To Cheat, or Not to Cheat; Must That Be the Question?

Cheating is common in high schools and colleges.  According to the International Center for Academic Integrity, surveys of more than 70,000 US high school students conducted over a 12-year period indicated that 64% of students cheated on tests, 58% plagiarized, and 95% percent engaged in some form of cheating (tests, cheating, copying homework, etc.)  Additional surveys of over 71,000 US undergraduate college students found that 68% plagiarized or cheated on tests, compared to 43% of 17,000 graduate students surveyed.  Academic dishonesty is a problem.  Unfortunately, the digital age makes cheating easier than ever.

Three Ways the Internet Enables Cheating

  1. Tests. In a physical classroom cheating is all about smart devices.  Students can use smart phones during tests to find answers, text information to friends, or take photos of the test to share online.  Digital calculators can be programmed with formulas, and test-takers can wear  invisible Bluetooth earpieces to listen to audio notes or take a call from someone with answers.  Some students embed wireless spy cameras in eyeglass frames so they can transmit pictures of test questions to friends who are standing by, ready to send answers to the smart watches worn by the test-takers.  Students can learn the latest cheating techniques by searching the Internet—YouTube has plenty of helpful videos.
  1. Plagiarism. Whether the classroom is physical or online, the Internet makes it easy to copy the work of others, to alter documents in order to hide plagiarism, and to find someone to do the work entirely.  Students can find free papers on websites like MonsterPapers.  Apps that enable translated plagiarism are available; they reduce the chances of finding plagiarism by translating written content into another language, and then back to the original language.  Students who are concerned about getting caught for plagiarism can contract original work (for a fee) from services like AssignmentMasters and SuperiorPapers.
  1. Impersonation. In online courses, student identity can be an issue.  Federal definitions allow verification of online student identity via (a) secure login and pass code; (b) proctored examinations; and (c) new or other technologies and practices that are effective in verifying the identity of students.  Most schools issue a secure login and pass code, and some courses require proctored exams.  However, there is no certainty that the person completing the work in an online course is the person enrolled in the course.  Some students might ask a friend or family member to help with assignments.  And, with a guarantee of a B or better for about $1,000, others might be tempted to hire an impersonator from a business like No Need to Study.

Reasons Why Students Cheat


According to, students cheat for many reasons.  Some plagiarize unintentionally because they do not know how to cite sources or  paraphrase, or because they fail realize the expectation for individual work.  Others might cheat if they do not see the value of an assignment, or if they don’t have the time or knowledge to complete the task.  Students might rationalize that cheating is the only option, given the unreasonable amount of work demanded by their teachers.  They may feel that the ends justify the means—good grades are needed for a good future, and to meet the expectations placed upon them by others.  Students might think the benefits of cheating outweigh the harm, especially if the consequences are insignificant.  To make matters worse, Internet cheating sites leverage these reasons to market their services.  Fortunately, states like New York and Pennsylvania prohibit the unlawful sale of academic papers.

Three Possible Solutions

  1. Create policies, procedures, and processes. Recommendations to combat cheating often suggest tightening the rules.  In the paper “Using Technology to Detect and Deter Electronic Cheating at a Large Public University” Ball, Wood and Allen (2016) advise having clearly defined academic honesty policies, administering consequences for violations, and using automated detection tools like Turnitin and Grammarly.  Colleges can also implement robust identity checks for online students and use exam-proctoring services.  Some entities control the items brought into testing environments; even mechanical pencils are prohibited from the LSAT.  With smart contact lenses on the way, though, we will soon be checking test-takers’ corneas.  Policies, procedures, and processes might deter students from cheating, but they do not necessarily remove the desire to cheat, or change the behavior.
  1. Create a culture of academic integrity. Students receive mixed messages when it comes to cheating.  Some parents endorse cheating by doing their children’s homework, or scaling school walls to pass cheat sheets through windows.  A teacher might look the other way, sending a signal that cheating is okay.  School administrators have altered student answers on system-wide tests, and public figures have been called out for plagiarism.  UC-San Diego Academic Integrity Coordinator Tricia Gallant says that “cheating has gone from morally reprehensible to merely morally disagreeable” (Gallant, 2011, page 5).  Gallant encourages schools to view cheating as a learning opportunity, and foster academic honesty through strategies that focus on the ethical development of students.  As Gallant points out, if the current approaches are not producing the desired results, it is time to try something new.
  1. Remove the incentives. One possible approach is to remove the incentives that motivate cheating.  A lot of cheating seems to occur during tests.  Do we need them?  Students like Erica Goldson argue that tests build memorization skills that are no longer necessary, at the expense of expanding creativity.  James M. Lang, author of the book “Cheating Lessons”, posits that extrinsic motivations like grades increase the likelihood of cheating, whereas intrinsic motivations like the desire to learn something decrease the probability.  Intrinsic motivation is fundamental to theories like inquiry-based learning and project-based learning.  Take it a step further by combining intrinsic motivation with the open, social, participatory nature of the Internet, and learning occurs in a networked environment.  This is where connectivism, a learning theory proposed by George Siemens, might be able to help students thrive.  In connectivism, the connections that enable learning, and the learner’s ability to recognize which connections are most important, are critical.  In a networked world, could a learning model based on connections nurture intrinsic motivation and reduce the desire to cheat?

