Home Up



Why Students Cheat

An Essay Concerning the Systemic Origins and Implications of Academic Cheating from a Socially Contextual View

By Roy D. Follendore III

Copyright (c) 2002 by RDFollendoreIII



This essay is written to explore the broader issues of academic cheating.  Academic cheating is not only an activity that exists in the classroom, it permeates our society.  Cheating is a business.  At this moment there are businesses who make money by selling the means for students to successfully cheat in school.  There are also companies that are making money by countering cheats. These companies have a symbiotic relationship to each other similar to that of the cheater and the academic institution.  In economic terms, cheating has essentially become an identifiable micro economy of the educational system.  It is easy to have a tendency to consider this concept in terms of a parasitic economics.  However, if all that we choose to do is to condemn the concept of cheating we can not expect to understand the phenomena of cheating. 


November 10, 2002


When students successfully cheat they are not just trying to get a better grade, they are changing the rules of education in favor of themselves.  Cheating can take the form of working together rather than independently on projects, taking crib notes into an exam, looking off another student's paper or simply plagiarism.  In fact, anything that allows a person to have education biased in favor of him or her can be construed as cheating.  At one time or another, every person has cheated.  Sometimes the teacher's directions can be complex or difficult so that they are misunderstood.  The result may then be rationalized by the student or teacher as being too insignificant to correct and so the cheat is allowed to stand.  


A cheater can represent or misrepresent themselves to acquire favoritism which in turn gives them access to resources which the rest of the class does not.  Since concepts like competitive scores and fair play are resonant within the concept of cheating, the implication of having access to or knowledge of information or resources, which the rest of the class does not have, could be construed as cheating.  Because of this, cheating therefore does not need to be for personal gain.  The person who helps others cheat is also cheating.  Therefore, if a Professor allows cheating, they are cheaters.  This is admittedly a broad definition of a cheater.  Many might take issue with these generalizations.  However, the objective here is to establish the action of the academic cheat as well as the actor.  Just keep in mind that it is not the objective of this paper to condemn cheaters but to discuss the reasons why cheaters cheat.     


Cheating is by general definition wrong, but it is also a fact of education.  Our educational system participates in the process of cheating because they set the boundaries of the definition.  It starts with those who profess to know something teach others and call themselves Professors.  Then in an attempt to prove to the system in which they work that their knowledge has been passed on, they test.  On the other side of this arrangement, those who were ignorant attempt to prove that they possess knowledge, which has been transferred to them from their professors[1].  Within the perspective of such situations, these are competitive perspectives and as long as they exist, there will be cheating.  The reasons for cheating are therefore deeply embedded within the philosophy, ethics, and operations of our educational society. 


To discuss the basis of cheating we not only must understand the student who cheats, we must also understand the philosophical environment of education in which the cheating takes place.  To understand the fish, we must understand the nature of living within the ocean [i].  The commercial product of education is not enlightenment.  The product of education is the opportunity for a successful social class struggle.  Students are people struggling to acquire things that they think will improve their life and they are under great pressure to achieve those opportunities[2].  At the other side of the court, their Colleges and Universities are attempting to market the ideal that their certification through a college diploma will provide students with what they need to succeed in life.  They deliberately contribute to the student's idea that it is the certification and not the knowledge that is most important.  Professors and their Academic Departments represent the opportunities of their various departmental degree programs in terms of the elitist class distinctions and opportunities that would distinguish them.   


From this perspective, the Lawyer, the Engineer, the Mathematician, the Teacher are the respected products that are manufactured and delivered by various departments of a typical University.  This is reinforced by the observation that the academic educational processes are organized like a factory where the student is the raw material.  Underneath the surface of this manufacturing process, these procedures are constantly communicated by the bureaucracy to students as being more important than knowledge gained.  The statement is simply that if you want to be able to ascribe to being one of the members of these more respected classes of citizens, then you must jump through the correct and approved hoops in the correct order.  If the individual student is for any reason unable to make it through this sequential factory then they will be considered defective.    


