For more than a decade, I have surveyed high school and college students about cheating, and the findings are discouraging. Many students cheat; cheating is on the rise; students find it easy to rationalize; and many teachers and administrators have given up trying to control it. Few parents discuss the issue at home, and some apply so much pressure to achieve high grades that their children resort to cheating even when they believe it's wrong.
In a recent survey of high school students, 74 percent admitted that they had copied, used forbidden notes or helped someone else cheat on a test. Seventy-two percent acknowledged at least one incident of serious cheating on a written assignment. In a survey of 2,200 students at 21 colleges conducted two years ago, one-third of the students admitted to an incident of serious test cheating; about half admitted to cheating on written assignments. Research shows that the number of students engaging in the most serious forms of test cheating has doubled since the 1960s in high school and college.
Students place the blame for this phenomenon on society and people in positions of authority. Consider the view of this high school junior from Massachusetts: "To be successful in the world today people must cut corners, cheat, and backstab. ... Everybody cheats. Just not everybody gets caught." The view of a student at one of our most prestigious universities is even more telling: "In the real world, there are few rules and people cheat all of the time. It is a very competitive world, and when you are in a competitive environment, you do what it takes to win, whether it be cheating or whatever." Or consider the view of a student at a major university in the west: "Due to the fact that adults ... are unwilling to stand up and be accountable for the truth, as an example to youth, how can we expect the children to do anything else?"
While students have cheated for generations, the ease with which they are able to justify their behavior by blaming it on others is a more recent and worrisome phenomenon. It's even easier when they see teachers and administrators themselves accused of cheating, for example those charged with improperly administering state-mandated standardized math and reading tests in order to boost scores.
Adding to the confusion, what students and teachers view as cheating often differs. Nowhere is this more confusing than with the use of the Internet. Some students view anything on the Internet as public information and feel free to save text from a Web site and "paste" it into an assignment without citing the source. Even when they know this is inappropriate, students believe they are well ahead of teachers when it comes to understanding the Internet, and they see little risk in plagiarizing.
Students also receive mixed messages at home. For example, in a recent survey, one in five high school students acknowledged that they had submitted for credit work that had been done primarily by their parents. While such assistance might be appropriate in elementary school, parents who are doing assignments for children in high school are sending a message that grades are paramount and how you achieve them doesn't matter.
(McCabe is a professor of organization management at Rutgers University.)
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