Why Students Cheat (It's Not Them—It's Us): To Tackle Student Cheating, We Need to Rethink Assignments and Classroom Culture

You would be hard-pressed to find a faculty member, myself included, who has not had to address an act of student cheating. Many professors could tell multiple stories of academic dishonesty that rival the best plotlines of any comedy or criminal drama series. I have had to confront a crib sheet glued to the bottom of a student’s shoe, notes written on a student’s forearm, and even answers scribbled on a desk the night before an exam. As technology has advanced, I’ve caught students using their cell phones to photograph exam questions and text them to peers for the answers. I’ve also had many students plagiarize entire research papers by cutting and pasting material straight off the internet. I even had one student who had his girlfriend take an online course in his place. Another student in the class told me what was happening, and when confronted, the couple admitted to the behavior. My reaction to these incidents has ranged from having a quick talk with the student to officially reporting the incident and recommending that the student be separated from the college.

When faced with pervasive—and increasingly creative—forms of plagiarism and cheating, what should we faculty members do? Give in? Give up? Or should we consider the classic break-up line “It’s not you—it’s me” and make changes in the ways we assess student learning? If we truly wish to increase student success and decrease acts of student dishonesty, then we must rethink whether the regurgitation of facts and dates truly constitutes the learning we want students to achieve, ensure that their instruction incorporates immersive and captivating assignments that spark critical thinking, and create a classroom culture in which academic integrity is of paramount importance.

How and why college students cheat has been an area of academic inquiry for decades. Plagiarism.org cites a 2002–05 study for which Donald McCabe, then a professor at Rutgers Business School, surveyed 63,700 undergraduates in the United States. Thirty-six percent of respondents admitted to paraphrasing or copying sentences from an internet source without footnoting it. The survey also found that 7 percent of respondents had turned in work completed by another person and that 3 percent had purchased a ready-made research paper.

In a 2017 Kessler International survey of three hundred college students, 86 percent of respondents admitted to cheating in some manner. Of those who acknowledged cheating, 97 percent indicated that they had gotten away with it. As the Ad Council notes in its fact sheet “Cheating Is a Personal Foul,” “Students who cheat often feel justified in what they are doing. They cheat because they see others cheat and they think they will be unfairly disadvantaged. The cheaters are getting 100 on the exam, while the non-cheaters may only get 90s.” And students in many self-report research studies explain their behavior with reasons ranging from “everyone does it” to “feeling pressure to succeed.”

While the days may be long past when students used synchronized coughing to give away the correct responses to a multiple-choice quiz, ubiquitous access to smartphones and other forms of technology means that students still have plenty of ways to be dishonest in their academic work. Of the students who admitted to cheating in the Kessler survey, 72 percent had used a mobile device to cheat during class, 79 percent had plagiarized from internet sources, and 42 percent had purchased custom term papers or essays online. Students are tethered to their devices, and simply collecting them before an exam is not always feasible. Sadly, sometimes increased proctoring may be the only option.

Another common type of cheating is copying text from another student’s assignment, which 76 percent of all respondents in the Kessler survey admitted to doing word for word. This last case is often seen in mathematics, accounting, or classes for which software such as Excel is used and for which assignment answers (and processes leading to the answers) are not subjective. For example, one student can complete the assignment and share it with peers, who can then simply change the file name and submit it as their own work. In this case, detection of cheating is difficult and might only be uncovered when blatant plagiarism is apparent, such as when the same errors are found in the assignments of more than one student.

To help prevent and detect plagiarism, students and faculty can use several online tools, such as Turnitin. These plagiarism detection tools compare a student’s paper to anything on the web, as well as to a database of previously submitted papers. The tools can be effective, but they are nowhere near perfect. A simple internet search of “how to get around Turnitin” leads to websites like EssayOnTime.com, which provides workarounds to “avoid plagiarism and cheat Turnitin.” That particular site suggests paraphrasing some of the content, choosing a different document format, or simply changing sentence word order. Other sites offer plagiarism-free research papers on any subject of interest at a reasonable price. While these paid-for papers can be hard to detect, word choice inconsistent with terms the student has previously used, near perfection in grammar, and content far outside the scope of what students would commonly know are signs that an assignment might not be a student’s original work.

Having corrected my share of papers, I concur that plagiarism from the internet appears to be the most common and easiest type of cheating. I see a high frequency of this behavior with first-year students who have yet to master the correct way to cite sources. Providing class time and instruction, at the onset of the course, on the need for students to adhere to standards of academic honesty and proper citation corrects a good amount of this behavior and reduces the number of students who repeatedly cheat. At the beginning of a course, faculty have a unique opportunity to set expectations on many things, such as the importance and value of academic integrity. In addition, talking to students one-on-one about crediting sources offers an opportunity to connect with students, learn their interests, and reinforce the idea that academic integrity is highly valued and
necessary for their success.

Students who cheat—and the reasons they do it—don’t fall into neat categories. In a 2016 article in Independent School, Alexis Brooke Redding, Carrie James, and Howard Gardner identify three conditions that increase the possibility of cheating in high school: pressure to achieve, particularly to get into the right college; a community-wide ethos of cheating; and unaddressed digital collaboration.

“More times than not, it is the easy way out,” one student shared by email when I asked students to send me thoughts about academic cheating. “Either they didn’t have enough time to study or simply didn’t want to; no one wants to fail. Students also have this pressure to succeed brought on them by their families and society.”

