Cheating is a major problem in every single school in the world.
Students know it’s wrong. Teachers know it’s wrong. Administrators can expel students on their first offense.
But that doesn’t change the fact that cheating is an epidemic — especially in high schools.
That begs one big, burning question.
Why in the world do students cheat in the first place?
Unfortunately, there’s no single answer for this.
Students are individuals, and the reasons they’ll have for cheating are as varied as the ones they’d have for doing anything else in their lives.
“I don’t know.”
“I hate this class.”
“I just want to graduate.”
If you teach for a few years, you’ll hear them all.
And while it’s easy to shrug them off, it’s much more enlightening to dig deeper.
Students cheat. It’s a fact of life as a teacher. And even if you don’t want to look the horse in the mouth, you probably have a cheater or two in your classes too.
In this blog, we’ll explore why so many high school students cheat and the reasons behind that “why.”
We’ll also make one radical suggestion that can curb cheating almost entirely — digital curriculum.
So why do students cheat, and how can digital curriculum help?
The Obvious Reasons
We’re not going to spend a lot of time on this section because these are all reasons you’ve heard before.
Everyone knows the typical reasons for cheating — students who don’t do well on tests (or otherwise aren’t prepared) don’t want to fail a class, but they also didn’t learn any of the material.
As a result, a student makes a cheat-sheet on a notecard. Maybe they write a list on the palm of their hand. They may even talk to students in other sections of the same class and get answers that way.
All of these “obvious” scenarios have one thing in common — the student is maliciously trying to get ahead in a class. They’re trying to get a grade they never truly earned, and they should be punished for trying to cheat while other students do honest work.
This concept is as old as the concept of education itself. Whenever you have a system, there will always be individuals who try to get around that system so they can succeed (or create the illusion of success).
But here’s the thing — how many of these cheating students actually exist?
Educators, academics, and clever students no longer talk about cheating in hushed tones. They discuss it openly online.
This is because cheating isn’t just reflective of a student’s moral character or work ethic.
It’s also reflective of the state of education in general.
You can really start to see this with how some students — including valedictorians — decided to start cheating in the first place.
If only it were as cut-and-dry as “I forgot to study.”
Reason #1. Students Feel Cheated First
In 2013, teacher-journalist Jessica Lahey published a brief correspondence she had with an uncharacteristically successful cheater in an issue of The Atlantic.
The cheater in question was a valedictorian, AP scholar, and editor-in-chief of the school newspaper. When he graduated high school, he was accepted into a university’s honors program.
So how much did the student cheat? Did he just get a high score on his SATs?
As it turns out, he cheated all the way through high school.
This alone is scary enough. But the linchpin in this student’s academic history is his reasoning for why he cheated.
In his words:
“It boils down to this: We are told that cheating is wrong because we are attempting to earn a grade that we do not deserve. But my contention uses identical reasoning… I cheated because the grade I would have otherwise been given was not reflective of my true learning… I felt cheated of the education I deserved, and thus to earn the grade I knew I deserved, I had to cheat the system.”
Clearly, these are not the thoughts of someone who’s scrambling to pass a test.
The student elaborates further by calling education a “social contract” in which teachers have high expectations of students, so students should have similarly high expectations of their teachers.
According to him, when a teacher fails their students, the students’ only choice is to cheat to get the grade that they would have gotten from a better teacher.
To make matters worse, this student wasn’t alone.
He elaborates further that his “fellow cheaters” often discussed how they’d pass classes. Surprisingly, they also learned every subject in which they cheated — they just learned on their own.
So that begs a big question: Where are the student’s collaborators today?
Again, in his words:
“Most of them went on to attend prestigious universities, majoring in the very fields they shamelessly cheated through in high school.”
This is the most frightening thought of all.
If multiple high-achieving students could get to university-level education through cheating, just how prolific is cheating?
Still, it’s important that teachers don’t read this example and walk away feeling as though they need to completely revamp their approach to education. This student’s logic is airtight about why he cheated — but it has one major flaw.
He still chose to cheat.
This student and his cheating cohorts were inquisitive, self-motivated, and curious individuals. They were the exact kind of students who can become major proponents of change in a community, including a local school district.
