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Cheating

Why Students Do It and How We Can Help Them Stop

By Donald McCabe

School cheating is not news. Parents and teachers have been worrying about it for generations. Unfortunately, there is evidence that cheating has increased in the last few decades, and the Internet is likely to intensify the problem. It's also unfortunate that the people who worry about cheating often contribute to it. Well-intentioned parents who want their children to be successful in school can place so much pressure on the kids that they resort to cheating. Students believe that many teachers who see cheating look the other way, sending the message that cheating is acceptable. To which a teacher might reply, with considerable justice, that school boards, superintendents, and principals often fail to back them up when they are faced with angry parents whose child has been accused of cheating. And almost daily, the media give big play to all kinds of cheating carried out by adults in positions of authority: politicians, lawyers, business people, clergy, and educators. As a high school junior recently observed: "Cheating is the American way. Businessmen do it, politicians do it. Why not students?" Indeed, the student who does not cheat now seems to be the exception in many schools.

This past year, I surveyed 2,294 high school juniors at 25 schools across the country—14 public schools and 11 private schools. The results were discouraging. Many students told me they know cheating is wrong, and they are not proud of their behavior. However, they feel they have to cheat to get the grades they need. On the other hand, student comments led me to believe that many students who are self-confessed cheaters would be willing partners in any reasonable strategy to deal with the most serious kinds of cheating.

The Prevalence of Cheating

Whatever we might want to believe, the evidence is unequivocal. The problem starts early and increases as students move through school. It has also increased significantly at almost every level of our educational system in the last few decades. For example, 39 percent of the sixth-graders surveyed in a 1985 study conducted by the California State Department of Education admitted to one or more instances of copying from another student during a test, and 41 percent admitted to plagiarism. With high school students, the numbers jumped to 75 percent admitting to copying and 51 percent to plagiarism. A 1989 study sponsored by the Girl Scouts confirms these findings, as does an unpublished study of New Jersey middle school students and high school juniors done in 1998.1

The increase in cheating over time is confirmed by studies conducted in 1969, 1979, and 1989 by Fred Schab at the University of Georgia. The number of students who admitted using a cheat sheet on a test doubled from 34 percent in 1969 to 68 percent in 1989. Students who admitted to letting others copy their work grew from 58 percent to 98 percent. The number of students who acknowledged they had copied material, word for word, out of a book grew more modestly, from 67 percent in 1969 to 76 percent in 1989.2 My recent survey of 2,294 high school juniors confirms earlier findings and indicates that high levels of cheating are a nationwide phenomenon. Table 1 presents some of my basic findings.

In addition to confirming that most kinds of cheating are extremely common, I found that self-reported cheating among public school students is consistently higher than among private school students. This could be, at least in part, a function of school size. Public schools are generally larger than private schools, and this was true of schools in my study. The often-noted anonymity of big schools may make it easier for students to disguise cheating from fellow students and, more important, from teachers—e.g., a teacher grading a large number of essays would be less likely to detect similarities between two papers or a sudden and unexplained improvement in a student's writing, and a teacher in a large class would be less likely to observe a student cheating on a test. Common sense suggests that students who do not fear detection are more likely to cheat, and prior research confirms this.

It's also true, however, that the private schools in my survey seemed to be more concerned about academic honesty. For example, several either had or were discussing an honor code, which ensures greater visibility for the issue of academic honesty in a school community. While there is no guarantee that such attention reduces cheating in a high school, honor codes at the college level seem to do exactly that.

Table 1
Common Forms of Cheating Among High School Juniors
  % of students self-reporting one or more incidents of this behavior
Behavior Public
Schools
Private
Schools
All
Schools
Copied from another on test/exam 66% 57% 63%
Used crib notes on test/exam 45% 28% 39%
Got questions/answers from someone who had taken test 75% 81% 77%
Helped someone cheat on test/exam 62% 55% 60%
Copied almost word for word from a source and submitted as own work 37% 29% 34%
Turned in work copied from another 75% 55% 68%
Turned in assignment done by parents 21% 17% 20%
Worked in an assignment with others when asked not to 77% 75% 76%
Copied a few sentences without citation 63% 56% 60%
Let another copy homework 90% 80% 86%
Turned in paper obtained in large part from term-paper mill or Web site 18% 13% 16%
Copied a few sentences from a Web site without footnoting them 53% 51% 52%

 

Who Cheats and Why?

