Overview: Student Cheating in Higher Education

In the field of higher education there are countless ethical issues that student affairs professionals encounter on a daily basis. Of these issues, student academic dishonesty is one of the most prevalent that student affairs professionals must address. While academic dishonesty can take many forms—from using a “cheat sheet” on an exam to plagiarizing an entire research paper—cheating is detrimental not only to the student who engages in the behavior, but to the field of higher education as a whole. Higher education institutions assist in students’ development in various areas, including ethical development and understanding of rigorous academic and research standards. As student cheating is at odds with this mission it is imperative that student affairs professionals make efforts to reduce the rate of cheating behaviors occurring at their institutions. To do so effectively, those working in the field must not only understand the prevalence of academic dishonesty within college settings, but also the various reasons why students choose to cheat. It is through the utilization of this knowledge that student affairs professionals can employ strategies to reduce cheating behaviors, thus fostering student development and preparing college students to become ethical and responsible members of society.

While an abundance of research has examined the prevalence of cheating in higher education, studies differ in their projection as to how much college students actually engage in cheating.  According to Wotring (2007), “[m]any studies classify students as cheaters if they acknowledge having ever cheated at any time, in any way, during their college studies,” and, based on this definition, 47.2% to 70% of college students cheat (para. 4). In a study conducted by Newstead, Franklin-Stokes, and Armstead (1996), the authors found that over half of all undergraduate students cheat, while research done by Nonis and Swift (2001) indicated that between 30% and 96% of college students engage in this behavior.

Students with low self-esteem and little confidence in their academic abilities are more likely to cheat than those who are highly confident (Moeck, 2002). Moreover, scholars have suggested that underclassmen and business majors are more likely to cheat than their peers (Gerdeman, 2000). Though several researchers have examined whether sex plays a role in cheating behavior, and some studies have indeed suggested that male college students cheat more than female students, others have not found evidence to support this possibility (Gerdeman, 2000; Jordan, 2001; Wotring, 2007). Inconsistency also exists regarding whether age plays a significant role in regards to cheating tendencies: while many studies suggest that younger students may be more likely to engage in academically dishonest behaviors than older students, at least one study has been conducted in which the opposite was found (Jordan, 2001). Interestingly, community college students may be less likely to cheat than their counterparts at four-year institutions (Wotring, 2007). It is possible that the shorter time period that students typically spend at community colleges compared to four-year institutions may at least partially impact cheating behaviors (Wotring, 2007).

Motivations for Cheating

It is important for student affairs professionals to understand why students choose to engage in cheating behaviors in the first place; for example, advances in technology have simply made it easier for students to plagiarize or purchase prewritten papers or exchange answers during exams through the use of cell phones (Boehm, Justice, & Weeks; 2009; Hensley, 2013; Moeck, 2002). For some students, the appeal of being able to secure readily available work may be too good to pass up. Moreover, the pressure to achieve high grades also serves as a motivating factor for students to cheat. Moeck (2002) explained that many students may feel the need to obtain high grades to satisfy family members or to secure beneficial opportunities for themselves, and cheating may be viewed as a way to ensure that these grades are achieved. Relatedly, students with low GPAs tend to cheat more than those with high GPAs (Gerdeman, 2000; Hensley, 2013; Moeck, 2002; Wotring, 2007). Students with low GPAs may desire to achieve academically but do not understand how to do so in a beneficial and appropriate way, thus resulting in cheating.

The inability for some students to manage their time effectively is another reason that cheating happens in college (Hensley, 2013). Many students procrastinate to the point that cheating may seem necessary in order to complete course assignments before deadlines. Others juggle so many obligations and responsibilities that the amount of time that they designate to spend on coursework does not allow them to give their work the attention it needs, and cheating allows them to get their work accomplished quicker. Of course, for students who perceive a class or assignment to be boring or unnecessary, cheating can allow them to invest relatively little effort into completing assignments (Gerdeman, 2000; Hensley, 2013). If students perceive professors as being uninterested in the courses they teach, this too increases the likelihood that cheating is utilized (Gerdeman, 2000).

An important point that must be recognized when discussing cheating in higher education is that many students enter college in order to secure degrees that they believe will lead them to secure satisfactory employment upon graduating, rather than to gain a well-rounded education (Moeck, 2002). Cheating may be viewed as a reasonable way to obtain this goal, and little importance may be placed on how new learning is gained throughout college.

It is also worth noting that peer perceptions of cheating play a large role in whether a student chooses to cheat or not. Gerdeman (2000) stated that “studies have consistently indicated that students are more likely to cheat if they observe other students cheating or if they perceive that cheating is commonplace or acceptable among peers” (p. 3). Furthermore, Jordan (2001) found that college students largely do not believe that cheating is acceptable. Student affairs professionals must keep in mind the power of peer opinions when developing initiatives that aim to reduce this behavior.  

Preventing Student Cheating

Student affairs professionals can utilize various strategies in their daily practice to help reduce student cheating and promote academic honesty. Boehm et al. (2009) stated that a preventative approach to dealing with cheating is likely more effective than a punitive one. The authors explained that one of the best ways for student affairs professionals to combat student cheating is by providing faculty with training on academic honesty, as variation can exist among professors as to what practices qualify as cheating or are worthy of punishment (Boem et al., 2009). Consistent messaging regarding what constitutes cheating can allow students to recognize that their institution holistically values honesty.