Indeed, in a 2010 piece for the Journal of Business Ethics on why students cheat, Mark G. Simkin and Alexander McLeod highlight a “‘desire to get ahead’ [as] the most important motivating factor” reported by students who said they had cheated. In very real ways, students internalize the external pressure to maintain their academic standing or scholarship, and this pressure can cause them to ignore their moral compass and cheat on an exam or use someone else’s work. Honors students “feel as if there is so much pressure on them because they are seen as the top of their class, the smart ones,” another student told me by email. “If they are not performing to that level, they are going to think professors are going to think less of them, and validation is important.”

Students also engage in academic dishonesty because they don’t care about the course material. “There’s not enough intrinsic motivation to do the work,” explained another student in an email. “So, students find shortcuts to get the grade instead of trying to gain the knowledge and insight that’s intended to be taught to them.”

So, what can faculty do to curtail incidents of academic dishonesty? I would return to the idea that the bulk of the responsibility falls with educators. If faculty members wish to increase student success and improve academic integrity, then we must also create engaging assignments, which decrease student apathy and thereby reduce students’ propensity to claim borrowed material as their own. We need to ditch the automatically graded, multiple-choice exams and build interesting assignments based on application, reflection, and analysis of material—processes that require original thinking and work. In a recent piece for Inside Higher Ed, Doug Lederman frames strategies to address academic dishonesty by suggesting that “a lot of instructors would benefit from rebuilding their pedagogy, not only to minimize academic dishonesty but to build student engagement and learning.”

One way to better engage students in critical thinking is by using contemporary films and documentaries as part of their learning. Inquiry-based and integrative learning assignments promote deep thinking and, by design, bring students’ personal experiences to the academic province and push them toward novel responses, thereby reducing the prospect of academic dishonesty. For example, a course assignment I refer to as “What did you see?” pairs readings on a specific topic with a documentary. In my courses, I ask students, through a series of four essay questions, to analyze connections between the readings, the film, and their own views. Students will have to think critically as they find ways to reflect on the readings and the film and use examples from both. A different version of this type of assignment—called “What did I read?”—uses biographies and collateral readings instead of films.

Another way faculty can increase engagement and reduce cheating is through having students own their learning. Students read and write with passion when they tackle topics that have personal meaning for them. When students write essays that link theory to personal life events or craft creative stories that explore themes that resonate in their world, they showcase greater depth of inquiry and are less inclined—and have less opportunity—to plagiarize.

For example, in my counseling psychology class, each week, students examine the biography of a theorist, his or her theory of personality, and the associated therapy. I ask students to use a journal format to demonstrate a strong understanding of the class material and make connections between the various readings. I also request that they focus on their own reflections and not simply summarize the material, using five or more details from the text and additional credible outside sources to support their point of view. By the end of the course, students have created a trove of original material. They can then draw upon this work for their final assignment in which I ask them to choose one theoretical perspective on personality development and at least one established therapeutic model that aligns with their current understanding of human growth and development as well as their understanding of “who they are” in their own development. They use this assessment to answer one of the central questions of the course, “What is your theory of personality and how might you effect change in people?” This type of formative-to-summative assignment engages students in self-reflection, encourages and rewards original work, and promotes appropriate citing and use of reference material.

Creating engaging, in-depth assignments will only go so far in addressing student cheating if academic integrity is not a clear value in the classroom. In fact, the strategies suggested in this article simply mitigate instances of cheating. As they say, “Where there is a will, there is a way.” However, as educators, we must demand a classroom culture that embraces academic integrity as being at the core of learning.

Practically every college and university has an honor code, and including the policy or a link to it on a course syllabus can help deter cheating. As Kimberly Yavorski states in a 2019 Higher Ed Connects article on honor codes, “It is naïve to believe that an honor code will prevent all cheating, but studies have repeatedly shown that rates of cheating are lower at schools that have an honor code.” While honor codes tend to be broad in nature, most, if not all, include a section on academic honesty, which faculty can use to lay the foundation for integrity within the classroom.

For instance, a fellow faculty member shared with me how she addresses academic honesty at the start of a course and makes it integral to her instruction. She puts the topic directly on her syllabus and speaks about it during several classes. “I tell them, don’t give away [your] integrity over a grade,” she told me by email. In this example, the faculty member is making the written policy a part of the learning process and classroom culture, creating a learning environment that promotes academic honesty, and emphasizing that adherence to doing what is right is always more important than a grade. If students embrace the practice of academic integrity in their work for one class, they will be more inclined toward academic honesty in other courses.

Establishing an unwavering ethos of academic integrity in the classroom is not easy. Today’s students, and all of us, live in a world where truth is referred to as fake and alternative facts are considered a substitute for reality. When society at large sends the message that behaving without integrity carries no consequences, it’s no wonder some students cheat. And while we have an abundance of research on how and why students cheat, much of that research focuses on the negative element of human behavior—we look more at why students cheat than why they don’t. But we should examine what stops them from cheating, because it points back to us, the educators. As Simkin and McLeod note in the Journal of Business Ethics, “One important reason why students refrain from cheating: the presence of a moral anchor in a faculty member whose opinion mattered.” This is a powerful finding. Instead of worrying about developing a better version of Turnitin, we should be giving more care to what we say to our students and how we convey our own ethos of integrity. Our words and behavior matter—so do the assignments we create to engage students to think creatively, critically, and ethically. We need to reframe the research to consider why students don’t cheat and remember that maybe it’s not them—it’s us.


Brian McCoy is a professor of psychology at Nichols College.

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