There are a number of possible explanations for the rise in cheating between elementary school and high school. Increasing pressure from parents as students prepare to apply to college is one; the increasing difficulty of the material being taught is another. I believe that the growing influence of peers—and declining influence of parents and teachers—is even more important. Unfortunately, it appears that many parents and teachers are doing little to combat this trend. Forty-seven percent of the respondents reported that teachers in their school sometimes ignore cheating. The most frequent explanation for such behavior, mentioned by 26 percent of students, was that teachers often don't want to accuse a student of cheating because of the bureaucratic procedures involved in pursuing such allegations. Other explanations offered by students include the belief that teachers don't care about cheating (11 percent); the student is an athlete or a student the teacher likes (8 percent); or the teacher feels sorry for the student and doesn't want to cause him or her additional trouble (6 percent). Parents may send a similar message, not only by putting too much pressure on their children, but also by failing to emphasize the importance of academic honesty. Some parents even look the other way when they think their child may have cheated, or they blindly defend their child if a teacher accuses the youngster of academic dishonesty. And of course the 20 percent of students who say they have turned in assignments on which their parents did most of the work are receiving a clear message that cheating is sometimes acceptable.

Boys are more likely to cheat: True or False? The California Department of Education's 1985 study found that high school boys used crib notes and copied from other students during a test at almost twice the rate of girls. And in the hypothetical cheating scenario used in the Girl Scouts research, almost twice the number of boys said they would try to copy answers, although almost equal numbers of boys and girls admitted they would probably "glance" at another student's paper "for ideas." Greater levels of cheating have generally been observed among male college students as well.3

However, this difference appears to be eroding, and some recent studies have reported similar rates of cheating for female and male students. Despite evidence that girls have a greater tendency to follow rules and fear of the consequences if they are caught, women may have a growing sense that they have to cheat to compete with the male students they see cheating in their classes. This tendency seems especially true at the college level in historically male-dominated majors such as business and engineering.

The effect of extracurricular activities. Many people believe that athletes are more likely to cheat than non-athletes, especially at the college level. However, recent studies have not found big differences between the two groups. For example, although a 1993 study conducted at nine large state universities found a significant statistical correlation between participation in athletics and reported cheating, the actual differences were small to modest.4 And among the high school students I surveyed, there were no significant differences. However, there was a perception among non-athletes—it was strong at some schools—that athletes receive preferential treatment, both from the faculty and administration. Unfortunately, it appears that non-athletes more than occasionally use such perceptions to justify their own cheating. As in college, these perceptions of favoritism seem to center most strongly on the boys' football and basketball teams.

It was encouraging to find, in my survey, that cheating was somewhat lower among students involved in other extracurricular activities. For example, 79 percent of students who participated in no extracurricular activities reported one or more instances of serious test cheating, in contrast to 68 percent of those who were involved in some activity. On the other hand, students holding jobs outside of school seemed more likely to resort to cheating than students who did not: 79 percent vs. 71 percent. While all of these levels of cheating are far too high, the differences do suggest that efforts to involve students in the life of their school could help reduce cheating.

Cheating among high achievers. Research has generally found that students with low grade-point averages cheat more frequently than "A" students. Since these students probably have a greater need to cheat and less interest in mastering the subject matter than high achievers, this would not be surprising. However, high-achieving students also do their share of cheating. Both the California Department of Education's study already cited and a survey done for Who's Who Among American High School Students suggest that top students may actually cheat more frequently than others.5 Given the extreme level of competition among able high school students for admission to selective colleges and universities, frequently driven, as already noted, by parental pressures, this finding makes sense. As a student in a recent high school focus group noted, "I think people are going to cheat so it will help them to get to [an Ivy League school]."6 Another insight into cheating among the academically gifted comes from a member of an AP calculus class who participated in this focus group:

I'm in there with some of the smartest people in the school, number one and two in the class. They are, like, always ready to cheat. Let's do this, whatever.... [The teacher] leaves most of the teaching up to the students and he'll throw, like, a chapter out there, like a couple of chapters. You gotta learn this.... It just drives people to cheat.