The barriers to the student's potential individual success become obvious when the course requirements are analyzed.  Departments often appear to prevent freshmen students from discovering their true personal interests and intellectual abilities.  In an attempt to create a stronger program of studies, administrators like to pack their program with class requirements.  The required schedule of classes to achieve a degree in four years are compressed and rigidly fixed.  This is a kind of protective mechanism for the Department because it is a kind of enforceable funnel that reduces the number of students who decide to change majors.  Unfortunately from the student's perspective, it also means that the student arriving at the University for the first time is expected to know who and what they are, what studies they are best suited, and their long term interests.  The problem is that education often causes students to change our ideals and interests.  Consequently, many students are deeply integrated and invested into departmental programs for which they may be ill suited.  Because these students never have the opportunity to evaluate other departments and other fields of study, by the time they see the trap many of their credits do not transfer.  The results can become a costly failure, both to the University as a whole and to the student.  


The inflexibility of the educational factory to allow students time within their four year degree program to find their path means that the departments are not selecting their best raw material for their factory.  Departments within Universities are competitive for new students.  It is not in the financial interest of departments to change their orientation to academic requirements and support options.  The departmental inflexibility and the absence of properly unbiased counseling that might offer alternative accredited goals to students caught within these departmental programs induce great social and economic pressures for failing students.  These students are most likely to cheat in order to push through and achieve their original educational goals.     


Others long ago found this kind of approach to education the wrong idea.  The writer of the Declaration of Independence, our former President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson founded the University of Virginia with the idea that there would be no testing or degrees.  It was to be an intellectually free program of higher learning.  Academic students would be admitted into the University to study whatever they wanted, and then leave whenever they felt they were educated.  The University of Virginia (UVA) of course today is an institution that confers degrees through a similar process as all of the other organizations of higher learning [3].  


The Jefferson ideal of a University for true Scholars was soon abandoned after the founder died.  The only residual of Jefferson's original ideal is the University's unique and somewhat dubious honor code in which students are tested without oversight by Professors.  It is an honor code that many students at UVA report is constantly being broken.  While this can be viewed as an academic loss of prestige for the degree programs at UVA, it also means that students are not placed under the same pressures.  Breaking an honor code is dishonest but if we assume that the majority of students do not cheat, then the ability to cheat operates as a kind of social pressure valve, in a way promoting the core Jeffersonian ideal that what is being marketed by UVA is knowledge, not merely a degree.  It is also not an endorsement of cheating to say that those who feel they must cheat to pass the grade are effectively given an opportunity to change programs without their grade point average being affected.        


The majority of our systems of higher education within the United States perpetuate the central theme that the act of becoming a successful student involves a privately waged battle, of which sustaining the gauntlet of academic challenges is paramount.  In the business world to which these same students will work, successfully breaking the rules to get along can often be considered to be part of their job requirement for success.  At the same time, university life is wrongly represented as a kind of academic artificial womb within which the student feels protected and sheltered from the real world.  The actual truth is closer to the idea that Universities replace "real world" life with one that threatens abandonment if the gauntlet is not successfully negotiated.  This is analogous to tribal or parental abandonment, which is the primary fear for all human beings [4].    


Student access to the Internet is being blamed as the cause for cheating.  That assumption is not true.  The Internet may correlate to the quantity and quality of cheating within Universities, but the Internet cannot be the cause.  The Internet is simply another efficient means to search and acquire information.  It is also an efficient means to communicate.  It may make the ability to plagiarize far easier but it also makes research easier.  The Internet is a reference shortcut and there is nothing overtly wrong with the idea of taking shortcuts.  Educational institutions are constantly expecting students to absorb more information and to do this requires the student's better use of time.  They do this by encouraging students to study smarter.  In the 1890s, students were primarily expected to memorize information at hand to complete their studies, and by 1990, students are primarily expected to access vast amounts of information.  If we want to blame the Internet for encouraging cheating, then we must do so with the idea that it raises the bar to higher education.  Those that are not capable of executing search commands and then reading through and identifying what is most important for their classes must also then be able to fluidity express themselves or they have problems in today's college programs.  


Confusion of social identity is a primary cause of cheating within our educational institutions.  This confusion begins with who and what we each are within our sociological identity.    


·        As individuals we accept ourselves as a society of data collectors that must be willing to lose much of what we are as we individually age and/or die. We must ultimately be willing to organize, reorganize, and present ourselves as associated but highly diversified groups.  The limits of a society of data is ultimately rests on our internal willingness to relentlessly search, establish and maintain enormous amounts of random inputs over infinitely long periods of time.     