Instead of cheating, what if this student and his associates had gone to the school board? Spoken for 15 minutes at a PTA meeting? Talked to his teachers about his grades?
Well, maybe he did. But he doesn’t say as much in his letters published in The Atlantic.
It’s also possible that the student didn’t want to make education reform his life’s work. Getting change to happen in the education system is an uphill slog for anyone — especially a student who just wants to graduate, be done with it all, and get on with his life.
But the thought that he didn’t speak to his teachers and at least plant the seed of change is disheartening. It’s also a possible reflection of how “principled cheaters” act in high schools.
In this cheater’s eyes, the system cheated him and his cohorts first.
Since they couldn’t succeed in the system’s parameters, they chose to succeed on their own.
Takeaway #1. High-Achieving Students Can Cheat, They Have Surprising Reasons, & They’re Good at It
Cheating is universally frowned upon. It’s considered the act of a desperate or lazy student who’s just trying to get through yet another class so they can goof off and hang out.
But according to the testimony of our first example, this stereotype couldn’t be further from the truth.
Cheaters can be high-achievers. Earning straight A’s doesn’t make a student more honest than a student earning straight C’s.
Cheaters also aren’t lazy. In the case above, this particular student essentially resorted to self-teaching and collaborative learning as full-blown alternatives to traditional schooling.
Finally, cheaters aren’t always desperate. They can have principles, and those principles may come from feelings of being slighted, deceived, or cheated themselves.
Does this mean you should suspect all of your high-achieving students of cheating?
Of course not.
But it does mean that you should keep your eyes open. Even if you have a strong, trusted relationship with some of your students, don’t let them rise above your better judgment.
In the event you catch them cheating, do what you need to do — but also listen to them.
Reason #2. Students Feel Forced to Learn for a Test
You can try all of the teaching strategies in the world to engage your students.
But if someone’s just not interested in a subject, you’re probably not going to win their attention for very long.
This goes double for students who feel like they’re being taught just so they can pass a test, according to a 2017 study from Ohio State University.
Learning how to take a test — something the study calls an “extrinsic goal” — makes students feel bored, out of place, or strained to learn something they don’t want to know.
In other words, teaching to a test makes students want to cheat.
Intrinsic goals — like learning a subject for the sake of mastering it — yield a significantly lower rate of cheating.
While this kind of thinking was uncovered by studying university students, it’s easy to make the connection to high school students and younger.
Increasingly, states now gauge their educational success based on student test scores.
Students who do well on the test get to progress in their education.
Students who don’t? They get held behind their peers.
Depending on the test, students may not even graduate if they don’t pass.
That’s a lot of pressure, especially if students already have plans for their lives after graduation.
But learning information just to pass a standardized, state-wide test might be one of the most boring and tedious tasks a student can encounter.
That makes standardized tests high-risk areas for cheating, which is why the testing environment and proctoring are so closely monitored.
But the same principle applies to your classes.
If you have a final exam that determines a big portion of your students’ grades, they can have just as much of an incentive to cheat so they can pass your class.
This goes double if you teach a class that just doesn’t catch students’ attention.
Some students will complain and moan about how much they hate it. Others might belong in the small percentage that loves learning for learning’s sake.
In general, you’re going to have students who don’t like your class and don’t want to retake it.
To use the wording of Ohio State’s study, these students don’t feel they have an intrinsic goal in your class. They know there’s an extrinsic goal — but it’s only to pass a test.
These students are primed to cheat.
Incidentally, they’re also the best students to give you feedback on how to make your class more engaging.
Takeaway #2. Listening Can Keep You a Step Ahead of Cheating
Listening is simultaneously one of the easiest and hardest parts of being a teacher.
It’s easy in the respect that all it takes is your attention and a couple minutes.
It’s hard in that you’re busy and you’ll always have to make time for it.
Plus, do you really want to listen to a student who’s been caught cheating? Will they have good reasons, or will they invent a bunch of excuses that you don’t want to hear?
And if all you hear are excuses, then do you want to go through the same song and dance every time you catch someone cheating?
