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Cheating In College: The Numbers And Research

Cheating in college

Cheating in College

Cheating appears to be part of life. We almost expect it from public figures and celebrities — or so news reports would have us think. When cheating goes on by students, though, how do you feel?

There is no exact demographic breakdown of who cheats/ cheated in school; however, there are a number of surveys and studies that give an indicator of how students feel about cheating, and maybe why they do it. We take a look at some of the facts and figures.

Cheating in High School and College: The Numbers

2012 Josephson Institute of Ethics Biennial Report Card on American Youth

In the Nov 2012 Josephson Institute of Ethics biennial report card on American Youth, cheating and other questionable behavior was on the decline for the first time in a decade. Notes:

  • 2012 survey was of over 23,000 American students in charter, public and private high schools.
  • All percentages below are based on the number of students who answered a particular question — not necessarily on the total number of students surveyed.
  • The 2010 survey was of over 40,000 students.
  • Figures are for 2012, unless otherwise noted.

Here are some details:

  • In 2012, about 51% of students surveyed admitted to cheating on an exam one or more times in the past academic year, compared to around 59% of students surveyed for the 2010 study. Of the 2012 respondents, 23.4% (5,410) had cheated once on a school test; 27.6% (6,371) had cheated twice or more; 49% (11,313) said they had never cheated. Of males, 22% had cheated just once, and 30% twice or more. Of females, 25% had cheated just once, and 26% twice or more.
  • 57% of respondents (11,844) agreed and 43% (8,899) disagreed with the statement “In the real world, successful people do what they have to do to win, even if others consider it cheating.” About 64% of males agreed, compared to 51% of females.
  • 36% (7,639) agreed and 64% (13,377) disagreed with the statement “A person has to lie or cheat sometimes in order to succeed.” Of respondents, 45% of males agreed, compared to 28% of females.
  • 22% (4,473) agreed and 78% (16,199) disagreed with the statement “People who are willing to lie, cheat, or break the rules are more likely to succeed than people who are not.” Around 28% of males agreed, compared to 16% of females.
  • 10% (2,048) agreed and 90% (19,420 disagreed with the statement “My parents/ guardians would rather I cheat than get bad grades.” Around 12% of males agreed, compared to 7% of females.
  • 86% (18,374) agreed and 14% (2,992) disagreed with the statement “It’s not worth it to lie or cheat because it hurts your character.” Around 19% of males disagreed, compared to 10% of females.
  • 15% (3,154) agreed and 85% (18,278) disagreed with the statement “It’s not cheating if everyone is doing it.” 20% of male students agreed, compared to 10% of female students.

Another Josephson Institute study was published in Oct 2009 and based on 6,930 respondents in five age groups (17 and under, 18-24, 25-40, 41-50, over 50). The report found some connections between high school cheating and dishonesty later in life, including at work, with spouses, and on taxes.