A New Approach

Employers are not demanding graduates who have good test-taking skills or the ability to work alone in an unconnected world.  The Global Markets Institute reports that the jobs of the future—the jobs we are preparing students for right now—require skills like creativity, judgement, teamwork, and sense-making.  This view is supported by an analysis of 2.3 million LinkedIn profiles, a report from the Association of American Colleges and Universities (2007), data from the Institute for the Future, and others.  Businesses need workers that can leverage the Internet to work collectively and agilely in a fast-paced, connected world.

Might it be possible to offer the education that students need to flourish in a digital world and foster ethical behavior at the same time?  This would require a complete rethinking of how we teach and evaluate students, but that seems to be needed anyway.  Time to try a new approach.



Association of American Colleges and Universities. (2007). College learning for the new global Century: A report from the National Leadership Council for Liberal Education and America’s Promise. Washington, DC: AAC&U. Retrieved from

Ball, N. L., Wood, R. E., & Allen, G. (2016). Using technology to detect and deter electronic cheating at a large public university. Issues in Information Systems, 17(4), 82–90.

Gallant, T. (2011). Building a culture of academic integrity. A Magna Publications Whitepaper, J. Garrett (Ed.).  Madison, WI: Magna Publications. Retrieved from

9 thoughts on “To Cheat, or Not to Cheat; Must That Be the Question?”

  1. Wow! What dispiriting numbers. And what amazing ingenuity; an entire industry built around cheating. I immediately sorted to wondering about the social and psychological drivers of the need to cheat. Appreciated your explanation and then did a quick scan and found a 1941 study by Charles Drake (just a reminder that cheating is not new – but has certainly evolved). The study is also interesting in that it was actually a bit sneaky to begin with – a little misdirect to uncover larger lies. It’s only 3 pages – I think you’ll get a kick out of its design

    It found strong evidence of the amount of cheating to be minimal in strong students and to steadily increase as student ability decreased. It makes the recommendation to change the way exams are given and to drastically change formats or even eliminate them altogether … and the author also anticipates resistance from professors who like to maintain status quo. It also draws some interesting conclusions about competitive pressure and its influence on cheating. Which I found quite intriguing since the article is almost 80 years old and today’s literature about current students often emphasizes how the competitive pressure they are under contributes to anxiety and depression. What’s old is new as you point out in your third option – just get rid of the tests. Maybe the time has finally come – Dr. Drake would be happy. Love the concept of connectivism – I see many possibilities around that. Thanks for sharing. Appreciate your excellent overview and position. It is time for new!!


    Drake, Charles A. (1941). Why students cheat: A statistical search for the incentives that induce college students to dishonesty on examinations. The Journal of Higher Education, 12(8), 418-420. doi: 10.2307/1976003


    1. Tricia,

      Thank you for your comments! I really enjoyed the Drake (1941) article – the layout is lovely! The article shows that cheating has been a problem for some time. Drake’s finding that cheating is less prevalent among strong students may be a changing trend, as some surveys have indicated that cheating is common among high achievers. A survey of students at Stuyvesant, a magnet school in New York that attracts some of the best high school students, found that 80% of respondents had cheated in some way. Take Nayeem, for example. His first offense was somewhat innocuous. A teacher offered extra points if everyone in class completed an extra assignment. Nayeem was trying for Harvard, and wanted those extra points, so he completed the assignment for a slacker that was notorious for not doing his homework. The teacher found out but did not report the offense. As the coursework got harder, Nayeem and a group of students began cheating more extensively, texting answers during tests and sharing copies of old exams. When he was finally caught, Nayeem said that he and his friends cheated so that they could have a bright future.

