“Everybody cheats a little.” “I don’t do well on tests.” “I didn’t have time to study.” These are three common excuses used by students when confronted with the fact that they have committed the crime of academic dishonesty. Plagiarism, copying and pasting works from the Internet or blatant offenses such as buying a term paper are all too common occurrences in the hallowed halls of academia. Educators are frustrated and cry out “Why do students cheat?”
Poor study habits, test anxiety and the temptation to simplify a lazy student’s academic life have been pointed out as the major contributors to cheating. However, educators may find that there are other reasons for those cheaters in their classrooms. Factors such as subtle behavioral and situational factors in the testing environment, weak penalties administered by universities, and educators who stress performance over mastery of a subject may all contribute to cheating in the classroom.
Modern research has produced some surprising results in studies that tested how certain behavioral and situational factors can affect a student’s willingness to risk cheating. In one study, a group of psychologists found that the lighting in a testing area can affect cheating. Participants felt protected from observation in a dimly lit room during the experiment when in reality, they were being closely monitored. The darkened room provided an “illusory anonymity” which researchers suggest provides an environment that makes one more likely to engage in behaviors that one normally wouldn’t engage in, such as cheating.
Additional research found that people also cheat when told their behavior is a result of genes and the environment, as opposed to free will. This philosophy of high determinism provides behavioral cues that rationalize and excuse one’s decision to cheat. In other words, students feel that they are pre-destined to steal another student’s answers because they are not smart enough to learn the material on their own.
Another reason students might turn their backs on the old adage “to thine own self be true” is the academia’s reluctance to expel students who are caught cheating. One example is the 2012 plagiarism scandal at the prestigious Harvard University. Over 125 students were probed as suspected members of the largest cheating ring in recent history. Out of 125 students, one-half were forced to withdraw from the college for two to four terms, twenty-five percent were put on disciplinary probation and the remaining students suffered no consequences. Harvard stopped short of expelling the fifty percent who were found guilty of plagiarism. Those students can reapply for admission in the near future and go on to become leading politicians, lawyers or doctors.
Weak penalties are also handed out by universities in the UK. Sean Conklin, a BBC education news reporter, states that a 2008 report from the Higher Education Academy and Joint Information Systems Committee found that only 143 United Kingdom university students were expelled out of approximately 9,200 cases of cheating. More than 98% of students caught cheating were allowed to stay at the university, even though they had been caught before. The message to college students seems to be “Don’t get caught, but if you do, don’t worry. You won’t get thrown out of school.” Consequently, these weak penalties give students very little reason not to cheat.
However, some believe that students should not carry all the blame when it comes to cheating in the classroom. When educators stress the importance of high test scores and develop their courses around standardized tests, they must also take into account their role in placing temptation in the paths of their students. In her article, “A Classroom Where No One Cheats” Jessica Lahey, a correspondent for “The Atlantic”, reveals possible solutions educators can use to combat classroom cheating.
She reports that based on studies performed by James M. Lang, author of the book “Cheating Lessons: Learning from Academic Dishonesty,” there are two different types of learners: mastery-oriented and performance-oriented. According to Lang, mastery-oriented students “pursue understanding” while performance-oriented students strive to “demonstrate their capabilities.” This research found that when students are more focused on their grade point average than the material they are supposed to be learning, they are more likely to cheat.
Lahey states, “The American educational system should focus on the handing down of knowledge and skills rather than test preparation and administration. The same conditions that encourage cheating discourage our students’ mastery of content and skills.” In short, students who feel the pressure to get top marks are more likely to cheat.
Factors such as environmental and behavioral cues, mild repercussions for students who cheat and perception-oriented course curriculums presented by educators might very well sway a student’s decision to cheat. However, ultimately, it comes down to the student’s perception of what cheating might cost them both academically and morally. Cheating, whatever the reason given, is wrong. Students who cheat may find that they not only diminish themselves in the eyes of their university, their peers and their families, they also will have to carry the guilt of not having earned their degree honestly.
“All good is hard. All evil is easy. Dying, losing, cheating, and mediocrity is easy. Stay away from easy.” ~Scott Alexander
Coughlin, S. (2008, June 4). University cheats not expelled. Retrieved from BBC: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/education/7434277.stm
Harris, P. (2012, August 30). Harvard University probes plagiarism outbreak involving 125 students. Retrieved from The Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/education/2012/aug/31/harvard-university-cheating-scandal
Konnikova, M. (2013, October 31). Inside the cheater’s mind. Retrieved from The New Yorker: http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/elements/2013/10/what-makes-people-cheat.html
Lahey, J. (2013, December 12). A classroom where no one cheats. Retrieved from The Atlantic: http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2013/12/a-classroom-where-no-one-cheats/282254/
Lang, J. M. (2013). Cheating Lessons: Learning from academic dishonesty. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
Murphy, B. (2013, February 1). Harvard cheating scandal ends in dozens of forced withdrawals. Retrieved from Huff Post College: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/02/01/harvard-cheating-scandal-_n_2600366.html