Updated on Dec 23, 2009

Academic cheating appears in a variety of forms and at the heart of each is an attempt to convince others that one has higher academic skills, abilities, or potential, or

Cheating appears to be fairly prevalent at every educational level.Cheating appears to be fairly prevalent at every educational level.PHOTOS_ALYSON/TAXI/GETTY IMAGES.

that one exerts more academic effort than is actually the case. Amid multitude of definitions for cheating, Gara-valia, Olson, Russell, and Christensen noted that common components are the use or provision of unauthorized means of information in a setting in which there are assessment consequences for the performance. Cizek classified forms of cheating into four categories: the unapproved transfer of information between individuals, the use of unapproved materials, exploiting weaknesses in others, and plagiarism. Many cheating behaviors consist of elements from multiple categories. Cheating may be engaged in for one's own interest and also in the interest of others such as one's peers, students, or children.


The prevalence of cheating is difficult to estimate because few reliable sources for cheating information exist. Students have strong incentives to underreport their cheating and may have difficulty estimating the cheating that occurs in their schools. Cheating that is not discovered obviously goes unrecognized by teachers and thus is not reported. Additionally, individuals may hold different definitions of cheating—staying home from school on the day of a test may be viewed differently from bringing a cheat sheet into a test. As Whitley concluded, in part due to these issues, reports of the percentage of students who cheat vary from 5 to 95%. However, some trends have been identified.

Cheating appears to be fairly prevalent at every educational level. According to Cizek, one-third of elementary students report having cheated and, according to Evans and Craig, just over 60% of middle school students report that they know when cheating occurs in their classes but rarely complain about cheating to peers or teachers. A nationally representative survey of youth conducted by the Josephson Institute of Ethics revealed that 38% of middle school students and 60% of high school students cheated on a test during the prior school year and approximately 24% of middle schools students and 33% of those in high school used unauthorized information from the Internet to complete out-of-class assignments. Both test cheating and plagiarism increase fairly steadily from grades 6 through 12.

Although widespread cheating also occurs in college, most of the available data suggest there is less academic dishonesty in higher education than in high school but in the 1990s and early 2000s rates appeared to increase. Self-reports of college cheating increased from 63% in 1963 to 70% in 1993 according to McCabe and Bowers. Investigations conducted by Newstead, Franklyn-Stokes, and Armstead, and separately by Schab revealed that college students report higher levels of cheating in science, technology, and math courses than in other domains. Compared to liberal arts majors and education majors, Baird found that business majors were more likely to report cheating on unit tests and to conceal professor errors and were less likely to disapprove of cheating. Similarly, McCabe, Butterfield, and Trevino found that graduate students in business reported cheating at a higher rate (56%) than graduate students in other fields (47%).


As reflected in a review of the research on cheating methods conducted by Garavalia and colleagues, the most comprehensive studies of the relative frequency of cheating methods have used samples of college students. When these authors asked college students how students cheat on graded work, more students listed at least one non-technological method than at least one technological method (84% versus 34%). Fifty-two percent of these students reported at least one method that did not require collaboration with others while 40% reported at least one method that did require collaboration.

Newstead and colleagues reported on the frequency of various specific behaviors at the college level. These data reveal multiple forms of plagiarism are common. Many students report having copied text from a source without a citation (42%), paraphrasing from a source without a citation (54%), inventing data (48%), allowing one's coursework to be copied by others (46%), and padding bibliographies (44%).

Students admitted to a number of coursework shortcuts. Many students reported copying other students' work with their knowledge (36%) or taking individual credit for collaborative work (18%). Students also cooperated by agreeing to mark peer-graded work too generously (29%) or doing others' work for them (16%). Frequently reported deceitful behaviors also included falsifying data (37%), hiding books or articles so peers cannot access them (32%), and lying about personal circumstances inordertoget extensions or exemptions (11%). In testing situations, 13% of students copied exam answers from others without their knowledge. Relatively fewer students reported taking unauthorized material into tests (8%), plotting in advance to get information on the exam (5%), or lying about circumstances to get special privileges by the examiner (4%).

