Field of Science

Why Students Cheat

As a member of an academic integrity committee at my university I have learned a lot of things. Some of these things I wish I hadn't. Maybe the better way to put it is Im glad I learned these things, but wish the problems did not exist to have to learn about them.

Over the last year, we have had many discussions about cheating at the collegiate level. These discussions have been driven by a number of distinct, though related, factors. Regardless, work by Donald McCabe was recently brought to my attention. Now I have not followed the literature on scholastic dishonesty, although I am starting to become more familiar with the 'genre'. First, I was not actually aware there was a body of literature, because I thought the problem was too small. Yes, students cheat. Students cheated when I was a college student and students cheat now. But I do not cheat, therefore I assumed most others do not cheat.

Donald McCabe
A 2010 report of >40,000 high school students suggests that 60% cheated on an exam and 80% of students copy homework. Interestingly, it didn't matter if you were male or female, planning to go to college or not, played varsity sports or not, were a student leader or not, or attended a public or religious school, the only group that showed significantly reduced numbers were those (few) students attending a private non-religious school. While this study was for high school students, not college students, I think the habits/patterns students come to college with are important. A vast majority of students copy homework. I cannot say Im surprised about this one. I remember high school and how many assignments seemed like simple busywork with no real point. I expect much copying occurs on those irrelevant practice problems you didn't have time to do because of band practice or you had a basketball game. I think the issue is that once copying is common place or feels acceptable, what effect does that have after high school? Does the ability to decide that homework assignments are not worthwhile help establish a sense that the student decides which assignments matter? Does copying someone else's assignment make it is easier to rationalize copy-pasting assignments? I was surprised by the level of cheating an tests, 60%! Again, it mattered little if the student was college bound or not (59% or 68% respectively), in honor's or not (56% or 62% respectively), or active in the CharacterCounts! program or not (62% or 58% respectively). (CharacterCounts! is the organization that conducted the study.) This data contradicts my own bias that it is the struggling or apathetic students that cheat. Apparently no such difference exists. So what does this mean about the standards and ethics of the students entering our colleges or directly entering the workforce?

So there is a problem in our colleges. Cheating is endemic and occurs institutional wide. Of course we should probably figure out ways to deal with it, but it is probably important to try and understand why students cheat in order to prevent or at least reduce the incidence of cheating most effectively. Luckily McCabe has already done the hard work for us in the form of confidential surveys. Students themselves tell us why they cheat and I think there are some important things to think about.

First, it's the students themselves. (I'm doing this one first because it fit into my bias that there is something wrong with those who cheat. The nice thing about this mindset is that the solution to deal with cheating is simply punitive.)

1. 'Students cheat because the class is too hard.' Well boo-fucking-hoo. Welcome to the real world. You don't have to go to college, you don't have to take the class. Maybe if my required class is too hard for you, maybe you should find another major because maybe, just maybe, you are not cut out for the field.

2. 'Students cheat because they don't like the class.' Since you do not have a vested interest in the material, all rules of ethics and appropriate conduct are moot. Now that is a value system I think society will be happy to know is coming.

3. 'Students are paying a ton of money to take the class.' Ah the old entitlement argument. Yes, you are paying a ton. In fact I would argue that you are paying too much. But even though money is changing hands, you are not a customer, therefore the concept 'the customer is always right' does not apply. Your payment allows you the chance to strive to get those grades and that degree. Diplomas are not handed out once your check clears. It was a lot cheaper to go to school when I went and I was able to get by with a part-time job and some modest loans. College students often are working 30+ hours a week while taking full credit loads. I point out to my students that university policy states that a 3 credit class should equate to an average of 9 hours of work/week for a student to get a C grade (ergo more hours to get a better grade, in general). So if you are taking a 15 credit load, that equates to 45 hours a week to obtain a C. If a student sleeps 7 hours a night (not enough), devotes 50 hours a week to studies (in order to get a couple Bs), works 30 hours a week, spends 2 hours a day commuting to school, work, and home, then that student has ~2 hours a day (every day) to eat, shop for necessities, breathing, wash the car, etc. It is virtually impossible to take a full credit load and work even 30 hours a week and expect to do well.

4. 'Students cheat because the professional world teaches them it's ok.' Pretty much true isn't it? How many people went to prison or even lost their jobs following the financial collapse? We had to deregulate the banking industry and look what they did with that newfound power. Of course, the financial crisis has nothing to do with corporate greed, it is all the fault of the poor who bought houses they couldn't afford. Look at our political leaders, how many obvious unethical acts happen in Washington and are actually punished? Charlie Rangel anyone? Newt Gingrich anyone? One's still in office and the other is the current frontrunner for the republican ticket for president of the US. So really, at even the highest levels, we are teaching students that cheating for personal gain can be acceptable and that the ends do indeed justify the means.

