What can we do about it?

Schools need to have zero tolerance policies concerning cheating.Teachers must be vigilant and alert to all the newer forms of cheating, particularly electronic cheating. SmartPhones and tablets are powerful tools for cheating with uses limited only by a student's imagination. How do you fight that kind of brain power? Discuss the issue with both technology-savvy students and adults. Their exploits and perspective will help you fight electronic cheating.

Teachers: Ultimately the best solution is to make learning exciting and absorbing. Teach the whole child. Make the learning process student-centric. Allow students to buy into the process. Empower them to guide and direct their learning. Encourage creativity and critical thinking as opposed to rote learning.

Parents: We parents have a huge role to play in combating cheating. That's because our children mimic almost everything we do. We must set the right sort of example for them to copy. We must also take a genuine interest in our children's work. Ask to see everything and anything. Discuss everything and anything. An involved parent is a powerful weapon against cheating.

Students: Students must learn to be true to themselves and their own core values. Don't let peer pressure and other influences steal your dream. If you are caught, cheating has serious consequences.

Editor's Note: Gary Niels is Head of Winchester Thurston School in Pittsburgh and the author of a very useful paper on cheating entitled Academic Practices, School Culture and Cheating Behavior. I am grateful to him for answering my questions.

"'Everybody does it."Unrealistic demands for academic achievement by state education boards."Expediency or the easy way out' are some of the reasons students cheat. Are there other reasons of which you are aware?"

The first thing to recognize about cheating is that the vast majority of young people (and adults for that matter) believe that cheating is wrong. Yet, by nearly every poll, most young people cheat at least once in their high school career. So, the most important question is why do young people behave in ways that are inconsistent with their stated beliefs? I believe the answer to this lies in a survival instinct. I am not a psychologist, but I believe there is a mechanism within each of us which triggers a need to "save face." Saving face can mean a desire to save oneself from the angry assault of a parent or teacher; it can mean avoiding embarrassment; it can mean economic survival or a perceived pressure be it self-inflicted or inflicted by some other extraneous force. Nowadays, college acceptance is the major instigator of this survival instinct.

Of course, the survival instinct isn't the only reason young people cheat. They might cheat because they find a lesson or a course to be meaningless -having no perceived relevance to their lives. They might also cheat because they belief something is unfair, so feel justified in cheating.

Let's examine each one of these reasons in more detail. First of all, "Everybody does it." To me that's like saying everybody cheats on their taxes or lies about their age. Does this signify a lack of moral conviction on the part of society as we head into the new millennium? Are parents setting the wrong example for their children?

Historically, sociologists and psychologists have studied cheating behavior under the classification of aberrant or deviant behavior. Psychologists and sociologists have applied theories of deviant behavior in order to understand cheating. However, cheating is no longer deviant behavior; it is now normal behavior. This change poses a significant challenge for those who seek to establish academic integrity in a school environment since the "student code" is stronger to break and is more prevalent. As for the role of parents, I'd like to come back to that a little later.

The demand for accountability has created a clamor for state testing of students. The pressures are enormous on both students and teachers. How widespread do you think cheating is in this area? Does state testing ipso facto encourage cheating to achieve acceptable results?

Although I cannot excuse it, I understand why an educator might find state testing to offer an unbearable pressure to cheat by in some way giving your students an unfair advantage. If you tell a school administrator that his school's existence or employment might hinge on his students' performance on a test, I believe you are tempting fate. Most human beings have a breaking point and when anything threatens a person's livelihood, income and/or social status, you put them in a survival mode. In other words, as you threaten that individual's existence, you tempt them to reach their moral breaking point.

"Cheating offers an easy way out. Why bother studying hard and doing all those term papers by yourself if you can use somebody else's work? Would you agree that expediency is a major reason for cheating?"

Expediency might be one reason for cheating, but I'm not sure its the main reason. In fact, strangely, young people will sometimes go to greater lengths to cheat than to study for a test. Occasionally, this is due to boredom. Studies indicate that there is a high correlation between certain pedagogical practices and cheating behavior: lack of clarity in a lesson, perceived lack of relevance, and too few tests offered in a grading period are just a few examples. I've even wondered at times if cheating isn't some form of student protest against certain types of curricular or pedagogical factors. One mathematics teacher had an interesting insight into a student who had gone to elaborate lengths to program his calculator to outsmart his teacher.