Enter the Internet

The Internet has raised new and significant problems for both students and teachers. Younger students, for whom the Internet is such a common form of communication, seem to have difficulty understanding its proper use as an academic tool. And many high school students believe—or say they believe—that if information is on the Internet, it is public knowledge and does not need to be footnoted—even if it's quoted verbatim. Table 2 shows what my survey of high school juniors in public and private schools discovered about the impact of such thinking on students' attitudes and behavior. The table also presents data from a group of 2,200 college students on 21 different campuses who participated in a similar survey in the 1999-2000 academic year.7

Table 2
Plagiarism and the Internet
  Students
reporting
behavior
Students
who think
behavior is
serious
  H.S. College H.S. College
Plagiarism from written sources
Copied almost word for word from a source and submitted as own work 34% 16% 70% 70%
Copied a few sentences without citation 60% 40% 39% 35%
Internet plagiarism
Turned in paper obtained in large part from a term-paper mill or Web site 16% 5% 74% 72%
Copied a few sentences from a Web site without footnoting them 52% 10% 46% 68%

 

The table shows that plagiarism is more common in high school than college, and this is not surprising: High school students are typically still learning about plagiarism and proper techniques for citation. However, plagiarism that uses the Internet is dramatically higher among the high school students. They find Internet plagiarism so easy and consider it so unlikely to be detected that it is almost too tempting to resist. Although the advent of services that check for Internet plagiarism may have altered the situation, high school students who participated in these focus groups said that teachers were not as Internet savvy as their students and were unlikely to detect Internet plagiarism. Students also felt that the quality of material available on the Net was usually more than adequate for their needs.

The college students who participated in the focus groups were far less tempted to plagiarize from the Internet, either because the material there was simply not of sufficient quality to get a good grade or, if it was, there was a good chance their instructor would be familiar with it. Of course, the picture may be different on campuses where coursework is not academically rigorous. Also, these focus groups took place more than three years ago—light years in Internet time.

A third point that emerges from my surveys is the similarity of opinion among high school and college students about the seriousness of most forms of plagiarism. In other words, student attitudes about plagiarism do not explain the differences in behavior we observe. However, the fact that high school students do not take very seriously what we might call Internet "cut and paste" plagiarism is a cause for concern. High school students may be under the impression that lifting information from the Internet, even verbatim, is good research practice rather than cheating. Are we raising a generation of students who view scholarship as "borrowing" thoughts from a variety of different sources and simply assembling them into a final product?

What Can We Do?

Some people believe that greater vigilance and more severe punishments are the solutions to student cheating. These tactics are likely to reduce cheating—and that is certainly a worthwhile goal—but they won't touch the attitudes that lead to cheating. To do that, schools need to change the culture that accepts cheating as a matter of course and replace it with one that places a higher value on academic honesty. The Center for Academic Honesty, a consortium of over 250 colleges based at Duke University, recommends several steps to help create this culture:

  • develop standards that are communicated to all members of the school community (including parents)
  • create a process for handling alleged violations
  • get a commitment, especially from the school administration, to adhere to and enforce these standards.

But these steps will lead nowhere unless the school also sponsors programs that promote academic integrity—for instance, schoolwide discussions that grapple with questions about what encourages cheating and how to promote academic honesty.

Many teachers do not work in schools or school districts willing to devise such standards and programs or even to support teachers who discipline students for cheating. And if teachers don't realize the effect of a failure to react to incidents of cheating, they may be tempted to give the issue a pass. Unfortunately, as noted earlier, students often take this as a license to cheat. However, there are things teachers can do on their own to establish an atmosphere that supports academic honesty. At the very least, they need to lead frank and open discussions that deal with questions like why students cheat, how it harms them in the long run, academically and otherwise, and how it harms other students as well.

It is also important for teachers to clarify their expectations for students. For example, many teachers fail to explain what level of collaboration is permissible on assignments. When they don't, students must decide for themselves, and, more often than not, they conclude that whatever has not been specifically prohibited is acceptable. Any teacher who penalizes a student for collaboration when the teacher has not clarified his or her expectations is probably on very weak ground.

The most significant contextual factor in a student's decision to cheat or not to cheat is peer influence. Students look to other students to determine what is acceptable behavior, and acceptability depends to a large extent on the culture in their school. If the school has achieved some level of consensus that cheating is wrong—as can happen, for example, in schools that adopt honor codes—students may hesitate to cheat for fear that peers will disapprove or even report them to the teacher. In the absence of such a culture, cheating can even create a feeling of solidarity. Students may come to view cheating from a "we" vs. "they" perspective. "We" students need to stick together to overcome the obstacles our teachers and/or the administration keep placing in our way. In this situation, rules on collaboration, plagiarism, and other forms of cheating are viewed as just another hassle by students, and bending the rules a little to overcome such obstacles is acceptable.