5. 'Students cheat because all the other students cheat.' I have some sympathy for this one. It really is a fairness issue. If you know that your colleagues are cheating and getting good or even better grades than you, then what can you do? You could bring it to the instructor's attention, we are not as omniscient as we want you to believe we are. Still the 'if everyone jumped off a bridge, would you?' adage comes to mind. (Full disclosure, my friends and I used to jump off a bridge into the Saccarappa River in high school.)

(Actually, we jumped off the wall to the left of the electrical tower on the left of the video.)

Second, what about the faculty, do they play a role in student cheating? Obviously, the faculty are not actively helping students cheat, but are they indirectly contributing? What do faculty do or don't do that may make cheating acceptable.

1. 'Faculty would report cheating but there are no rewards.' The old, I would do something about it, but what's in it for me? Really? This strikes me as another sense of entitlement response. If there is nothing directly in it for me, why should I do it? How about dealing with issues of fairness the students brought up a minute ago? If you know students are cheating and doing little about it, then you contribute to the mindset outlined above. I expect that most colleges/universities have policies dealing with issues of cheating. For example, all cases of cheating at my university must be reported to the appropriate office. (The instructor has complete control over the action to be taken regarding the incident, but the information needs to be provided to the central office.)

2. 'Faculty would report cheating but it's too much work.' Another for the 'boo-fucking-hoo' file. I guess students who have many things pulling on their time are not allowed to pick and choose what to do ethically, but faculty who have teaching, research, families, and other things pulling on their time can freely pick and choose what aspects of their jobs to do ethically.

3. 'Faculty would report cheating but it's an administration job.' No it's not. This seems more a glorified version of #2. How is it a job for administration? Your class, you have to report it to get it into administrations hands in the first place. Have you at least done that? Didn't think so.

4. 'Faculty would report cheating but the administration puts up too many roadblocks.' Well, now I can commiserate. It is a pain to deal with a student who has cheated. I am not talking about the paperwork and process, just the mental energy required. We are disappointed in the student and ourselves, we realize the ramifications reporting could have on the student (yes, it's their own damn fault, but it still sucks). Of course some roadblocks are real and some are imaginary. Speaking of my own experiences and my institution the direct roadblocks were mostly imaginary. Yes there is paperwork to fill out, but it is not too onerous. Basically, what happened, what did you do, and did you tell the student. It is important though, because students have rights. Once the report is filed (remember it's your job to do it) the student is notified and can appeal the instructor's sanction. The appeal is heard by a student-faculty board and the sanction is almost uniformly upheld. However, instructors can and do make mistakes, so this is an important committee to have in place. I would point out that generally the instructor does not even have to attend the appeal session. (I point these latter issues out to offset concerns that it's a lot of extra work for instructors and that students can use this system to readily get out of the repercussions.) Now that I've established that there are few direct roadblocks, there are indirect roadblocks. We used to have a student group that discussed cheating, including plagiarism, and why it's an important issue to new students. This group was disbanded in large part because the administration thought it sent the wrong message, 'we have a cheating problem'. (I expect to hear that the administration will also disband the police department to avoid concerns over a 'crime problem'.) This attitude sends the message to faculty that the administration takes a 'see no cheating, hear no cheating, speak no cheating' mentality and that of course leads to faculty not seeing and hearing cheating, and certainly not reporting it.

5. 'Faculty would report cheating but I'll get hurt in the student evaluations.' This is not so much a case for me, but I know of situations where this is an issue. It is well documented that student evaluations, both good and bad, have little value. Evaluations and earned grade is tightly correlated. However, if renewal of your contract is in part based on student evaluations, you don't want to fail a student over plagiarism. At least one school, removes the evaluations of students sanctioned for academic dishonesty, which can help offset that problem (although the student's friends might still nail you in the evaluations).

6. 'Faculty would report cheating but we don't want to hurt the student's future.' This one did not come from McCabe's studies, but I've heard it numerous times. See it apparently not the student's fault they cheated, it's the instructor's for reporting it. That's a great approach especially when we are shipping these graduates off to run businesses, become doctors, lawyers, etc. Part of this probably stems from the fact that many instructors do not know what happens to reports of cheating at our institution. Basically, reporting serves two functions, to ensure students know their rights (again faculty make mistakes) and to have a history. When a student in my senior level course cheats, it probably isn't the first time. However, from my perspective it is the first time. If I report it and there is a history of previous cheating, the university can now step in and potentially suspend or expel the student.

Third, what about the institutional role? Does the institution play any role in establishing conditions that tacitly promote or actively reduce cheating? (Short answer: Yes.)