·       As a society of information gatherers we must constantly restructure what it is that we are attempting to know. We must be willing to reach to create information where and when that information is found in our most efficient and effective manner.  The limits of our ability to search, retrieve, relate, and store both data and information transactions become the limits of an information society.  


·       As a society of knowledge creators, we must always be willing to choose to abandon ideas that we love and we must also expect to lose much of our ability to simplify that we believe we know and what we are.  A society of knowledge is an organization of philosophical acceptance without regard to investment.  The limits of a society of knowledge essentially become our willingness to internally act against our own vested interests when knowledge is no longer true [5].


·        As a society of wise knowledge users, then we must be willing to become data, information and knowledge users as is required for the well being of our society.  A society of wisdom is based on a capability of fluent internal communication and a philosophical understanding of the virtues of itself in terms of its environment.  The limits of a wise society are the limits of human nature and our ability to observe and act with respect to the Universe.    


Cheating represents the cracks between these societal identities.  The order in which academics choose to operate depends on their role at a particular moment.  All academic educational institutions simultaneously operate within the space with respect to all four of these philosophical ideas. 


·        The data driven educational society is generally considered as the basis of academic scientific research.  Data drives the request for more data.  Eventually the academic is supposed to derive information that leads to knowledge.  Data comes from the field, from the activities of scientific research.  Data is exposed in context.  Students within a data driven society often are responsible for the finding of data and often point to the significance.  When data is used to cheat, cheating is often difficult to discover. 


·        The information driven educational society is the reference through which knowledge is achieved.  This is the society of contextual storytellers.  The story of information originates within the data but it is told in terms of as facts and speculation.  Students mostly exist within the information driven educational society.  When information is used to cheat, students can appear on top of their work when they are not.  This kind of cheating can inevitably lead to failure of performance, usually at the worst possible moment for the student and the society.     


·        The knowledge driven educational society exists within the classroom, where people profess to have and be willing to express information in useful and practical arrangements and ways.  A wisdom driven educational society exists to within society as a whole, rather than the facilities of a single college or university.  It therefore exhibits itself in terms of a distributed governing ideal, rather than as a single institution.  Students do not generally have the opportunity to participate within the knowledge driven educational society.  However, when they do and they use knowledge to cheat, they shake the foundation of all of the societies.  A student who cheats within this type of society professes to be an expert, when he or she is not.  Because they do not have experience and have not actually absorbed the knowledge, these cheaters may be able to talk the talk but they cannot walk the walk of the expert.  There are exceptions. 


·        The wisdom driven educational society does not represent all things for the individual, but should exist for all things of society.  It therefore should recognized the requirement for educational institutions, cultures, and even individuals and institutions that fail, in order that the society may prosper.  At the same time and because of this the wisdom driven educational society should assure that there are always opportunities for individual progress for every member, even student cheaters.  Cheaters are by definition unwise.  This is the society in which all cheaters eventually tend to be caught cheating.  It is one thing to be able to be able to cheat on data, information and feign knowledge.  Wisdom can also be feigned, but it is another to be able to act wisely.  Unfortunately, the greatest harm to all occurs when a cheat professes to be wise and then acts unwisely.   The most “successful” competitive cheats who move into society to take responsible positions are the ones who also cheat their corporations and government agencies.  It would therefore not be surprising to see that many of the top executives and politicians who fall in disgrace were successful cheaters at the top academic institutions.      


Cheaters are probably best represented by the students that have found themselves failing to make the grade and were discovered cheating within the information driven society.  However, this is not always the case.  The percentage of students who cheat is dependent on any number of factors that must be predefined to be understood.  One of these is the grading criterion, which affects the kind of cheater.  Cheating changes the grading curve, encouraging the Professor to introduce more difficult tests and therefore encourages more cheating by other students.  When it is recognized by the class that cheating is the only way to pass a difficult class because the majority of students are cheating then the majority of the rest will compete by cheating.    


The baseline of grading is by nature both objective and subjective.  In some situations, the male who demands more attention in classes may increase his opportunities for better grades.  In other situations, the female who is most attractive and personable may increase her opportunities for better subjective grades.  These interactive factors may not be considered cheating because efforts are made to create objective testing criteria.  Nevertheless, for many of these justifications, objective-testing criteria also limits the value of tests to the realms of data and at best information societies.


