Cheaters Never Win? Many U.S. High School Students Disagree

teacher in classroom
In most cases, responsibility for reporting cheating rests on the shoulders of the instructor or professor. Hill Street Studios/Getty Images

Dr. Susan Schorn, writing program coordinator in the School of Undergraduate Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, was perusing an email group when she saw a story another college dean posted that caught her attention. The student (we'll call him Mark) purchased a one-of-a-kind, "plagiarism-free" paper online and turned it in as his own. However, when Mark refused to pay the writer — a person thousands of miles away from UT — the writer fought back and sent the dean emails proving Mark didn't write the paper. Mark was busted and got a zero on his paper.

As sad as this case is, it's not an isolated incident. And, unlike our Mark, most cheaters probably get away with it. Stories like this one are varied and broad but indicative of a serious issue that is as old as education.

"[Cheating] is rampant all across the country, and I mean absolutely rampant," says Zoe Salloom, learning technologist at Georgia State University's Center for Excellence in Teaching & Learning. She defines cheating as sharing test questions and answers, or collaborating during a test or assignment without the instructor's permission.

Plagiarism is just one aspect of cheating and is typically defined as something like "the appropriation of another person's ideas, processes, results, or words without giving appropriate credit," as it is by Texas A&M University. But Schorn says even that definition was probably plagiarized.

How Prevalent Is Cheating?

According to the Educational Testing Service/Ad Council Campaign to Discourage Academic Cheating, about 20 percent of college students "admitted to cheating in high school" in the 1940s. But a 2008 report by the Josephson Institute of Ethics, a nonprofit character-education organization, 59 percent of high school students admitted cheating on an exam, and 34 percent admitted to doing it more than twice. One out of three admitted they used the internet to plagiarize an assignment.

And another three-year study by David Wangaard and Jason Stephens published in 2011 reported that 95 percent of students surveyed from "six economically and ethnically diverse high schools in the northeastern United States" admitted to cheating at least once during the past academic year.

However, not every academic has seen this type of rise in student dishonesty. "The research I've seen and conducted doesn't demonstrate a huge uptick in cheating," explains University of Mary Washington associate professor of psychological science David Rettinger. He's also president of the International Center for Academic Integrity. "Research by Prof. Don McCabe over the past 20 years shows up and downs in reported cheating. My more recent follow-ups indicated that the trend is continuing." Rettinger is referring to the late Donald L. McCabe, who is often referred to as the founding father of research on academic integrity. McCabe also co-authored the book "Cheating in College: Why Students Do It and What Educators Can Do About It."

What has changed is how students are cheating rather than the fact that they are cheating. There is evidence that certain types of academic dishonesty, like contract cheating where a third party performs the work (as in the case of our misguided Mark) are on the rise. "Considering that this wasn't even on the radar 10 years ago, it's a very disturbing trend," Rettinger says.

girl student cheating off boy student girl student cheating off boy student
Technology has opened many new avenues for cheaters, so simply spying off their neighbor's test isn't the only way anymore.
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Advances in Technology

Technology has opened many new avenues for cheaters. Whereas a calculator watch used to be the item exam proctors looked out for, students today have smart watches that can access a lot more than scientific notations. Online study tools make it easy for students to share information, from exam reviews to test questions. And it's possible for students to outsource their academic work anywhere in the world.

According to Georgia State's Salloom, students might use technology like GroupMe, a mobile messaging app, to compare answers during a take-home final exam. "A lot of the technology that's out there right now is helping to enhance [cheating]," she says. In fact, StudySoup, a digital learning marketplace, has a program that pays students for notetaking. Students can also upload materials like exam review sheets for others to share.

These kinds of advancements have forced faculty and administrators to become more proactive with technology, too. Some use video to monitor students as they take exams and randomize test questions and answers. Professors also often resort to using plagiarism detection software to assess papers and essays to catch cheaters, but it can often give false positives and negatives, Schorn says, so it's not always the best solution.

"The tactics change so quickly," says Seann Kalagher, president of the Association for Student Conduct Administration, who advises that institutions must keep policies and procedures up to date and be inclusive of issues and methods that were not a problem a decade or two ago.

Is There No Longer a Stigma?

If academic dishonesty has truly risen significantly since the '40s, does it not carry the stigma it once did? Do we still consider it unethical or have students espoused some misguided understanding of utilitarianism?

Research commissioned by Educational Testing Service shows that student excuses for cheating range from "everyone does it" to "it's OK if you don't get caught." Others see cheating as a way to handle what they consider as unfair testing. And cheating appears to get more pervasive as grades become more important during the academic trajectory.

In the Josephson Institute's Report Card 2012: The Ethics of American Youth, which surveyed more than 23,000 high school students throughout the U.S., 57 percent of respondents agreed with the statement "In the real world, successful people do what they have to do to win, even if others consider it cheating," while only 36 percent agreed with "A person has to lie or cheat sometimes in order to succeed." However, 92 percent of those same high schoolers agreed that "People should play by the rules even if they lose." There appears to be a total disconnect between what students believe about cheating and what they do in practice. Could it relate to that notion of not getting caught?

Crime Without Punishment?

"Academic dishonesty is not a new phenomenon," Kalagher says. But investigation and judication are tied to the mission and history of each institution. "Every institution works through these issues and has policies that address them."

In most cases, responsibility for reporting cheating rests on the shoulders of the instructor or professor, which could mean paperwork some don't want to deal with. As the penalty, a student might fail the assignment on which they cheated, fail the course — this could be an automatic fail or might happen organically if the student earns a zero on a heavily weighted assignment — be suspended or even expelled. Outcomes can vary, but if the infractions are formally addressed, penalties can increase.

For example, at UT Austin, a first reported violation of academic integrity might lead to a warning, a second to suspension and a third to expulsion.

"We want to make sure it's an educational process," says Dr. Andel Fils-Aime, director of student conduct and academic integrity in the office of the dean of students at UT Austin. "We want to make sure that we have a record of the conversations we have had to make sure they are aware of what the expectations are."

He recommends faculty err on the side of caution and submit suspected violations so that the "frequency of the violations and the circumstances surrounding the incident" can be determined. Without a record of incidents, repeat offenders can get by undetected.

And you can bet there are repeat offenders out there. The Josephson Institute's 2012 respondents admitted to cheating on a test two or more times and 51 percent said they copied homework two or more times. Remember, this is the same batch of kids from which 92 percent agreed that "people should play by the rules even if they lose."

Apparently, when it comes to academics, students aren't playing by the rules.