"I can't help but believe that a student who is so capable in using technology, couldn't ace an Algebra test. Also, I find when I prepare a test with calculator use, I emphasize the problem solving aspect, not the calculation. Those real world applications which we are encouraged by (the NCTM) Standards to employ in our classes actually defeat the need to cheat in classes, or don't provide the opportunity to cheat."

Without wishing to appear to be blaming teachers, it is necessary to point out that the way we present our curricula and the type of assessments that we offer can influence cheating behavior. We need to demonstrate to students why it is important for them to know the material we are presenting and the purpose it will serve in the bigger context of their studies and lives.

Forms of Cheating

"One of the reasons you and I are doing this interview is to make our colleagues, both teachers and parents, more aware of the highly sophisticated forms which cheating has adopted since the advent of technology in the classroom. Can you outline some of the kinds of cheating we adults ought to be vigilant for?"

The University of Texas complied a very comprehensive list of cheating strategies, which I've included in the Appendix of my paper Academic Practices, School Culture & Cheating. You've raised a good point with regards to sophisticated forms of cheating. One of the problems we encounter in deterring cheating is that some kids can simply outsmart us. While writing my paper I was in touch with many educators around the country. At one point I received an e-mail tip that there was a discussion going on among some students on one of the major graphing calculator's listserv whereby students were sharing how they had outsmarted teachers.

The following was one of the entries that day:

"Concerning teachers clearing memory before test, just write a memory clearing simulation program. I had a bunch of formulas I needed for an Algebra test stored in a program. I wrote a program that would simulate almost every function after 2ND MEM. I even had a blinking cursor. The only problem I had was with Page Up and Page Down and having two menus at the bottom of the screen. When the teacher started around the room clearing memories, I went ahead and executed my program, doing a fake total memory clear. When she came around, she saw the memory cleared, defaults set screen, and went on to the next person. What a dumb ass!"

So, yes, dealing with the more sophisticated forms of cheating is a reality.

How can teachers keep ahead of their students when it comes to recognizing electronic cheating?

This might seem simplistic, but, first, students need to understand why cheating is wrong. Dr. Lickona defined a few in his book Educating For Character:

  • It will ultimately lower your self-respect, because you can never be proud of anything you got by cheating.
  • Cheating is a lie, because it deceives other people into thinking you know more than you do.
  • Cheating violates the teacher's trust. It undermines the whole trust relationship between the teacher and his or her class.
  • Cheating is unfair to all people who aren't cheating.
  • If you cheat in school now, you'll find it easier to cheat in other situations later in life - perhaps even in your closest personal relationships.

Secondly, when essay topics are generic in nature, there seems to be more opportunity to cheat. However, when the essay topic is specific to class discussions and/or unique to the course's stated goals, it becomes more difficult for students to go to web sources to lift material or download papers. Additionally, when the teacher expects that the paper's development will follow a step-by-step process that requires them to document their topic, thesis, outline, sources, rough draft and final draft there are fewer opportunities to cheat. Conversely, when a paper suddenly appears with no documented process, then teachers should be wary. Lastly, if there are regular in-class writing assignments, a teacher can come to know the students' writing style. Lastly, teachers might want to familiarize themselves with the major web sites which offer papers to students for a fee.

Plagiarism seems so much harder to spot when students only have to cut and paste materials. How can you recognize electronic plagiarism?

I suspect the teachers reading this might offer many worthwhile tips. To me, however, the best way is to simply know the student's writing style. At times we have even asked the student's previous teacher to help us to determine whether the paper or a section of a paper was consistent with the student's work from the previous year. The difficulty comes when you're convinced that something isn't quite right and the student denies any wrongdoing. Different schools will handle this situation in different ways.

Prevention at School

Does a Code of Ethics or an Honor Code help keep most unethical academic behavior in check?

Only if students and faculty have bought into the system! This is the biggest challenge with honor codes. It will be very difficult, if not impossible, to establish an honor code, or any effort to deter cheating for that matter, if students are not permitted to play a role in developing the solution. Social Psychologists, Drs. Evans and Craig speak of the weight of the communities' attitudes in determining the potential success of an Honor Code.

