Why US College Students Cheat and How to Fight It

11 November, 2017

Everyone who has been a student has probably experienced something like this:

It is the night before a big test in one of your most difficult classes. You tried your best to study all the information you think will be included in the test. But you are still worried that you have not studied hard enough.

If you fail the test, you will likely fail the class. You start to worry so much that you start thinking about doing something you know is wrong. You think about writing some of the information you think will be on the test on a little piece of paper and hiding it in your clothing.

You think, "Will my teacher really be able to see what I am doing? And in the end, does doing this harm anyone?"

Eric Anderman says he has known many young people who have had these or similar thoughts in his teaching career. It began when he was a high school teacher, where he witnessed many students cheating in his classes.

Eric Anderman, head of the department of educational studies at the Ohio State University.
Eric Anderman, head of the department of educational studies at the Ohio State University.

Now Anderman works at the Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio. He is a professor of educational psychology and head of the Department of Educational Studies at Ohio State.

Anderman says cheating happens just as much at the college level as it does in high school.

In fact, the International Center for Academic Integrity found that a majority of American college students cheat. In 2015, over 71,000 university students were asked about cheating. About 68 percent of them admitted to doing so at least once.

Anderman has been studying why students cheat and the ways in which they do it for over 20 years. His most recent research, published in September, provides interesting information about when students believe cheating is acceptable.

His research involved a little over 400 students at two large research universities in the United States. They were asked about cheating. The study found that the students said it is most acceptable to cheat in classes they disliked. And the classes where students felt cheating was acceptable were often subjects like mathematics and science.

Anderman notes that it is difficult to say what makes students like or dislike a class. It could be the subject or the personality of the professor. And in the end, it is always up to the student to make the decision whether or not to cheat.

However, Anderman argues that college professors can design their classes in a way that reduces students' desire to cheat. Students feel cheating is less acceptable in classes that focus on learning how to do something instead of memorizing information, he says.

"If you think about it," he told VOA, "it makes logical sense if a class is set up so that you have to demonstrate mastery ... of the content, cheating's not going to buy you anything. A flipside of that is ... a focus on testing. And so when a student goes in a class, and ... all they think about or all they hear about is testing ... and ‘If you don't do well on the test, you'll never move on to the second level' ... they cheat more often."

So, Anderman says, when a math test is given to students, teachers should not test whether or not they have memorized the necessary formulas. Students might be so worried about recalling the formulas that they feel the need to cheat in order to succeed.

The more students cheat, the more their understanding of the subject will weaken, Anderman says. Instead, he suggests that the professor could provide the math formulas to the students and test whether or not they know how to use them to solve complex problems.

After all, Anderman argues, in the real world, many professionals use computer programs that already possess the formulas. It is up to the professionals to know how to use the formulas and their knowledge of the subject to solve the problems presented to them.

Anderman says professors should do their best to explain why they are passionate about a given issue and why students might need such knowledge in the future. That way the students themselves will feel more connected to what they are learning.

Yet David Rettinger suggests that even with a connection to the material, there is still more to the fight against cheating. Rettinger is an associate professor of psychology at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia. He is also one of the heads of the International Center for Academic Integrity.

Rettinger says cheating is so difficult to prevent, in part, because of the examples students see in the world around them.

"Cheating is deeply ingrained in our culture," he told VOA. "And when students look to politics, they look to business, and ... they see dishonesty being rewarded, it's very difficult for those of us in higher education to make an argument that they should do things the right way."

That is why Rettinger believes professors need to clearly explain the rules about cheating. For example, actions such as plagiarism -- copying the work of others -- will likely get a student expelled from any college or university in the U.S.

Understanding these rules can often be especially difficult for international students, Rettinger says. The education systems in some countries do not place the same importance on individual work or presenting creative ideas in writing projects, for example. So some international students may be cheating without even knowing they are doing so.

But most of all, Rettinger argues, professors should explain that finding cheating acceptable can cause problems for students well after college.

"You can, perhaps, get a job by cheating," he said. "But you're not going to keep that job. Over time it's going to become clear to the people you work with that you don't really know what you're doing. And so the knowledge that you claim to have isn't going to present itself, and they're going to be looking for someone who can actually do the things you say you can do."

I'm Pete Musto. And I'm Dorothy Gundy.

Pete Musto reported this story for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

We want to hear from you. Have you ever cheated in school? If so, what made you decide to do it? What would you say to others who might consider cheating? Write to us in the Comments Section or on 51VOA.COM.


Words in This Story

focusv. to cause something, such as attention, to be directed at something specific

logicaladj. agreeing with the rules of a proper or reasonable way of thinking about or understanding something

contentn. the ideas, facts, or images that are in a book, article, speech, or movie

flipsiden. the bad or unpleasant part or result of something

formula(s) – n. a general fact or rule expressed in letters and symbols

professional(s) – n. someone who does a job that requires special training, education, or skill

passionateadj. having, showing, or expressing strong emotions or beliefs

ingrainedadj. existing for a long time and very difficult to change

plagiarismn. the act of using another person's words or ideas without giving credit to that person