Framing it like that, it’s no wonder why teachers have so little patience for cheating overall.
But that only happens after a student chooses to cheat.
You can circumvent that whole situation by sitting down with a student when they start showing suspicious behavior.
That could be a change in their regular classroom routine, a sudden drop in test scores, or any other red flag you notice.
Listening to a student when they’ve shown these changes can get to the root of a problem (like student disengagement) instead of treating its symptoms (like cheating).
Because let’s be honest — cheating doesn’t always mean someone is a bad student. It doesn’t make someone a bad person either.
But maybe something has changed in a student’s home life. Maybe there’s been a death in the family.
Maybe they feel overwhelmed and if they don’t pass next week’s test, they have to retake the whole class and they’ll be a semester behind their friends.
Maybe cheating is a symptom, and the cause is something deeper.
No one wants to be in that situation, especially since high school is one of the most socially-influential times in a student’s life.
So if you see a student’s grades or behavior in class has changed, keep in mind that they may feel trapped.
And if a student feels trapped, they’ll do anything to “get out” — even if it means cheating.
Reason #3. The Stigma of Asking for Help
Online, there’s no shortage of outlets discussing how to get students to ask for help and what you can tell them in return.
But why are students so shy of asking for help in the first place?
In a nutshell, it’s stigmatized.
Asking questions is vital in anyone’s cognitive development. Nobody knows everything about everything, and the more we can all share with each other, the more knowledgeable we can all become.
This is especially true in a classroom, which is the quintessential learning environment.
But students don’t ask questions because they don’t want to look “dumb” in front of their peers. High-achieving students may also feel like they’re failing you if they don’t understand something right away.
Even worse, they could feel like they’re failing themselves by asking, like their admission of ignorance will somehow make them a worse person.
Worst of all, some students may not be able to verbally structure their question. Their mind could be racing with what they know they don’t understand, but they simply don’t have the words to form the question they need.
That’s a lot of anxiety in just asking one question. If they could feel “stupid” for asking a question in the first place, we can only imagine what they’d feel like if they fumbled their words while asking.
For students who worry about their public perception (who doesn’t in high school?), it may feel convenient or even acceptable to cheat.
Because if they cheat, they can do well in a class without showing their ignorance.
It’s a win-win — if they get away with it, anyway.
But there’s no getting away with asking a question. When they ask a question, the whole class will hear.
What if someone laughs? What if someone says the answer right away? What if the teacher rolls their eyes?
A student’s mind reels with “what if, what if, what if” a thousand times before they decide that it’s just too risky to ask a question. They feel like they need a thousand answers to go with all of those questions and doubts.
But a student only has to ask “what if” once when they consider cheating.
“What if I get caught?”
There’s only one solution for them.
This reasoning can turn well-meaning students into cheaters overnight.
What’s a teacher to do?
Takeaway #3. Cultivate a Classroom Culture of Questions
The best classrooms are areas where students can feel free to ask questions whenever they need.
As a result, the best classrooms are hard to find.
Fortunately, you have ways to encourage questions in the classroom.
One of the best ways to do this is to use every question as a jumping-off point for a Socratic seminar.
A Socratic seminar means that you ask further questions about a student’s original question.
So say a student asks, “What’s the capital of Lebanon again?”
Your response is “Beirut.”
It’s a simple answer. But there’s also a simple follow-up question to that.
“What made you ask that?”
Now, the student needs to supply an answer. You’ve prompted them to think critically about what they asked, which pushes them into metacognition, or thinking about what they’re thinking.
(And “I don’t know” isn’t an acceptable answer.)
Their answer could be about something you just mentioned in class. It could be an add-on to something you’re currently talking about.
It could be some mental connection you never expected them to make in a thousand years.
But you just turned their potentially-embarrassing question into a discussion topic for your students.
Even if there’s a one-word, factual answer for their question, every student in your classroom suddenly learns that questions don’t come from stupidity.
They come from perception.
Questions are born from someone noticing something different and wanting to know more.
When you cultivate that sensibility in your classroom, the sky is the limit for participation and discussion.
If you’d like to create Socratic seminar questions for yourself, you can use these criteria to make your own follow-up questions to student questions.