Technological advances have increased the methods and opportunities for cheating. Students store and retrieve information in programmable calculators, MP3 players and cell phones during exams. They text message one another during exams and use portable electronic devices to illegally access the Internet. The World Wide Web has simplified plagiarism on take-home essay exams and papers, with numerous Web sites that will provide any sort of assignment for a price, and large volumes of easily accessible information that can be plagiarized.


Evans and Craig found at the middle and high school levels, perceptions of cheating severity differ between students and teachers. According to Kohn, these perceptions also vary among teachers within a given school. For example, one teacher's assignments require collaboration in order to be completed, whereas another teacher will classify collaborative behavior as cheating. In a study of undergraduate students and instructors, Whitley and Keith-Spiegel (2002) found that other behaviors that are viewed as cheating by some and as honest by others include collaboration without specific permission, submitting a single paper for more than one class, and copying homework. However, there is general agreement that copying or using a cheat sheet during an exam and purchasing papers to submit as one's own work both qualify as cheating.


In 1928, Hartshorne and May conducted the most well known study of dishonesty. Although the initial goal of the study was to determine the characteristics associated with people who made more or fewer moral decisions, their data revealed that people's behavior has little cross-situational consistency. Although many of the thousands of students they studied cheated on their schoolwork some of the time, few students cheated in every assessment situation and making the decision to be honest in the classroom was not always consistent with their behavior in other domains. Murdock and Stephens found that efforts to identify the profile of the moral student typically account for a small amount of the variance in students' actual behavior. As such, the view of as students' dishonesty as a resulting from the interaction between their personal choice and the specific environment permeates most theoretical models that have attempted to provide a framework for understanding cheating. Examples of such perspectives are Whitely's model of cheating as reasoned action, and Murdock and Anderman's motivational model of cheating.


Findings from self-report suggest that students who engage in academic dishonesty differ in several ways from those who do not, including attitudes about cheating, views about themselves, and demographic characteristics. Whitley found that compared to those who do not cheat, cheaters in college hold more positive attitudes toward cheating and do not feel as strong a moral obligation to avoid cheating. They also view themselves as less generally honest, as lacking study skills, and as under pressure to achieve success. However, there are not strong achievement differences between cheaters and non-cheaters.

Miller, Murdock, Anderman, and Poindexter reported that college students are more likely to engage in academic dishonesty when they are younger or unmarried. In contrast, children in K-12 schools are more likely to cheat when they are older or in higher grade levels. Although researchers find no documented gender differences in cheating rates when actual cheating behavior is observed, men admit to more dishonesty when the information is self-reported. There are no such gender differences, however, when asked specifically about their cheating in the service of others.


As described above, those who cheat also justify cheating more than those who do not. Several environmental factors influence perceived justifiability of cheating and whether cheating actually occurs, including peer norms, classroom factors, and facets of students' lives outside of school. Students may look to their peers for signs regarding whether cheating is justified. Whitely found students who cheat report that more of their peers cheat. Also, teachers' practices and interpersonal behaviors can influence cheating. Murdock, Miller, and Goetzinger found that students justify cheating based on poor pedagogy, testing practices, and student-teacher relationships.

The goals that teachers create for their classrooms can influence cheating. Interest or improvement objectives are more attainable than performance-related objectives. Anderman found that through assignments, assessments, and feedback, teachers who demonstrate that they are less concerned with learning or improvement and instead have set a predetermined standard for students to meet will increase the likelihood that their students will cheat. Similarly, Schraw and colleagues found that in contexts in which students work in order to earn a grade instead of to pursue an interest, students are more likely to cheat.

Clear instructional objectives in combination with active facilitation of students' progress towards those objectives improve the attainability of success and, according to Whitely and Keith-Spiegel (2002), reduce the likelihood of cheating. Through these and similar behaviors, teachers can convey respect and fairness toward students. Cheating is also reduced when these methods are reflected in tests that are aligned with the content being taught and that are not unreasonably difficult or long. Additionally, according to Anderman, cheating is less prevalent when scoring is criterion-referenced rather than norm-referenced (scored on a curve).