1. 'The institution contributes to student cheating by promoting faculty adherence to policy.' As noted above, most, if not all, colleges/universities have policies related to academic dishonesty in some form. However, having a policy does no good if there is little to no adherence to it. Having a policy is good, but colleges/universities have a huge number of policies that can be inundating to the faculty. Some ways to get around this is to organize the policies into easily identifiable units (Teaching policies). Since everything has moved online, there needs to be a simple way for faculty to be able to find and access it. If I've spent ten minutes searching for the policy on cheating and have come up empty, I'm probably done looking. Sending timely and appropriate reminders to faculty regarding policies is helpful. Send the links to policies related to teaching a couple weeks before each semester starts, send the links to policies related to research whenever a research grant is funded, etc. If faculty are aware of the policies, they are more likely to be responsive to them. If the administration makes it clear that these policies are important (by making it easy to find and identify them for example), it encourages faculty adherence.

2. 'The institution has an honor code and stresses its importance.' This appears to be one of the most critical factors in reducing student cheating. Schools with a strong honor code have less endemic cheating than those without one or that have one but do not support it. It's important not only to have an honor code, but to have student involvement with maintaining the code. If there is student buy in at the get go, there is student support. Students are more likely to report cheating by colleagues when it is viewed as an honor code violation. For this to happen, the administration needs to be actively involved. If the administration is actively involved and the students are actively involved, then the faculty will have to be onboard as well.
These latter two points I think can be filed under the idea of community establishment. If students are part of a community (even if it is a large university), then they have a vested interest in its and their reputation. Things like honor codes and student involvement serve to establish a sense of community.

Here's an NPR interview with Dr. McCabe from 2010 on cheating. I also encourage you to look at the associated story and check out the comments to see many of the above issues described.


Anonymous said...

Sometimes, the line between what is cheating and what is not is rather blurry. At my school, some faculty tend to ask the same or very similar questions each year on graduate exams. They then provide the graded copy to the student to use when studying for comps. Helpful, yes? So is it cheating when a new student gets copies of this exam to "study from" when they take the class? Faculty says it's the responsibility of the professors to ask new questions each year so it's "their fault" that students use old exams from other students to study from. Since I consider it cheating (hell, I need to learn the material for myself not memorize the answers from some else's exam) and some of my fellow students do not, they have an unfair advantage. Frustrating. But I am learning the material and will end up with more knowledge in the end so I try to console myself with that.

(I'm also shocked at how often I get offered past exams from graduate students a year or two ahead of me. Then again, they probably got them from students ahead of them so it's almost a tradition. They're shocked when I refuse them...)

-Anonymous for obvious reasons.

azmanam said...

I have heard anecdotes that verbally saying the phrase 'it is against the academic integrity policy to give or receive aid on this exam' actually reduces cheating incidences.

Have you read any literature on this? I do this before each exam, and I make them sign a pledge on the exam as well. They shouldn't sign it if it's not true, and no unsigned exams will be graded.

I haven't noticed any blatant cheating on exams so far...

Anonymous said...

Anonymous to protect my identity and the identity of other people mentioned.

I should have cheated, I really wish I had. Hands down, I should have cheated early and cheated often.

When I came in to Uni, I was determined to not cheat at a single thing. I made it a point to take any kind of aid or assistance that wasn't offered by the professor/TA. I refused 'study' (homework copying) groups. I refused old tests. I refused cheat-sheets for exams.

I nearly failed out, couldn't ever change my major out of a field I hated to one I loved (grades too low), and when I finally squeeked out, realized that graduate studies were forever closed to me thanks to low grades and unimpressed professors.

I had two friends, a couple, who cheated often. They copied homework from each other and spent most of their time together working on assignments. I had another friend who cheated even more than those two. A friend who cheated on tests, exams, and even on a national aptitude test.

They all did quite well, getting honours degrees and double-degrees and law school and grad school invites. I still talk with them often, but something quite telling I've noticed is that they and I had about the same intelligence at graduation! Mr. Honours and I were about equal in our major in terms of skill, but /he/ had grades and recommendations while I had only my ethics.

Finally, I broke down and asked a professor who had always seemed to like me but had graded me very harshly why this was, what I should have done more, and how people who cheated like that never got caught, and was told a very sick truth. "Cheating is rampant and hard to deal with, so we just grade really hard to counteract the effect. I expect all my students to be cheating and curve appropriately."

I sincerely wish I had cheated.

The Lorax said...

@anon #1. I know some profs who reuse tests, and am not a fan of the approach myself. However, I understand it. Writing decent questions (Im not talking multiple choice factoid questions) is difficult and depending on the subject matter you may be limited. Those profs I know who do it, do not return the exams to the students (other than to allow them to go over the exams in class). If a student runs to their sorority house and writes down the questions, then that is clearly and obviously cheating.

