Colleges Research

Understanding Why Students Cheat

Have you ever stopped to consider why college students cheat?

It’s easy to say that students cheat because they aren’t interested in their classes or because they’re lazy and aren’t willing to do the work. However, as is usually the case, it’s not that simple. In fact, explanations like these are superficial and incomplete, offering no insight into the psychology behind this behavior. 

Why Students Cheat: Cultural Norms Encourage It

Unsurprisingly, students build their perceptions of cheating based off of what they observe from their peers, role models, and society as a whole. Consequently, attitudes about cheating are usually formed prior to entering collegeDavid Rettinger, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Mary Washington and Board Member of the International Center for Academic Integrity, spoke to this. In the article “Why US College Students Cheat and How to Fix It,” he is quoted as saying that “cheating is deeply ingrained in our culture.” Rettinger elaborates on this point by saying that “students look to politics, they look to business, and … they see dishonesty being rewarded, it’s very difficult for those of us in higher education to make an argument that they should do things the right way.”

Researchers also note a developmental factor, since students are more tolerant of risks, more prone to peer pressure, and may rationalize cheating behavior. When they see people getting ahead through cheating, they may feel invincible to getting caught. This is compounded by society’s expectation and acceptance that young adults will break rules and make mistakes. Some students even boast about their ability to cheat and get away with it.

Why Students Cheat: Technology Makes it Easy

Certainly a friend of the iGeneration, technology makes it easier than ever to cheat and engage in behavior that doesn’t really seem like cheating. Concepts like intellectual property are understood differently by students in the digital age, as Trip Gabriel suggested in a New York Times article. With the internet, students are accustomed to engaging with information and ideas that are constantly being reshaped, reused, and retweeted. Consequently, they tend to place less value in the existence of ownership when it comes to thoughts, ideas, and opinions. In their eyes, anything they access on the internet is fair game to use however they see fit.

Beyond blurring the lines of plagiarism, the internet also provides students with access to more explicit forms of cheating, such as test banks and homework answers. Many of the largest “homework help” sites have built their businesses by buying answers to assignments and providing students access to them for a monthly fee. When websites like these attract significant usage, it’s easy for students to rationalize cheating behavior by thinking that they would be putting themselves at a disadvantage if they did not use them. Consequently, it’s no surprise that research shows a majority of college students cheat, especially in classes they don’t like (usually math and science).

Why Students Cheat: Pressure to Succeed

For many students, the pressure to succeed is the driving force behind cheating. Difficulty to cope with external expectations, an inability to effectively manage time, and an unwillingness to ask for help can all lead to cheating behaviors.

Consider, for example, procrastination contextualized as an “emotion management problem.” Similarly, cheating allows students to avoid negative feelings about struggling with academic material. It’s a quick solution to the discomfort the comes from feeling like they are behind. It helps to portray themselves how they want to be seen— as a student who is intelligent and performs well in school. 

It’s important to emphasize that pressure to succeed in this way is about performing instead of learning. As such, students may be able to do well on assignments because of cheating, and pass the course as a result, but they usually won’t perform well on tests because learning has not taken place. Students generally aren’t opposed to learning, but the pressure to succeed can motivate them to cut corners and choose behavior they may not be inclined to if their classes focused on learning instead of grades. However, since success is often measured by one’s GPA, students tend to be more performance oriented” than “learning oriented.” 

When looking at which students may be more likely to cheat than others, it’s very clear that the pressure to succeed is a big part of the equation. This journal article explains the “nomenclature of cheating tendencies,” sharing that men, younger students, athletes, fraternity and sorority members, and those involved in extracurricular activities are more prone to cheating. Understanding that men and younger students may have a harder time asking for help, and the other students listed might struggle to meet their organization’s academic requirements while balancing a full schedule, we are better equipped to address cheating behavior.

It’s not necessarily an issue of laziness either, as Hicks Crawford explains in his piece, “5 Reasons College Students Cheat That Have Nothing To Do With Being Lazy.” Ambitious, hard-working students are likely to cheat in order to get ahead. In fact, researchers note that competitive environments contribute to cheating, which explains why even Ivy League schools are plagued with cheating scandals

Why Students Cheat: Seemingly Meaningless Tasks

Many students will cheat when the assigned task doesn’t seem meaningful and feels like “busywork.” They rationalize this behavior because they don’t see the value they’re supposed to get from doing the assignment honestly. Why not cheat if it seems like there’s nothing relevant to learn from the activity?

This points to a bigger issue universities and colleges face when it comes to engaging students: the perceived disconnect between the curriculum and their future careers. According to Generation Z researcher Corey Seemiller, students are more career-focused earlier in college than previous generations. As such, they want instruction and experiences that feel practical to their career and can help them advance in their field. This may explain why research published in the Journal of Business Ethics found that cheating is more common among business students.

Another study showed that the most important reason students cheated was the “desire to get ahead.” If this desire can be matched with curriculum that students perceive and understand as applicable to their career, you are moving in the right direction. If not, you will lose the engagement of Generation Z very quickly.

Potential Remedies

What are some solutions to help prevent cheating? In “Why Students Cheat—and What to Do About It,” Andrew Simmons suggests reducing the pressure on students and being mindful of language. Consider the difference between praising a student’s effort to learn and praising a student for being smart. The former encourages engaged learning (capturing The Super Mario Effect), whereas the latter may result in a student feeling a need to cheat in order to live up to the expectation of being smart. 

Faculty can also be allies to students and prevent cheating in a few key ways:

First, strategically designing courses that have a focus on mastery and learning in lieu of memorization and testing can help to deter cheating and enhance the overall experience for students. This is according to Eric Anderman, professor of educational psychology at Ohio State and researcher who studies why and how students cheat.

Second, Rettinger recommends that faculty take time to explain the rules of cheating to students. As previously noted, some students cross over into cheating without realizing it. Consequently, making an effort to ensure students understand what constitutes cheating and how the institution handles cases of academic misconduct is very important.

Third, faculty can help students understand how to do well in their classes at the start of the semester by reviewing what kind of effort is needed to succeed. This is less about trying to prescribe how much time should be spent on each course but more about communicating how to best spend that time to master the material. Dr. Lolita Paff explores this in her piece, “Questioning the Two-Hour Rule for Studying” for Faculty Focus. 

Faculty might also be surprised to learn how much their relationships with students can help prevent cheating. The journal article “Why Do College Students Cheat” revealed that having a “moral anchor” in a faculty member whose opinion mattered to them was an important reason why students wouldn’t cheat. When students have someone who serves as an academic role model, they are less inclined to cut corners.

Knack’s Commitment to Academic Integrity

While other companies look to exploit students’ proclivity for cheating, Knack is ready to be part of the solution instead. We firmly believe that building strong campus communities of peer learning helps students feel more academically supported, which decreases their desire to cheat.

Curious how Knack can help reduce academic dishonesty at your school? Learn how we support students and keep them from cheating at joinknack.com/colleges.

Written by Priya Thomas

Priya Thomas is a wellness and leadership development director and consultant with 15 years of experience in higher education and student affairs. Her expertise includes wellness, mental health, student leadership and involvement, and fraternity and sorority life. She enjoys discovering local restaurants, travel, and learning new things. Connect with her on Twitter.