Within the data driven society the authenticated expectations of truth are clear.  Data is often correct or it is not.  To some extent, products from a societal system based on information can be subjected to interpretation and determined to be true or false.  


Products from a knowledge-based society are subject to interpretation and are often very difficult to examine, compare, and authenticate.  From a testing perspective, the evaluation of a student's knowledge is something that is often proscribed but rarely achieved.  Just as there is no objective test for wisdom, absolute knowledge is something that very difficult to objectively evaluate on a data and information driven test.  It is possible to catch the data cheaters who copy answers to exams but the highest form of cheating is the student that plagiarizes knowledge and fanes original wisdom.  These charlatans hijack the creativity of others to lead society into ruin for their own ends.  They are the ones who end up with the opportunities for running the societies of academia.  The inability of academic institutions to recognize this form of cheating is a license for the greatest cheaters to shortcut the system of society to their own ends.  Therefore as an academic society, we execute the most desperate minimal cheats while we exalt our worst.


Educational institutions have the means to put a halt to cheating if they are willing to operate their testing procedures from the opposite end of the societal spectrum.  Achievement through an academic society of wisdom would mean that students would have to be given the opportunity to participate in writing their tests and grading themselves [6].  It would mean that testing through of data would be kept to a minimum.  It would mean that the current institutionalized barrier that divides the successful from the unsuccessful would disappear.  The means to ending cheating is to base achievement primarily on creative contribution rather than the regurgitation of ambiguous facts.


It is the quality of thought, exercised by students in many potentially different and unique ways, rather than explicit facts repeated on a test form that counts outside of the University.  The discipline of creative academic thinking represents the ultimate challenge for students and the institution involved in higher education.  At it's best it requires all of the facets of all of the societies previously described. 


Are there legitimate justifications for academic cheating?  When and how does academic cheating begin?  These are difficult but necessary questions to ask.  The question of why individual students cheat may begin with the idea that education is a competitive challenge but it is founded upon situational ethics.  Removing the academic context from the concept of cheating and then gradually reintroducing it is a useful experiment to evaluate these essential questions.  Please keep in mind the objective of this thinking exercise.   


·        Value:  Suppose you were driving into a parking lot on a windy day and a $20 dollar bill blew onto your windshield just as you were about to lock your car.  You pick up the bill and you look around, probably upwind first.  Not too far away there several people like you that are in various states of leaving their car for the day.  Some are already walking away but none seem to be aware of your apparent good fortune.  How much of your time if any are you willing to give up to potentially find the rightful owner?  Suppose that you go to the nearest person and ask if they have lost any money and they say yes. How do you know that they actually did?  Under these circumstances it may be just as possible that the person you ask may see it his or her good fortune to have someone ask that question.  You might choose go to the parking attendant who sits in the booth and turn the money over to lost and found.  What are the odds that the lost will be you and found will be the parking attendant?  Anyone who has ever found money like this happen knows that there is a certain feeling of dishonesty in such a situation.  Someone has obviously lost something of value.  You have gained something of value without having earned it.  Anyone who has ever lost money like this knows the sting of such a hard earned loss.  Would it have made a big difference if there were no one in the parking lot?  That depends on you.  It usually comes down to the fact that you were in the right place at the right time.  Such is the nature of a windfall.   

·        Relationships: Suppose you are just married. You and your jealous but beautiful bride go to dinner on your honeymoon.  Just as you turn to talk to your wife you see a pretty girl that reminds you of your ex girlfriend.  Your mind wonders and before you can move past your hesitation to complete your sentence your wife asks you if something is wrong.  What should you say?  If you tell the absolute truth, you stand a good chance of ruining the night for the both of you, even though it might be the most honest solution.  If you don't answer her truthfully then you feel you are starting your marriage on the wrong foot.

·        Trust: Suppose you are having car trouble while driving in the right lane during rush hour.  You cannot speed up because when you do your engine starts to die.  Cars are passing you and cutting in front of you.  Your lane ends and your lane changes into an on ramp to an expressway.  The expressway at this time is limited to three people per car.  Your wife is with you, so there are just the two of you.  As you slowly make your way up the ramp, you see a State Trooper giving out tickets to other motorists.  Should you ask for help in the name of safety or continue to drive on past the Trooper and hope that he does not notice your violation?  