Finally, students' environments outside the classroom can influence the cheating that occurs inside the classroom. When students experience undue pressure to attain certain grades or when they have insufficient time to prepare for their courses, success becomes less attainable and cheating becomes more likely, according to Whitley.


Cheating prevention research has been focused on college classrooms; however, the information gained from this work is likely applicable to other educational settings. While some schools implement formal honor codes, institutions' actual commitment to integrity is more important for reducing cheating than the existence of a code, according to McCabe and Trevino. Further, Whitely and Keith-Speigel (2001) found that institutions must model this commitment in order to minimize academic dishonesty. McCabe, Trevino, and Butterfield advocated communicating clear expectations for honest behavior, including explicit definitions of honesty; communicating clear consequences for dishonest behavior; and enforcing those consequences.

Clarity is also important in terms of educational objectives. Teachers must set and communicate clear objectives in order to reduce the likelihood of cheating. These objectives should drive instruction and assessment so that students can predict and prepare for tests instead of being surprised by test content. Also, students' progress towards these objectives should be supported through scaffolding and frequent assessments. Frequent assessments help ensure that students are progressing toward objectives at the expected pace, limiting the need for cramming before a major exam, and also result in more evaluations that contribute relatively less to the final grade, as opposed to one or two high-stakes exams.

As described above, students are less likely to cheat when they are interested in the content and are working to learn rather than to earn a grade. This can be accomplished through several means. First, teachers should seek student input into content or allow students to choose specific topics for projects or papers. Second, tasks and assignments should be constructed so that they are at levels of challenge appropriate for students. Finally, teachers should strive to create an atmosphere that is safe for and encouraging of student curiosity, risk-taking, and improvement.

In addition to pedagogical and interpersonal choices, teachers can take steps to reduce cheating through the way they format and administer exams. Multiple versions of the same test can be useful, but these versions must be carefully designed and implemented as students taking tests with scattered questions are able to cheat equally as well as students taking a single-version test, according to Houston. For multiple-choice tests, it is important to randomize question stems as well as answer options across versions. For open response tests, question order can be randomized and certain details of the questions, such as numbers, should be changed, if possible. Also for open response tests, teachers should distribute a blank piece of paper so students can cover their answers. Most exams that are delivered in online formats have features to reduce the likelihood of cheating such as set time limits and delivery of a random set of items and responses from a larger database. Without photographic or fingerprint identification, however, it is impossible to know who actually takes an online exam.

Teachers can take several steps to make cheating from multiple versions more difficult. When using multiple versions, it is important that the versions are not easily distinguishable. Also, depending on the space available, and thus how far apart students can be seated, two to four test versions may be necessary. Houston noted that assigning seating has the added benefit of preventing students from choosing cheating partners. Even with multiple test versions teachers must prevent students from accessing tests ahead of time. Cizek suggested that teachers create different sets of test versions for different administration days and times, keep paper copies locked or only keep electronic files of tests, and create new tests for every year.

Teachers can communicate respect to students to help reduce rates of cheating. While teachers may think that their own lax behavior during test sessions signifies respect, Cizek noted that it actually increases cheating and frustrates students who expect teachers to monitor the testing environment and are bothered if teachers are ignoring classmates' obvious cheating. Teachers can show students that they expect honest academic behavior by appearing aware of the class, noticing and acting on questionable behavior, and moving through the classroom during the test.

In addition to cheating on exams, plagiarism is another form of academic dishonesty that teachers can work to reduce. Just as multiple versions of a test can block attempts to cheat, creating new essay assignments can thwart plagiarism. Teachers can make widely available Internet essays useless by assigning less typical essays and requiring students to tailor their essays to a particular context or to develop their own opinion. There are also commercially available tools, such as that check students' work against large-scale databases of other work and provide the instructor and student with a redundancy index.

As noted earlier, frequent assessments help eliminate cheating and requiring students to submit their work at several stages of progress can minimize plagiarism. For students who procrastinate or who are overscheduled, more frequent deadlines can reduce the need to anxiously complete an assignment during the days before the due date, possibly leading to drastic and dishonest measures. Also, feedback on students' progress supports their efforts to learn and helps clarify the objectivesorrequirementsof the assignment, perhaps minimizing the perceived need to cheat.


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