While it may seem intuitive that ensuring students know their college’s policy regarding academic honesty is useful to reducing cheating, it is important that student affairs professionals communicate the policy to students through a variety of channels (Boehm et al., 2009; Gerdeman, 2000). Aside from including academic dishonesty policies in the student handbook and on the college’s website, student affairs professionals should encourage all faculty members to incorporate policies in their syllabi and talk with students about its significance. This policy should be broadcast to students throughout their college years, with emphasis of its importance first being made to new students during orientation programs (Hensley, 2013; Jordan, 2001). Boehm et al. (2009) also stated that it can be useful to have students actively contribute to the development of their institution’s academic honesty policy, as students will likely have a vested interest in adhering to rules that they helped create. As students’ perceptions of how their peers view cheating is a significant factor that contributes to their own decisions to cheat or not, this recommendation is worthy of considerable attention. Moreover, faculty and staff should work together to foster a campus climate that is conducive to discussion about the school’s academic honesty policy so students feel comfortable asking questions about it (Moeck, 2002).

Student affairs professionals should assist faculty members in providing clear examples of what constitutes cheating so students have a thorough understanding as to which practices are permissible and which are not (Boehm et al., 2009; Moeck, 2002; Wotring, 2007). Colleges serve a wide array of individuals, and first-generation college students, international students, or those from diverse racial and ethnic groups may not understand what academic honesty entails or may define cheating in dissimilar ways (Moeck, 2002). For those working in community colleges, institutions that typically “serve a student body of greater diversity” than four-year colleges, this point is particularly salient and must be addressed (Wotring, 2007, para. 3).

It is important that student affairs professionals make students aware of the various academic support services provided by their institutions (Hensley, 2013). Emphasizing the benefits associated with utilizing tutoring, academic coaching, or other services that aim to help students succeed can help students recognize that there are various alternatives to cheating in order to obtain good grades. By highlighting the success stories of students who have utilized academic support services in the past, student affairs professionals can normalize the process of seeking help when needed for first-year students or those who may be less inclined to seek assistance. Students should understand that effort rather than perfection is valued more in higher education and connect effort with the use of academic resources (Hensley, 2013). Students should also recognize that they are capable of achieving the grades that they desire through hard work and determination, and it is thus important that student affairs professionals help students develop confidence in their abilities (Hensley, 2013).

Lastly, both faculty members and student affairs professionals should work to help support students in dealing with the stressors that they face as they move forward in their college careers by providing them with information on relevant services, including counseling (Moeck, 2002). As many college students will face the pressure of juggling classes, extracurricular activities, part-time or full-time work, and family obligations, those working in higher education must teach students effective methods for dealing with stress and emphasize that cheating is not a simple way to maintain a successful academic record in the midst of a hectic semester or when taking a time-consuming course (Hensley, 2013).  

Conclusion

While temptations to cheat during college will always exist, and will likely intensify as emerging technology further simplifies the process and the pressure on college students to obtain high grades persists, it is vital that student affairs professionals work to reduce the rates that students engage in academically dishonest behaviors. Through collaboration with faculty members and implementation of campus-wide initiatives, student affairs professionals can relay to students the seriousness and value associated with academic honesty. In doing so, they can enrich the experience that students have while attending college and indirectly illustrate how ethical behavior is an important component to a successful life. 

Discussion Questions

  1. What role does campus climate play in either enticing or discouraging academically dishonest behaviors amongst college students?  
  2. How can higher education institutions uphold policies against academic dishonesty while respecting diversity and differing opinions as to what constitutes cheating? 

References

Boehm, P., Justice, M., & Weeks, S. (2009). Promoting academic integrity in higher education. The Community College Enterprise, 13(1), 45-61.

Gerdeman, R. D. (2000). Academic dishonesty and the community college. ERIC Digest#ED447840.

Hensley, L. (2013). To cheat or not to cheat: A review with implications for practice. The Community College Enterprise, 19(2), 22-34.

Jordan, A. (2001). College student cheating: The role of motivation, perceived norms, attitudes, and knowledge of institutional policy. Ethics & Behavior, 11(3), 233-247.

Moeck, P. (2002). Academic dishonesty: Cheating among community college students. Community College Journal of Research and Practice, 26(6), 479-491.

Newstead, S. E., Franklin-Stokes, A. & Armstead, D. (1996). Individual differences in student cheating. Educational Psychology, 88(2), 229-241.

Nonis, S. & Swift, C. (2001). An examination of the relationship between academic dishonesty and workplace dishonesty: A multi campus investigation. Journal of Education for Business77(2), 69-77.

Wotring, K. (2007). Cheating in the community college: Generational differences among students and implications for faculty. Inquiry, 12(1), 5-13.

About the Author

Alison Andrade earned a Bachelor of Science in Sociology from Fitchburg State University in May 2013 and a Master of Education in Student Affairs Counseling from Bridgewater State University in May 2015. During graduate school Alison served as a Graduate Assistant in Bridgewater State University’s Academic Achievement Center, as well as an intern in Bristol Community College’s Office of Disability Services. Alison is currently searching for a position in academic advising and hopes to work extensively with first-year students and those on academic probation.

Please e-mail inquiries to Alison Andrade.

Disclaimer

The ideas expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Developments editorial board or those of ACPA members or the ACPA Governing Board, Leadership, or International Office Staff.