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Cheating in school: Why it happens and how to prevent it

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Boy cheating on test using cell phone

Cheating: An Increasing Problem

Alyssa, 16, is normally on top of all her schoolwork. But this week she had a solo in the school orchestra recital, her soccer team traveled to an "away" game for divisional playoffs, and she's feeling totally stressed out and overwhelmed. If she doesn't get an A on her physics test, it might bump her out of the top 10 percent of her class. Cheating just once isn't so bad, right?

Mark, 15, does well in math and designs his own computer games. But English and history? Not his thing. What's the point of struggling with an essay on "Moby Dick" when he could be writing code, which could actually help him get a job someday? It's way easier to buy an English paper off the Internet.

Brad, 14, knows he is way smarter than his classmates. He's been bored with school pretty much since Kindergarten. Studying is for losers with nothing better to do, it's not like you use any of this stuff in real life. His parents know everyone, so he won't have any trouble getting into a top college and earning lots of money. In fact, he's doing pretty well right now, selling answers to midterm exams.

Cheating has been on the rise in recent years, according to a 2010 study from the Josephson Institute of Ethics. Among current high school students, 75 percent admit to cheating on tests, homework, and other assignments. Fifty percent have cheated on exams during the past year, and 34 percent have cheated on more than one test. One out of every three students has used the Internet to plagiarize an assignment. Research indicates similar trends among college students and even graduate students.
Cheating in school has also been linked to similar, unethical behaviors once young people are out in the "real world." Not every young person who cheats on an algebra test will go on to commit insider trading, hatch a Ponzi scheme, or plagiarize a story for a major newspaper. However, early habits and rationalizations can pave the way for potentially damaging decisions later in life. Many cheaters do get caught, both in school and in the real world, upending lives and ruining reputations.

The worst damage, though, may be to a young person's self esteem and sense of competence. Success is only worthwhile when it is based on true merit. If a grade is not as high as a student had hoped, there is immeasurable consolation in having made an honest effort. No matter the outcome, trying your best is its own reward.

Who cheats?

As the examples above illustrate, researchers have identified three general types of students most likely to engage in cheating (Williams, Nathanson, Paulhus, 2010).

Students who are unprepared: These students generally are not chronic cheaters, but may be driven to cheat by unmanageable workloads or overbooked schedules.

Students who do not see the relevance of assignments: Cheating is more likely among students who do not understand the point of an assignment, how it relates to them, or what they are meant to learn from it.

Students who exhibit high self-confidence, cynicism, and lack of emotional expression: The combination of these three characteristics has been linked to cheating. These students may be chronic cheaters who feel entitled to good grades and do not see ethical problems with cheating. While these students are rare, they are present in all schools.

While these patterns of thinking and behaving are difficult to change, conveying the message that cheating is unacceptable, combined with a high degree of vigilance, can help prevent it from occurring.

Why do students cheat?

Pressure: Increasing pressure to succeed academically, combined with technology that is widely available and provides an easy means of cheating (e.g. smart phones), have contributed to a culture of cheating across many schools.

Motivation: Students who are solely motivated by getting ahead rather than the learning process itself are at higher risk of cheating (Shu, Gino, Bazerman, 2011).

Ethical standards: When students cheat, their sense of right and wrong changes. In other words, the more one cheats, the easier it becomes to rationalize one's behavior and cheat again (Shu, Gino, Bazerman, 2011).

Peer behavior: If students see others cheating and getting away with it, they are more likely to cheat themselves in order to stay competitive (Rettinger & Kramer, 2009; West, Ravenscroft, Shrader, 2004).

Perceptions of teachers: Students are more likely to cheat if they see a teacher as unfair and uncaring, and focused solely on grades.

Perceptions of schoolwork: If students see classes and assignments as arbitrary, it is easier to justify cheating.

Grade-focused environment: Classes in which there is an emphasis on extrinsic goals (e.g. good grades) instead of mastery goals (learning and improvement) have been linked to cheating (Anderman et al., 1998).

What can be done to address cheating in schools?

Focus on prevention

  • Create a campus-wide culture of academic integrity. There should be a school-wide policy on cheating, including serious repercussions based on the severity of the offense, that is enforced consistently. All members of the academic community should view cheating as abhorrent and unacceptable.
  • Students must become collaborators in creating a new cultural norm through campus-wide activities, such as clubs and student government, that promote ethics and integrity.
  • Class time should be dedicated to promoting academic integrity, educating students on what constitutes cheating, and the consequences of cheating.
  • Teachers should explain the purpose and relevance of each lesson and assignment. Instead of simply learning material to pass an exam, how will this information or the skills they're practicing be useful to students in the future? (Rettinger & Kramer, 2009).  

Reduce Competition and Anxiety in the Classroom

  • Provide personal, one-on-one feedback. Many teachers are busy and overburdened, but it is important for students to feel like they are more than just a grade or a GPA.
  • Avoid posting grades publicly.
  • Include projects and assignments that require collaborative group work.

Remain vigilant

  • Proctor exams by patrolling aisles and keeping a close eye on students. Being passive does not convey the message  "I trust you," rather it says "I don't care."
  • Do not recycle exam questions.
  • Ask essay questions that force students to integrate personal experiences.
  • During exams, do not allow anything in the room but the test and writing utensils — hats, cell phones, water bottles, and even soda cans can all be used for cheating.
  • Confront cheaters carefully – collect hard evidence and ask students how they came to their answers, rather than directly accusing someone of cheating.

What parents can do to help prevent cheating?

  • Open up a dialogue with your child about cheating. Instead of avoiding the topic or "lecturing" them on why cheating is wrong, approach the conversation with curiosity and openness. It is likely that they have been exposed to cheating in school and may have questions or thoughts about it.
  • Help your child develop good study habits and organizational skills, such as setting up an appropriate study environment, keeping a planner, and scheduling in study time and breaks to avoid procrastination, cramming, and unpreparedness.
  • Reduce academic pressure by setting realistic goals and encouraging well-roundedness rather than fostering your child's "competitive edge." Help your child understand that involvement in social activities, athletics, hobbies, and family are just as important as academic achievement.
  • Instead of focusing solely on grades, help your child understand the purpose behind coursework and exams, including how the discipline and knowledge they're building now will help them throughout their lives.

Published October 2012.


Anderman, E. M., Griesinger, T., & Westerfield, G. (1998). Motivation and cheating during early adolescence. Journal of Educational Psychology, 90, 84–93.

Rettinger, D. A. & Kramer, Y. (2008). Situational and Personal Causes of Student Cheating. Research in Higher Education, 50, 293-313.

Shu, L., Gino, F., & Bazerman, M. (2011). Dishonest deed, clear conscience: When cheating leads to moral disengagement and motivated forgetting.  Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37, 330-349.

West, T., Ravenscroft, S., & Shrader, C.  (2004). Cheating and Moral Judgment in the College Classroom: A Natural Experiment. Journal of Business Ethics, 54, 173-183.

Williams, K., Nathanson, C., & Paulhus, D. (2010). Identifying and profiling scholastic cheaters: Their personality, cognitive ability, and motivation. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 16 , 293-307.