Students find teachers' failings—real or supposed—useful in justifying cheating. The relevance and fairness of assessments are issues students often raise. The question here is not the difficulty of the tests or the course material. Everyone has heard students talk with pride about courses they have taken where, despite the difficulty of the course, they simply would not cheat. However, students speak angrily about teachers who give tests that cover material not discussed in class or highlighted in homework assignments, and they may find it relatively easy to justify cheating in such cases. Whatever the truth in individual student complaints, there is no question that cheating can be used to express disrespect for a teacher and defiance of the teacher's authority.

Although promoting academic integrity is superior to policing students, teachers should do what they can to reduce the opportunities for classroom cheating. At the very least, this sends a message to students that academic honesty is considered important. Some useful techniques—none of them new and most, unfortunately, involving additional work for the teacher—include using multiple versions of a test, basing tests on essay questions rather than short-answer questions, giving different tests for different sections of the same course. Giving open-book exams, where possible, or allowing students to bring notes with them to the exam room also discourages cheating although such tests require a special kind of preparation if students are to do well on them. Barbara Gross Davis, at the University of California at Berkeley, offers an excellent compilation of classroom strategies to reduce cheating and the Because We Care Education Society of Alberta, Canada, offers some very useful ideas for combating plagiarism.

Finally, as discussed at length earlier, the increasing use of the Internet by students is creating a serious problem. Students talk about the ease with which papers can be downloaded from the Internet and submitted with little fear of detection. Even if the Internet does not attract new cheaters, data from my high school study suggest it will lead to an increased incidence of cheating among existing cheaters because of its ease of use, convenience, and potential anonymity. Thus, teachers would be foolish if they did not develop assignments that are less vulnerable to cheating on the Internet—e.g., assigning papers that are as current and out-of-the-ordinary as possible and requiring students to interpret the information they gather. Appropriately, the Internet itself can provide much advice both in how to help students use the Internet and to detect material plagiarized from the Internet.8

Conclusion

It is far easier to document the prevalence of cheating than to give useful suggestions about how to reduce the incidence of cheating. In the long run, the key is to convince students that academic integrity is something to be valued. The first step is to talk with students about why academic integrity is a worthwhile goal. For example, teachers and parents should emphasize how little students learn when they cheat—how, in fact, cheating will only lead to serious problems later on when cheaters lack the foundation to succeed in advanced courses. Given the messages students get every day from their peers and the larger society, this discussion is unlikely to meet with immediate success. It will meet with even less success, however, if teachers are not prepared to address cheating that occurs in their classrooms and if parents do not support these teachers. Messages on the value of integrity carry little weight if a teacher looks the other way when cheating occurs or if parents don't seem to consider it as important as good grades. Of course, taking a stronger anti-cheating stance will be difficult in schools or districts where the administration does not support teachers or where community pressures for student success are extreme.

The good news is that many students who cheat seem genuine in their distaste for what they are doing. As I discovered in carrying out my survey, many would be willing, and even prefer, to do their work honestly, but they are not willing to be placed at a disadvantage by their honesty. Students are looking to their teachers and schools to take the lead. Teachers and schools, in turn, must convince parents that teaching our future generation to be honest, to take pride in the work they do because it is their own, is at least as important as any academic skill youngsters learn—and certainly far more important than any grade they get.


Donald McCabe is professor of Organization Management at Rutgers Business School, Rutgers University, Newark, N.J., and founding president of the Center for Academic Integrity at Duke University.

Endnotes

1. B. Brandes (1986), Academic Honesty: A Special Study of California Students, Sacramento: California State Department of Education, Bureau of Publications; Girl Scouts of the United States of America (1989), Girl Scouts Survey on the Beliefs and Moral Values of America's Children, New York.

2. Fred Schab (1991), "Schooling Without Learning: Thirty Years of Cheating in High School," Adolescence, 23, 839-47.

3. Brandes (1986).

4. D.L. McCabe and L.K. Trevino (1996), "What We Know About Cheating in College: Longitudinal Trends and Recent Developments," Change, 28, No, 1, 28-33.

5. Who's Who Among American High School Students (1999), Attitudes and Opinions from the Nation's High Achieving Teens: 29th Annual Survey of High Achievers, Lake Forest, Ill.

6. D.L. McCabe (1999), "Academic Dishonesty Among High School Students," Adolescence, 34, 681-87.

7. D.L. McCabe, L.K. Trevino, and K.D. Butterfield (in press), "Honor Codes and Other Contextual Influences on Academic Integrity," Research in Higher Education.

8. For example, a recent search using www.goggle.com and the keywords "student plagiarism" + "Internet" yielded over 800 hits. The sites varied in their quality and usefulness, but many included helpful tips on avoiding and detecting Internet plagiarism.