General Findings

  • According to the GAO (US Government Accountability Office), for 2010-11 and 2011-12 school years, 32 states reported “canceling, invalidating, or nullifying test scores” — either for individual students, entire schools, or sometimes entire districts due to suspected or confirmed cheating.
  • In 2012, 36 questions from various California standardized high school exams were photographed with smartphones and shared on social media sites. As a result, 12 schools were penalized for eligibility of state academic awards. Overall, 249 students from 147 schools in 94 California school districts posted 442 images of test materials (most images were not of test questions). California school officials now check social media sites every 15 minutes, to prevent a repeat of the situation.
  • New York City’s well-regarded Stuyvesant High School had a cheating scandal in 2012 where students were texting photos of test pages during some state exams. A group of students had formed a high-pressure “cheating ring,” as one junior student put it. Apparently, teachers did a poor job of monitoring student behavior during exams.
  • New York City currently has a citywide ban on student cell phones in high schools, instituted by Mayor Bloomberg — a ban nearly all of his hopeful successors are promising to lift.
  •, a web service used by educators for potential plagiarism detection, searched 38 million student papers in 2012 for possible matches to online content. (Note: finds matches for large portions of text, which it should be noted is not proof of plagiarism.) 10M of the papers searched were for secondary school students, and the rest were college and university students. 156M matches showed up in those scanned papers. Wikipedia was the top source; Yahoo Answers was second.
  • About 125 Harvard students, in a class of 279 taking a Spring 2012 class on Government, went under investigation for cheating by collaboration on the take-home final exam. 70 of the students have since been asked by the school’s administrative board to retroactively withdraw (usually for a period of one school year). The rest were put on probation.
  • 20 students in the New York city area were caught as part of a college entrance exam cheating ring. They were taking payments of $500-3,600 to impersonate students for SAT and ACT exams. At least 5 of the students were facing the possibility of 4-year prison sentences. The other 15 were juveniles at the time and were only facing misdemeanor charges.
  • 200 senior students at Clear Lake High School in Houston, Texas, managed to get answers to a Dec 2011 English final exam. As a result, 600 students had their tests voided in Jan 2012, when the cheating was discovered due to unusual test scores.
  • In Jan 2012, it was reported that 10 sophomore students (of 180 taking a test) at Newport Beach, California, high school Corona del Mar had purchased test banks ahead of time from — an action constituted as cheating since test banks are intended for use by teachers to create tests with.
  • 20 charges of “academic collusion” was the result when answers to a Psychology course final exam showed up on a Facebook group used by some students in the class at University of Texas in Austin. (The university publishes cheating statistics online. It dealt with an average of 350 cheating cases each year from 2003-2011.)
  • Sometimes students have help cheating. Since 2006, about 100 teachers in American public schools have been caught cheating or lying with the goal of increasing student test scores. Some teachers provided answers or extra time on exams, or corrected incorrect answers on test papers. In some cases, teachers were directed to do some or all of these activities by their school’s principal. One motivation is the No Child Left Behind Act, passed in 2001, as schools are affected by reduced funding for low scores.

Cheating by foreign students applying to U.S. colleges is fairly significant.

  • One recent study showed that 90% of Chinese students applying to American colleges provided fake recommendations.
  • 70% had their application essay written by someone else. This is thought to be partly due to poor English skills.
  • 50% alter high school transcripts.

16 Ways Students Cheat

These are some of the ways that students cheat, whether done intentionally or not. This applies to college students as well as high school students, including applying for college.

  1. Having parents do work for them, instead of just helping. (This can be the fault of parents as much as students.) This includes filling out a college application essay.
  2. Faking test scores and recommendation letters (for college applications).
  3. Downloading papers from the Web.
  4. Plagiarizing large or entire portions of text from various sources.
  5. Copying multiple choice take-home test answers.
  6. Copying homework/ essays.
  7. Working in a group but each submitting the same answers/ essays.
  8. Using phones to texting answers to each other during a test.
  9. Saving notes on a smartphone, for viewing during a test.
  10. Using phones to browse the Internet during a test.
  11. Replacing a drink bottle’s label with crib notes. There are videos on YouTube showing students how to cheat, including information on where to get printer-ready labels, and tips on how to apply the glue.
  12. Taking photos of tests (during the test) and posting them online, usually to a social network such as Facebook.
  13. Using phones to check Facebook for a friend’s answers.
  14. Using earbuds hidden in long hair and/or clothing, and listening to prerecorded notes.
  15. Hiring someone to take online courses for them.
  16. Hiring someone from online sources to complete assignments or exams.

Which Students Cheat?

This is a more difficult question to answer, because different surveys have determined different types of students cheat. The collective list includes both low- and high-GPA students, athletes, business students, fraternity and sorority members, younger students, unprepared students with heavy workloads, confused students, unemotional yet confident students and more. Also: men are more likely to cheat than women. So it seems like anyone might cheat, but not everyone will.

Even kids in kindergarten and grade school cheat. One child of 8 years, in Grade 3 and normally an A student was caught cheating on a test. Students this young may feel the pressure to please a parent or teacher by cheating, since by this point they are usually getting a grade for each class. They may also be confused from having to switch from working together in class to working alone on a test.

According to psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg, we go through 6 stages of moral development (in 3 levels), becoming less egotistical as we age, and better at determining what is morally right or not. Here are the levels and stages:

Level I: Pre-conventional Morality
Stage 1 – Obedience and Punishment Orientation.
Stage 2 – Individualism and Exchange.