·        Serendipity: Now suppose that you were sitting in on a tough exam.  You happen to look up at your teacher just as a straight A student walks past you to turn in their paper.  You find you have seen the answer to the big extra point question.  When you scan the question, you find that the answer is exactly what you would have selected.  You have confirmed in advance that you would have been correct.  What should you do?  If you explain this to your Professor and you are then given a new question then you may not pass.  It could cost you thousands of dollars to repeat the class next semester.  What if you are a foreign student and you will not be able to stay?  What do you do?


All of these problems appear to have something in common.  For one thing, they all are situational judgment calls.  These events are described as having happened on the fly, so that it is possible to think that there is no intentional preconceived deceit involved.  It is possible to reconstitute the potential of deceit.  For some people, some of these situations exist just past their threshold of comfort.  Yet, for other people, these situations are simply non-issues.  If we were to change the context slightly, each of these situations might be a non-issue for everyone.  Make situations life or death and the obvious acceptable choice becomes a non-issue.  The point made is that situations, which involve uncomfortable decisions, can quickly become non-issues.


If some Father needed that wind blown twenty dollar bill to put essential food on the table for his family, then it is far less likely that he would be expected to look for the original owner of the cash.  If the newly wed is in love with his new bride then it is unlikely he would be expected to want to destroy the mood of the evening by telling her everything he was thinking.  If the driver of the car could not afford another ticket then it is unlikely that he would be expected to trust the Police help and not to write him up.  If the student truly needed to pass the test, because he would otherwise lose his scholarship and therefore his means of having his next meal and perhaps even the place he calls home, then it would be less likely that he would report that he saw the answer to the extra point question.  The rationality of a cheating event is relative to the particular situation and therefore the justification from the individual's perspective is relative to the educational solution.  It is easy to put a zero tolerance on decisions in life through a society of data driven regulations.  It is far more difficult to apply the society of knowledge and wisdom to situations.


The prisons of our nation are chocked full of people who were desperate to succeed in their lives and rationalized the risk of cheating the law.  Some of these people in three strike states are subject to life sentences for three separate relatively minor offences such as cheating the merchant of his profit by shoplifting videotapes.  Whether we academics approve of the idea or not, our court systems are extensions of our educational institutions.  Some 80% of people in the Colorado prison system have learning disorders.  Yet, people in prisons earn legitimate college degrees without cheating at the same moment that the best students in the best colleges learn to cheat.  Human beings are redeemable if they feel that they have a true chance at redemption.  Much of cheating has to do with self-esteem [7].


Perhaps this is ultimately the reason why most students cheat.  It is not the cost of succeeding as much as it is the fact that they do not feel worthy of succeeding.  Societies of academia based on knowledge and wisdom should be inclusive rather than exclusive[8].  Maybe Thomas Jefferson had some pretty good ideas about education.








[1] "Never let school interfere with your education." Mark Twain

[2] "Our doubts are traitors, And make us lose the good we oft might win By fearing to attempt."  Shakespeare

[3] "Our schools have been scientifically designed to prevent over-education from happening...The average  American [should be]content with their humble role in life, because they're not tempted to think about any other role."  William Harris, U.S. Commissioner of Education, 1889


[4] "To educate a man is to unfit him to be a slave." Fredrick Douglass, In Freedom

[5] "Truth is eternal.  Knowledge is changeable. It is disastrous to confuse them." Madeleine L'Engle

[6] "We cannot teach people anything, we can only help them discover it within themselves." Galileo Galilei: The Quote Cache ( http://quotes.prolix.nu )

[7] "Truth is eternal.  Knowledge is changeable. It is disastrous to confuse them." Madeleine L'Engle

[8] "A child's wisdom is also wisdom." Jewish Proverb  

[i] We exist within an unseen sea we call society and our educational systems are it’s essence.  The ability of a fish to understand its existence requires it to understand the qualities of water in difference to air, land, and space, in which it ultimately exists.

[ii] Unless otherwise noted, all quotes within the footnotes within this essay were chosen from The Quote Cache ( http://quotes.prolix.nu )






Copyright (c) 2001-2007 RDFollendoreIII All Rights Reserved