Studying old exams, if they were freely returned, is not cheating and is a good approach to see the kind of questions the prof asks.

The Lorax said...

@azmanam I have not seen anything in the literature specifically addressing your question, but my reading is limited. However, I am not surprised. Being upfront and frank with the students helps prevent students from rationalizing cheating as not being cheating. 'Well the prof never actually said we could not work together on this specific assignment therefore it must be ok even though it never has been before.' I give a take home examination with a rule sheet attached. I also am aware that if I say students cannot go online, some will anyway. So I allow outside resources (with citations) and ask open ended essay questions that are not readily answered through google.

Also, discussing these things ahead of time with students brings them on board and encourages this sense of community, which helps. If you have some say in things, you have a vested interest in things working right.

The Lorax said...

@anon #2. Being an ethical individual is nothing to regret. It can be hard to do the right thing. Regardless, said prof is an asshole. If true, they failed royally by not being upfront with the students about the issue putting you at a disadvantage. The prof also seems to not care in the least about the problems. I do not see how 'grading harder' actually has any effect on the problem in the slightest. Although too late, when things like that happen, it is worthwhile to talk with a dean or other appropriate administrator. (Also pointing out cheating when you are aware of it, it the right thing to do too and could have served to address the problem. At the very least you would have found out earlier what the rules were in that class.)

Bijan Parsia said...

The Lorax wrote: "I know some profs who reuse tests, and am not a fan of the approach myself. However, I understand it. Writing decent questions (Im not talking multiple choice factoid questions) is difficult and depending on the subject matter you may be limited"

Actually, the literature is pretty clear that writing good multiple choice questions is very difficult, certainly more difficult than most sorts of essay questions. (Grading, of course, is reversed.) It's rather difficult to write a set of MCQs that have the appropriate difficulty, discrimination, coverage, non-guessability, functional distractors, cognitive level, etc. (Automatically generating questions is more advanced for open questions than for MCQs.)

Obviously, releasing essay questions is much "safer" than releasing MCQs as the grading of essay questions is much more adjustable post facto. I.e., if you see 40 out of 50 students providing almost exactly the same answer you can value the "nonstandard" points of analysis more.

The Lorax said...

Bijan, Ild be interested in a reference or two showing that writing good MC questions is more difficult than writing good essay questions.

Obviously, releasing essay questions is much "safer" than releasing MCQs as the grading of essay questions is much more adjustable post facto. I.e., if you see 40 out of 50 students providing almost exactly the same answer you can value the "nonstandard" points of analysis more.

I agree that it is potentially easier to adjust point distributions in essay exams, however I find that unethical. Also, I write several parts to my questions and let the students know the point distribution ahead of time.

Malcolm said...

The author has a point when he says that we're sending all these cheaters out to be lawyers, doctors.
Holy shit!

I'm glad to say that I have never cheated in an exam (though I've had chances of doing so in 2 public exams).
As for homework, I've only done once in my 4 years at the university, and I regretted about it for a long long time.

And despite not getting better grades than those cheaters, at least now I could write about it here, something those cheaters cannot do.

Bijan Parsia said...

In reverse order,

I agree that it is potentially easier to adjust point distributions in essay exams, however I find that unethical.

Unethical? Really? Inherently? That seems...strong. What's the grounds of the problem?

(Obviously, in some case it would be problematic. But, for example, imagine a question intended to elicit understanding of object-oriented programming and the model answer heavily weighted encapsulation, but this year you spent more time on CLOS and multimethods then you had before. This led students to produce a different signal this year for their understanding. I've no problem adjusting the key. Similarly, in even moderately open ended questions the range of possible answers is so wide that you have to calibrate wrt other answers.)

In cases where there was an unanticipated interaction between the instruction, the cohort, and the question, you pretty much have to do a post fix. This is true for objective questions too, after all. (I.e., a question became ambiguous one year because of a spontaneous class discussion.)

Also, I write several parts to my questions and let the students know the point distribution ahead of time.

That makes post-exam adjustment more difficult, obviously.

Ild be interested in a reference or two showing that writing good MC questions is more difficult than writing good essay questions.

Plus, if you look at the automated question generated literature, you'll find that progress has been much better on essay questions (of course, they generally don't generate a model answer).

One thing that's really hard is writing functional distractors in sufficient quantity.

If you want more, drop me a line.

The Lorax said...


Thanks for the information. Ill be checking it out soon (aka after I finish all the grading I need to do for my course).

re: the 'unethical' comment. That was in relation to the fact I tell the students the point distributions ahead of time. I agree that there are other methods that are more amenable to adjusting the point spread. For me personally, I would rather give the students as much information upfront as possible and not adjust on the backend.