"Intuitively, beliefs about the efficacy of strategies to reduce or prevent cheating may predispose success or failure. For example, if students believe that an honor system to promote academic honesty won't work, chances for success of the system introduced by their teachers may be jeopardized from the outset."

Dr. Gary Pavela, the director of judicial programs at the University of Maryland and the past president of the National Center for Academic Integrity, fully supports the notion of student participation in formulating an Honor Code:

"Such balancing and sharing of authority is premised upon the assumption that control of academic dishonesty will not be accomplished by threat of punishment alone. Ultimately, the most effective deterrent will be a commitment to academic integrity within the student peer group. Only by giving students genuine responsibility in a collaborative effort with faculty and staff can such a commitment be fostered and maintained."

Trusting students to participate in the establishment, promotion and enforcement of community values is a difficult challenge. Traditionally, schools have been hierarchical with students being at the bottom. But educators are realizing that when trusted and when given an opportunity to participate in the vision of the school, students have a great deal to contribute. Moreover, this participation has had other positive consequences. Namely, the adolescent desire to belong has results in expressions of loyalty to the school, rather than the sub-group. The more of this type of loyalty which we can inspire, the less cheating behavior we will see.

Prevention at Home

I have always felt that parents should review their children's work regularly to see what is being accomplished. Does this help prevent cheating?

I am sure that this is important, but as the student gets older and more independent, it is less likely that parents will be checking work. The most important thing parents can do is to model integrity. Just last night I was attending a movie with my family. My son ran into a classmate whose father was in the adjacent line. When we simultaneously reached the front to purchase our tickets, we all clearly heard the boy's father say "One adult, two children" to the ticket agent. Since the children's age for a reduced rate was clearly demonstrated on the board and our sons were the same age it was obvious that the father lied about his son's age in order to reduce his fee by a couple of dollars. Although such a "white lie" seems harmless, it models to children that corners can be cut, little lies don't matter and honest is good when its expedient.

How Teachers Can Help Prevent Cheating

  1. Model integrity, no matter what the cost.
  2. Don't assume young people know why cheating is wrong, both from a personal and corporate perspective.
  3. Enable students to understand the meaning and relevance of an academic lesson.
  4. Foster an academic curriculum which perpetuates the "real-world" application of knowledge.
  5. Don't force cheating underground - let students know that you understand the pressures and, at least initially, be reasonable in responding to violations.

Tips for Foiling Electronic Cheating

Catching students who cheat has always been part of your job as a teacher. The wrinkle these days is that electronic cheating is wide-spread in addition to all the other forms of cheating you and I are accustomed to. Here are five ways to catch your students when they cheat.

1. Use a PDS (Plagiarism Detection Service) like Turnitin.com to catch plagiarism.

The service is used by thousands of schools and universities worldwide. Basically Turnitin.com compares your students' papers with those in their enormous databases. Similarities are highlighted so that you can review the findings easily.

2. Forbid the use of smart devices in exam rooms.

Students are extremely savvy when it comes to devising ways to use common electronic equipment to cheat. Be alert to these techniques. Sending text messages via cell phone is more common than you realize. Watch for earphones which can be extremely tiny and are used to play back notes.

3. Lock down your grade program and database.

Hardly a day goes by without some chilling story about hackers breaking into a school's academic database and changing grades. Keep your computer secure by using secure passwords. Set your screen saver to activate in password protected mode after 2 minutes of inactivity.

4. Look for crib notes anywhere and everywhere.

Students can write notes on the most ordinary things like gum wrappers and bottle labels and bring them safely into the exam room UNLESS you are watching carefully or ban them completely. So, be a grinch and pick up wrappers and miscellaneous bits of paper wherever you see them. You can fit many pages of information on a small piece of paper using very small fonts. And it's edible too.

5. Be vigilant. Trust but verify.

A cautious "Trust but verify!" approach to dealing with cheating will pay off. Use the same approach in your classroom. Be aware of the possibilities for cheating which are all around you.


  • Cheating: Today's High School Norm?
  • High-Tech Cheating on the Rise at Schools
  • One Third of Teens Use Cellphones to Cheat in School

Article edited by Stacy Jagodowski