Why do students cheat?
Although cheating pervades college campuses, experts say malicious intent and moral decline rarely impact such academic transgressions, pointing instead to students’ feeling the need to stay academically afloat.
The evidence for a rise in cheating is relatively straightforward. The number of students self-reporting unpermitted collaboration at nine universities increased from 11 percent in 1963 to 49 percent in 1993, according to a study conducted by Rutgers University professor Donald McCabe. The same study found that over 75 percent of students admit to some form of cheating.
Less clear, however, is why students at both the high school and college level are turning to academic dishonesty in record numbers and what motivates them to do so.
Educators offer a myriad of explanations, most centering on students feeling pressured to succeed at all costs, in addition to more person-specific factors such as a student’s relationship with a professor.
Some experts in studying cheating say there is a social norms factor at play, in which students believe their classmates are transgressing the honor code and therefore feel entitled, even obligated, to do so as well.
“Students feel like everyone else does it,” Diane Waryold of the Center for Academic Integrity said. “They want to keep an even playing field.”
Waryold serves as executive director for CAI, an organization based at Duke University that strives to promote honesty in education. CAI boasts a membership of over 250 colleges and universities, including Dartmouth — Dean of the College James Larimore sits on its board of directors — and has compiled 12 years of data on cheating.
“The high school data that we’re discovering is that students come [to college] with these learned type of behaviors,” Waryold said. “It’s like they’re carrying out a habit they performed in high school years, because the environment tolerated it.”
Professor Don McCabe of Rutgers University, CAI’s founding president, agreed that students are more likely to cheat if others around them are doing so as well.
“Particularly in cases where students feel they’re being disadvantaged, they quickly rationalize that they have no choice but to join in,” he said. “They want to keep things level.”
“They feel they might not succeed otherwise — they do anything to succeed, at any cost,” Waryold added, mentioning that cheating’s continued rise cannot be attributed to changing psychological trends.
Dartmouth psychology professor Howard Hughes offered a differing viewpoint, emphasizing psychological stresses many students face.
“My guess is that students, if they cheat, do so because they feel like they’re under pressure to get good grades and they feel like they can’t get them without cheating,” Hughes said.
Along those lines, Hughes does not believe that cheating is brought on by large class sizes or student apathy.
“I think that in their hearts, students know that they’re never justified in cheating,” he said. “I feel that most people are honest, but everyone can slip.”
Over commitment and stress are among the myriad reasons for student cheating, Waryold said.
“I think that students are busier nowadays, but I question what they are busy doing. Are they working to get through college, or for luxury items?” she said.
Changing societal attitudes toward honesty has affected students as well.
“I think that one of the reasons that that’s occurring is that students look back on the larger issues of societies, and say, ‘What’s the big deal with a little bit of cheating?'” McCabe said. “Students now feel that cheating just isn’t a big deal.”
Students’ inability to find relevance in their assignments and faculty apathy may also foster cheating-friendly environments.
“They tell us that grades are valued over learning. Some say that faculty just don’t care. They make it easy for students to cheat, so why not take advantage of the opportunity,” Waryold said.
Education department chair Andrew Garrod cited a 1980s scandal at Stanford University where over 100 students cheated on an introductory psychology exam as a reason why class size matters. In the class in question, an enrollment of over 900 prevented most students from ever meeting their professor.
“Cheating is much less likely to occur in smaller classes where students know the professor and have a respectful relationship with the professor,” Garrod said.
Analysis of cheating behavior, Garrod explained, has proven that “moral laxness” is not the issue at stake.
“It’s not weak students,” he said. “It’s often a very ambitious student who needs a particular grade to get into professional or graduate school. The cheating occurs as a result of poor planning and desperation.”