Student looking at phone while in classroom

Why students are cheating in school (and how to address it)

It can start for many different reasons, the statistics surrounding it are a little disheartening, and it may be happening right under your nose. What are we talking about? Cheating.

According to the Josephson Institute Center for Youth Ethics, the majority of students have likely engaged in some form of cheating. In 2017, they surveyed 43,000 high school students from both public and private schools and found that 59% of students had cheated on a test within the previous year, and 39% admitted to cheating more than twice within that same time frame. Keep in mind that these are the stats from students who were forthcoming in the survey. The true numbers may, unfortunately, be worse.

Why do students cheat on their schoolwork? And what can we, as teachers, do to quash this behavior? Before we can figure out how to stop cheating, we need to first take a look at why it happens in the first place so we can better understand its motivations.

5 reasons why students might be cheating

Schoolboy-cheating-during-examination-Pressfoto / Freepik
Photo: Pressfoto / Freepik

1. Developmental factors

One reason that researchers point to is the fact that students’ brains are not fully developed throughout grade school. Brains that are not yet developed are more inclined to risk-taking, and cheating is certainly a risky behavior. Students may have a harder time appreciating the gravity of the consequences, leading them to make bad choices like cheating. They may also be more likely to focus on the short term challenge, like a big test, rather than looking beyond it and strategizing for the longer term, such as by studying or asking for help.

2. Under pressure

Students may be facing significant pressure or may simply feel like they’re under more pressure than they really are. For some, this pressure might be very real. Perhaps they have big expectations coming for parents or caregivers. Maybe they’re just hard on themselves. Or maybe they have too many obligations in the form of clubs, sports, jobs (if we’re talking about high school and college students), and so on. If life has become too much to handle, some students might start to look for shortcuts where they can, without realizing that they’re cheating themselves in the long run.

3. Tempting tech

With the accessibility of technology, students may find themselves tempted to “borrow” from the internet. The surveys mentioned above also found that one-third of students had used the internet to plagiarize an assignment. Cheating has moved beyond a few notes scribbled on a sweaty palm and can be quite sophisticated and difficult to detect. Students are especially tech-savvy, and those looking to cheat can use available resources on the internet toward that end.

4. An underlying issue

Consider that a student could have an underlying learning disability that is holding them back. An undiagnosed learning disability can be a huge source of frustration. Some students may try anything to hide the issues they’re facing so they can get through school and their tests and assignments. There can be many reasons for an unnoticed learning disability: a sense of embarrassment, a lack of family support, a school without the necessary safety nets and programs, and much more.

5. Chasing the grade

Sometimes, you’ll have students who are highly motivated by good grades. That’s not always a bad thing, but if it supersedes the desire to actually learn and grow, it can become a catalyst for cheating. If a student is desperate to see an A on their test, paper, or report card, they might try to get it at all costs.

4 ways to turn the tide and prevent cheating

Lightbulb sketch on post-it on bulletin board
Photo: absolutvision/unsplash

All this info may seem bleak, but there’s a light at the end of the cheating tunnel! Teachers can take preventive action to help students choose a better path. Here are some key steps you can take:

1. An education on ethics

Teach concepts related to ethics in class. At any grade level, students can learn about ethical behavior, morals, and fairness. Use class discussions, brainstorming, role-playing, stories, or case studies about cheating. Teach students about doing the right thing and the benefits of making ethical choices. Explain the long-term consequences of cheating, and set out a clear, alternative path. This will help students who may be facing — or who will face in the future — the temptation to cheat. If they understand the ethical ramifications and can see another way to handle the pressure they may be feeling, they will be more inclined to seek help the proper way.

2. Rules reinforced

This should go without saying, but be sure to establish rules with your students surrounding cheating. If they all understand exactly how you feel about cheating and the steps you would prefer students to take when faced with a difficult situation, they may avoid cheating to bypass the consequences. This also establishes fair ground rules — expectations and consequences are the same for everyone — and removes any mystery surrounding what would happen if cheating occurs.

3. Assign accordingly

Consider how you design your assignments and tests. Do you usually place value on the outcome rather than the process? If so, that may be pressuring some students to cheat. Do you mix up the tests you use to prevent reusing them from one year to the next? If you have the same multiple-choice quiz every year, you may be unwittingly inviting cheating since students can post these online for others to download. It’s much harder to cheat on a test that requires students to exhibit critical thinking. You may also want to consider having an occasional oral test or another varied, unique way for students to show what they know. This will also be a positive endeavor for the different types of learners in your class!

4. Language matters

Think about the language that you use — and encourage your students to use — in your class. Is it all about the final grade, or do you value the milestones along the way? When praising students, do you favor saying things like “You’re so smart!” as opposed to “I’m so proud of how hard you’ve been working!”? Make sure that your students know that effort, growth, and the learning process are major winners in your book. If a student identifies as a naturally smart kid, they may feel undue pressure to keep that reputation and frustrated when a concept does not come easily to them. Give kudos to goal-setting and hard work to inspire students to always put their best foot forward and give it their all!

When cheating is off the table, everyone wins

Students who cheat are really just avoiding the root issue, and that won’t do anyone any favors. The causes of their cheating can follow them into adulthood, so nipping this in the bud is important. Applying these methods will also establish a classroom environment of fairness, ethics, and pride in hard work and learning, and what’s better than that? When cheating is off the table, everyone wins.

Photo: Pixabay

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