Socratic questions must be:
- Open-ended and require explanation
- Thought-provoking and inquisitive
- Clear and concise
It’s important to keep your Socratic questions under control, however. It’s easy for one good student question to turn into a class-wide discussion about a topic you hadn’t envisioned.
That’s not necessarily bad. Student discussion and interaction are both great qualities for a classroom.
But it is off-topic, so it’s not all that helpful either.
In general, asking Socratic questions should help your students feel more acclimated and comfortable to your classroom.
Once they are, they lose the incentive to cheat.
You fill in the gaps of their knowledge for them and encourage them to think deeply on questions they thought would be short answers.
They don’t have to write on their wrists. They don’t have to keep torn slips of paper in their pockets.
They’re learning because they’re interested, and they’re interested because you made them think.
Special Note: It’s Not All on You (the Teacher)
We’ve spent a lot of time in this blog talking about what you can do to prevent teaching, but the truth is that you can’t do everything.
Cheating is ultimately a choice that students make. You can create a classroom environment that disincentivizes cheating, but you can never eliminate the temptation entirely.
At one point or another, you’ll have to deal with a student cheating. It’ll be a hard moment for both you and the student, and you should never take it lightly.
Cheating has a tendency to spread, especially if it’s tolerated. Cheating students must be disciplined, but you can also give them a chance to explain themselves to you privately.
That doesn’t mean your punishment has to be any less severe. Academic dishonesty is a serious problem in today’s schools at every level, and high school is a pivotal time in every student’s life.
At no point should they get off the hook for cheating. In fact, “thinking they won’t be held accountable” is a major reason students cheat, according to a Colorado State University study.
But every time you catch a cheating student, you have an outstanding learning opportunity.
Specifically, you can learn:
- Why they did it
- What they used to do it
- How they did it
- Who else was involved
How you proceed from this point is up to you. It’ll differ depending on your school’s policies, your personal sentiment, the student, and the severity of the cheating.
If the student has to be expelled because of a zero tolerance policy, you can’t do much.
If your school has a second chance policy, maybe you have some wiggle room.
Fortunately, you can get a secret weapon in the battle against cheating.
It’s called digital curriculum, and it can absolutely transform the way you work, teach, and even live!
How Digital Curriculum Detects & Prevents Cheating
A digital curriculum is an Internet-based teaching tool that lets you run an entire class from the convenience of a single computer program.
It often includes a learning management system (LMS), pre-made classroom resources, and a whole lot of other features to keep your classroom running smoothly.
Generally speaking, teachers who use digital curriculum cut hours off of their planning and grading time. They get better results from their students in terms of grades too, since a digital curriculum is a key part of a blended learning classroom.
Teachers also get full control over their classroom materials. A digital curriculum can sometimes completely replace your textbook in a classroom.
It also shows you every time a student looks at a lesson, takes a quiz, or completes a test.
In other words, you have documentation whenever your students look at digital curriculum.
If you notice a student logged into your system from their smartphone at 11:13 and you were running a pen-and-paper test from 11:00 to 12:00 that day, you just caught them red-handed!
Patricia Carter uses Business&ITCenter21 to reinforce academic honesty with her students. When a student disputes a grade, she has all the documentation she needs to see whether they’re telling the truth — even if their parents get involved!
That’s the worst-case scenario with digital curriculum, though. It’s actually a huge challenge for students to get answers to quizzes, tests, and homework that’s embedded in a digital curriculum.
A third-party supplier — like Applied Educational Systems — develops, refines, and fully controls everything about the software.
The digital curriculum supplier will listen to the teachers who use it. They’ll hear when a sneaky student has figured out a way to cheat their system, and they’ll refine the system to block them.
It might sound oversimplified, but it really is that easy.
The digital curriculum developer is 100% on your side. They even have secret methods of identifying whether someone using the curriculum is actually a teacher or just a student trying to get answer keys.
(Before you ask: Yes, Applied Educational Systems does this and no, we can’t share how in a blog post.)
Sounds pretty good, right?
But you really don’t know whether digital curriculum is right for you until you try it for yourself.
Fortunately, you can!