Level II: Conventional Morality
Stage 3 – Good Interpersonal Relationships.
Stage 4 – Maintaining the Social Order.

Level III: Post-conventional Morality
Stage 5 – Social Contract and Individual Rights.
Stage 6 – Universal Principles.

Some experts believe Kohlberg’s study had a male bias, for a variety reasons that are beyond our scope here.

21 Reasons Why Students Cheat

So given the diversity of survey results, which seem to suggest pretty much any type of student might cheat, the more important question is why do they cheat? Here are some common reasons students intentionally cheat.

  1. Because other students are cheating, and are getting better marks without getting caught.
  2. For peer approval.
  3. Because of peer pressure, or to help a friend or fraternity/ sorority.
  4. Gains outweigh penalties.
  5. No honor code and/or no rules stated.
  6. Faculty are allowing it, either intentionally or unintentionally.
  7. An opportunity to cheat presents itself, motivated by other factors.
  8. Chances of being caught are low.
  9. When the emphasis is on grades rather than understanding subjects.
  10. Academic pressure.
  11. Pressure from expectations of the student (typically by family), real or imagined. Some cultures are more susceptible to this than others.
  12. Time pressure from having full- or part-time jobs.
  13. Workloads are heavy, especially when mixed with extra-curricular school activities (sports, clubs, volunteer work).
  14. Low impression of a teacher/ professor as uncaring.
  15. Unfairness on the part of the educator, such as giving tests intentionally meant to fail students, or excessive workloads.
  16. Low impression of the value of classes and/or tests and assignments.
  17. Shifted ethics. Cheating a few times and not getting caught can make it easier to feel that cheating is okay.
  18. Prior lack of effort, possibly due to non-academic pressures.
  19. A course is required; students just want to get it over and done with.
  20. Being privileged, knowing their parents can get them in to a college.
  21. “I’ll never use *this* anyway” attitude, “so it’s ok to cheat this time.”

There are also a number of reasons that students, especially younger ones, unintentionally end up cheating:

  • Inability to summarize multitudes of search results. Students sometimes use “search” as “research,” not understanding the difference.
  • Not understanding copyright, or how to properly citing a reference.
  • Confusion about why term papers they paid for cannot be used in part or in entirety as their own work.
  • Confusion about why it’s okay to work in groups online for classes and sometimes homework, then having to work on their own for other situations.
  • Blurred lines. Being in a mindset of “social sharing,” where sharing is “caring.”

18 Tools and Techniques Teachers Use to Prevent or Catch Cheating

Here are some of the ways educators in high school or college either prevent or catch cheating.

  1. For assignments and essays, explaining the difference between searching and researching, and showing by example.
  2. Checking hands as students come in for an exam — sometimes casually with a handshake.
  3. Banning electronic devices from at least an exam room, if not in the classroom or the school.
  4. Having all backpacks and book bags in one part of the exam room.
  5. Reminding students of any academic code of conduct before an exam begins. Having students sign a pledge before a test or exam can reduce cheating.
  6. Use teaching assistants to monitor exam rooms.
  7. Checking randomly for student id, to prevent impostors who fill in for another student during an exam.
  8. Walking around the exam room, to prevent students from communicating covertly.
  9. Being alert to possible physical signals (coughing, tapping).
  10. Using web service to check for the possibility of plagiarism.
  11. Creating fresh new tests to avoid the possibility of answers online.
  12. For smaller classes, being familiar with each student’s writing style – in terms of wording, phrasing, grammar.
  13. Using handwriting analysis to determine if homework and take-home tests have been completed by one person for several students.
  14. Keeping test materials locked up, and passwords unique and “strong”.
  15. Creating multiple (2 or 3) versions of tests, without announcing it, and alternating distribution in the exam room by rows or columns.
  16. Using open book tests and having students explain their work on a test or exam. This approach allows them to use whatever study materials they want, but by explaining their reasoning, indicates whether they understand the concepts or not.
  17. Preparing students for learning instead of just test-taking by explaining how each lesson may help them in the future.
  18. In more extreme situations, statistical methods similar to that used to detect card cheats in casinos are used for detecting cheating on tests. These methods are not new; some date back to at least 1972, if not earlier.



Information for this article was collected from the following pages and web sites: