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Why Do Students Cheat?

Talking to young people about cheating — and how to prevent it — shows the powerful role of student voice

July 19, 2016
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In March, Usable Knowledge published an article on ethical collaboration, which explored researchers’ ideas about how to develop classrooms and schools where collaboration is nurtured but cheating is avoided. The piece offers several explanations for why students cheat and provides powerful ideas about how to create ethical communities. The article left me wondering how students themselves might respond to these ideas, and whether their experiences with cheating reflected the researchers’ understanding. In other words, how are young people “reading the world,” to quote Paulo Freire, when it comes to questions of cheating, and what might we learn from their perspectives?

I worked with Gretchen Brion-Meisels to investigate these questions by talking to two classrooms of students from Massachusetts and Texas about their experiences with cheating. We asked these youth informants to connect their own insights and ideas about cheating with the ideas described in "Ethical Collaboration." They wrote from a range of perspectives, grappling with what constitutes cheating, why people cheat, how people cheat, and when cheating might be ethically acceptable. In doing so, they provide us with additional insights into why students cheat and how schools might better foster ethical collaboration.

Why Students Cheat

"Too often, students are cut out of conversations about school policies and culture. They rarely have access to information on current educational research, partially because they are not the intended audience of such work.”

Students critiqued both the individual decision-making of peers and the school-based structures that encourage cheating. For example, Julio (Massachusetts) wrote, “Teachers care about cheating because its not fair [that] students get good grades [but] didn't follow the teacher's rules.” His perspective represents one set of ideas that we heard, which suggests that cheating is an unethical decision caused by personal misjudgment. Umna (Massachusetts) echoed this idea, noting that “cheating is … not using the evidence in your head and only using the evidence that’s from someone else’s head.”

Other students focused on external factors that might make their peers feel pressured to cheat. For example, Michima (Massachusetts) wrote, “Peer pressure makes students cheat. Sometimes they have a reason to cheat like feeling [like] they need to be the smartest kid in class.” Kayla (Massachusetts) agreed, noting, “Some people cheat because they want to seem cooler than their friends or try to impress their friends. Students cheat because they think if they cheat all the time they’re going to get smarter.” In addition to pressure from peers, students spoke about pressure from adults, pressure related to standardized testing, and the demands of competing responsibilities.

When Cheating is Acceptable

Students noted a few types of extenuating circumstances, including high stakes moments. For example, Alejandra (Texas) wrote, “The times I had cheated [were] when I was failing a class, and if I failed the final I would repeat the class. And I hated that class and I didn’t want to retake it again.” Here, she identifies allegiance to a parallel ethical value: Graduating from high school. In this case, while cheating might be wrong, it is an acceptable means to a higher-level goal.

Encouraging an Ethical School Community

Several of the older students with whom we spoke were able to offer us ideas about how schools might create more ethical communities. Sam (Texas) wrote, “A school where cheating isn't necessary would be centered around individualization and learning. Students would learn information and be tested on the information. From there the teachers would assess students' progress with this information, new material would be created to help individual students with what they don't understand. This way of teaching wouldn't be based on time crunching every lesson, but more about helping a student understand a concept.”

Sam provides a vision for the type of school climate in which collaboration, not cheating, would be most encouraged. Kaith (Texas), added to this vision, writing, “In my own opinion students wouldn’t find the need to cheat if they knew that they had the right undivided attention towards them from their teachers and actually showed them that they care about their learning. So a school where cheating wasn’t necessary would be amazing for both teachers and students because teachers would be actually getting new things into our brains and us as students would be not only attentive of our teachers but also in fact learning.”

Both of these visions echo a big idea from “Ethical Collaboration”: The importance of reducing the pressure to achieve. Across students’ comments, we heard about how self-imposed pressure, peer pressure, and pressure from adults can encourage cheating.

Where Student Opinions Diverge from Research

The ways in which students spoke about support differed from the descriptions in “Ethical Collaboration.” The researchers explain that, to reduce cheating, students need “vertical support,” or standards, guidelines, and models of ethical behavior. This implies that students need support understanding what is ethical. However, our youth informants describe a type of vertical support that centers on listening and responding to students’ needs. They want teachers to enable ethical behavior through holistic support of individual learning styles and goals. Similarly, researchers describe “horizontal support” as creating “a school environment where students know, and can persuade their peers, that no one benefits from cheating,” again implying that students need help understanding the ethics of cheating. Our youth informants led us to believe instead that the type of horizontal support needed may be one where collective success is seen as more important than individual competition.

Why Youth Voices Matter, and How to Help Them Be Heard

Our purpose in reaching out to youth respondents was to better understand whether the research perspectives on cheating offered in “Ethical Collaboration” mirrored the lived experiences of young people. This blog post is only a small step in that direction; young peoples’ perspectives vary widely across geographic, demographic, developmental, and contextual dimensions, and we do not mean to imply that these youth informants speak for all youth. However, our brief conversations suggest that asking youth about their lived experiences can benefit the way that educators understand school structures.

Too often, though, students are cut out of conversations about school policies and culture. They rarely even have access to information on current educational research, partially because they are not the intended audience of such work. To expand opportunities for student voice, we need to create spaces — either online or in schools — where students can research a current topic that interests them. Then they can collect information, craft arguments they want to make, and deliver their messages. Educators can create the spaces for this youth-driven work in schools, communities, and even policy settings — helping to support young people as both knowledge creators and knowledge consumers. 

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About the Author

Zachary Goldman
Zachary Goldman, a 2016 graduate of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, is a former teacher and educational data analyst and a City Year AmeriCorps alum. Follow him on Twitter at @Zachary_Goldman.
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