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Why Students Cheat (and what to do about it)

At the beginning of most class sessions, as students are coming into the room and getting prepared for that day’s work, we make small talk.  One particular day we discussed college football.  I asked the semi-random question of the students who were present at the time:  “if a player on Team A fouls a player on Team B (pulls a face mask, throws a punch) behind the referee’s back, should Team A be penalized?”

The answer was a resounding, “no!”  Because, the students stated, that behavior is just a part of the game.  They recognized the behavior as being against the rules of the sport, and they realized that Player A shouldn’t have committed the foul, but since the referee didn’t see it, it didn’t matter.  It’s almost as if the foul never happened.   Getting away with those punches is an unwritten parts of the game, they reasoned.   But that was football, a game.   What about academics?   For these students on this particular day, cheating in school and cheating on the gridiron were about the same:  neither really mattered unless you were caught.

Students today live in a world of brazen and well-paid cheaters.  Why shouldn’t they think it’s OK to cheat?  Students cheat for a variety of  reasons, and some are easy to understand.  They cheat because they are fearful, they have not managed their time well, and they often believe that the act of cheating really doesn’t matter (or that no one will ever know) in the artificial world of academia.  Increasingly, students believe that “everyone does it” and if they don’t cheat they’ll be behind (for college admissions or in the search for jobs) those who do.  Cheating, many believe, levels the playing field.  In the race to get ahead (to mix metaphors), cheating becomes an unwritten rule of the game.

David Callahan, in his 2004 book The Cheating Culture: Why More Americans are Doing Wrong to Get Ahead, blames academic cheating (and certainly other types of cheating as well) on the “exceptionalism of America” and that “the American Dream ethos that dominates U.S. culture–an ethos at once intensely optimistic and brutally unforgiving” pushes us (students) to cheat, in order to get ahead (125).   We often think we are exceptional, that rules do not apply to us.  Students think this about themselves, too.

Dozens–if not hundreds–of websites exist to provide students ways to cheat.  One video explains, in significant detail, ways to cheat on an exam.  To be fair, though, the video has the disclaimer: “for educational purposes only.”  Indeed, there is even actually a Facebook group that describes “cheating strategies.”

In 2008, Donald McCabe, a professor of management at Rutgers University found in a study on cheating behaviors that “a whopping 95 percent of high school students say they’ve cheated during the course of their education, ranging from letting somebody copy their homework to test-cheating.”   The number is as high as 75 percent for college students.  If these statistics are true–and there is no reason to doubt them–then we have cheaters in our college classrooms.

As with other ProfHacker articles, we don’t offer a definitive solution about this growing problem.  We present a situation and then we ask you:  What do we do about students who cheat?  What do we do about the culture of cheating?

Please leave suggestions / opinions / thoughts in comments below.

[Image by Flickr user Mr. Stein; licensed under creative commons]

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