      Completely eliminating tests might be challenging, but why not start where it makes sense? Many college classes do not have tests. I am eager to try new approaches. In fact, I wonder if anyone in our class would like to work together to design a course that utilizes a new approach. I am sure that it would be an enlightening project!



      Drake, Charles A. (1941). Why students cheat: A statistical search for the incentives that induce college students to dishonesty on examinations. The Journal of Higher Education, 12(8), 418-420. doi: 10.2307/1976003


      1. Thanks for the alternate view of motivations today. Likely the pressures and rewards have changed in those 80 years. And, as you indicated in your post, so has the general attitude toward cheating. And although not right now as time is absolutely in the shortest supply, I would really enjoy designing alternate methods of effectively measuring learning. Keep me in mind! ~Tricia

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Nice post, CatonKB. As you and Tricia noted, this is not a new problem (I still recall students at University of Nebraska 20 years ago coming back to their frat houses and immediately writing out all the questions on a test, which went into a pretty impressive filing system so that students the next year could use it for study).

    One of the most hopeful processes I have seen recently involved both technology and new processes. The technology was CATME, and the process was team-based learning.


    1. Dr. Watwood,

      CATME looks like a terrific tool, thank you for sharing! The introductory video provides a good overview of the product. In addition to having a very nice name, CATME has useful features like a team formation algorithm, self and peer assessment tools, and team training. A tool that helps with team setup, flow, and assessment will likely prevent the frustration that sometimes manifests in group projects. It also offers an alternative to test assessments!



  3. CatOnKB,
    I really appreciate your post, which offers quite a bit upon which to reflect. I agree that creating the right culture (one of integrity) is an important part of the solution. In our current course, my sense is that the learning PROCESS is valued as much as much as the student’s PRODUCT (paper or test, for example) is valued elsewhere. While cheating may not be among my strategies for success, I can see how establishing a culture of learning integrity–which gives room for rewarding growth and development and not just mastery (as defined by whatever measure)–might be liberating for students or professionals who are or might otherwise be compelled to cheat. I definitely think there is good reason to explore the alternative approaches!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. EA,

      Thank you for your comments! I have the same sense as you do about our current course; the process is valued as much as the product. This model resonates with me because it helps students build the skills they need to attain not only the product, but any product. Unfortunately, many courses follow a model that values a precise outcome over the process. In her commencement address, Coxsackie-Athens High School Valedictorian Erica Goldson says, “This is the dilemma I’ve faced within the American education system. We are so focused on a goal, whether it be passing a test, or graduating as first in the class. However, in this way, we do not really learn. We do whatever it takes to achieve our original objective.” (para. 2).

      Many students have told me they would like to be creative when they work on their assignments, but they instead focus on interpreting and completing exactly what they think the teacher wants. They fear that any deviation—no matter how skillful—will hurt their grade. In some cases they are probably right. We need more courses like ours, where students know it is OK to color outside of the lines if it enhances their pictures!


      Liked by 1 person

  4. CatonKB, great post. I love the new approach you offer, and it seems inline with where education has been heading, placing greater emphasis on thinking versus memorization. I also noted in one article that cheating increases over time for students, as they move through grades and even into the workplace, so the earlier the paradigm is changed, the better (Riviera, 2015).

    While it technically would be possible for us to cheat in our course by having someone else due all of the work, the reality of us being graded on our thoughts and support of those versus via completely objective testing would make it much more difficult to cheat. It makes me curious about the discussions that took place during Creighton’s program design, as it prepared to enter the digital education space. And it seems that at least in some ways, digital has made it easier to spot cheating. Someone once told me they got through undergrad essentially making up sources for attribution. It would be far easier now to spot that than it was in the pre-digital age.

    Riviera, C. (2015, April 16). Colleges grapple with cheating in the digital age. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from



    1. Julie,

      Thank you for your comments! The Riviera article you shared is especially interesting because Stanford has an Honor Code for academic honesty that was originally created by students, rather than being imposed by faculty. I wonder if students would change the Code if they were writing it today.

      I have heard of fabricating research results, but not of fabricating sources for attribution. Technology would definitely make it easier to spot, and now there are great tools like Crossref and WorldCat to help with citations.

      You make a great point about the importance of the course design. The need to share with classmates a source that supports one’s case would likely eliminate any inclination to fabricate an attribution. At our ILD orientation one of the professors referred to the program our journey. That concept is reflected in the design of our courses, which I truly appreciate.


      Liked by 2 people

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