The Student Cheating Surge Lurking in the Shadows of COVID-19

Educators are worried that student cheating is on the rise in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis. With students and educators both adjusting to online learning, it’s true that cheating is easier than ever before. But there’s another kind of cheating epidemic that may be brewing beneath the surface. With the pandemic’s massive disruption of formal education, countless students are falling behind or falling through the cracks altogether. How many of these struggling students will contribute to a surge in cheating in the coming years?

The Student Cheating Surge Lurking in the Shadows of COVID-19

“I have a thesis statment [sic] and title, this is kind of where I am going and I was going to maybe touch on the high volume of nursing homes in the area. It is a research paper, I’m desperate! I’ve never used this before. Will my professor have access to this at all, I heard of teachers using some sort of tool to know that the student didn’t write it. Thanks.”

The message above is well over a decade old. On its face, it has nothing to do with the COVID-19 pandemic or the educational crisis that has followed. But within are clues about where we could be headed as life does return to normal.

This is a message I received from a paying customer during my time as a cheater-for-hire. I used to get 10 messages a week like this. From 2000 to 2010, I worked full-time as a custom paper writer, serving as an independent contractor for several online essay mills. Students at every level paid me to write their homework assignments, research papers, college admission essays, theses, and dissertations.

I was a full-time student (minus the classroom, teachers, or grades). I was pursuing about a dozen different degrees at any given time. So naturally, I learned a lot. But what I learned most of all was that our schools are filled to the brim with desperate students. Whether the reason was a learning deficiency, language barrier, mental health challenge, or pressing personal obligation, my customers, more often than not, were truly struggling.

Fast-forward a decade and a year. The COVID-19 pandemic is the single most consequential disruption to American education in modern history. By April of 2020, physical learning spaces had been shuttered, students and teachers were forced into remote learning without planning or preparation, and the critical support services that students can access only in school, such as guidance counseling, mental health support, and meal programs, were ripped away.

The COVID-19 pandemic is the single most consequential disruption to American education in modern history.

According to the Economic Policy Institute, “the virus consigned nearly all of over 55 million U.S. school children under the age of 18 to staying in their homes, with 1.4 billion out of school or child care across the globe (NCES 2019a; U.S. Census Bureau 2019; Cluver et al. 2020). Not only did these children lack daily access to school and the basic supports schools provide for many students, but they also lost out on group activities, team sports, and recreational options such as pools and playgrounds.”

The smoke hasn’t yet cleared from this crisis. Some students have returned to the classroom but many have not. We don’t yet know just how extensive the learning loss has been during this time, just how much wider the opportunity gap has grown for disadvantaged students, just how many at-risk students have been thrown off track. We have some clues, but only time will reveal these impacts. And as it does, we might expect to see a growing set of students suffering all manner of desperation. These desperate students will not all resort to cheating. But experience and history tell us that many will.

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Why do students cheat?

There are a lot of answers to this question, of course. Some do it because they’re lazy. Some do it because they feel disengaged from the material, the assignment, the educator, or the course itself. Some do it because they believe that cheating can improve their performance outcomes.

But the truth is, these reasons are all secondary. In reality, the vast majority of students who cheat do so because they are struggling in one way or another. They do it because they’re in over their heads, and they see no other option. They face academic, mental health, and practical challenges that stand in the way–and not just in the way of their educational success, but in the way of their educational survival.

As an educator, you are free to withhold sympathy from your cheating students, but it may prevent you from seeing what is really at the root of it for so many. Presume that most of these students wouldn’t cheat if they felt they had a choice. It’s also worth noting that the lazy, disengaged, and performance-enhancing cheaters among us can just as well be struggling and desperate students. In the Venn Diagram of prospective cheaters, there are those who fit neatly into the space where every circle overlaps.

As an educator, you are free to withhold sympathy from your cheating students, but it may prevent you from seeing what is really at the root of it for so many.

Regardless of the personality type, or the specifics of their various predicaments, my contract cheating clients most often shared a single trait. They were quick to describe themselves, or present themselves, or even unwittingly demonstrate themselves as desperate. They were desperate to pass a class, preserve their financial investment in a higher education, or just desperate to be relieved of an assignment beyond their wherewithal. The contract cheating business is sustained by this desperation.

In the wake of the COVID crisis, the number of students who will describe themselves as desperate has almost certainly grown. And as learning losses become more apparent, as the number of students falling behind and falling through the cracks increases, as the opportunity and achievement gaps widen, this desperation will only grow.

Certainly, this doesn’t mean that every desperate student will cheat. Nor—given this desperation—should cheating be considered anywhere close to the biggest challenge faced by educators today. But based on what we know about cheating, and the forces that foster this behavior, a new wave of prospective cheaters is coming.

Let this be a warning to educators. Among the many consequences of the COVID-19 crisis will be a new upswell of academic dishonesty—the kind bred from despair.

Is a cheating explosion lurking in the shadows of the pandemic?

Teachers have, in fact, already expressed concern that the move to remote learning has caused a surge in cheating. An article in the Wall Street Journal from December 2020 observed that a larger number of students than ever before viewed cheating as an acceptable response to their current academic reality. Cheating is at once easier, says the Journal, and more pragmatic, in our current educational limbo.

With students and educators thrust involuntarily into remote education, twin phenomena assured an increase in cheating. First, cheating is a great deal easier on a practical level. Reports abound of students leaning on resources like Google, FaceTime and their work-from-home parents to navigate imperfectly proctored online tests. Absent the traditional methods of observation, teachers administering these tests must rely on a patchwork of strategies for oversight. These strategies are highly variant depending on a given school district’s technological resources.

Of course, the goal is to get our students back into physical classrooms. And this is already beginning to happen in fits and starts. When this does happen, students will no longer be able to shelter their cheating methods behind a remote screen, nor will they have their parents whispering helpful suggestions into their ears. For most, it’s back to the traditional methods of crib-sheeting and peeking at other students’ test sheets. And given the higher risks of detection posed by these old-school strategies, it’s reasonable to assume that many of the newcomers to the world of cheating will soon return to their normal state of relative adherence to the honor code.

Students will no longer be able to shelter their cheating methods behind a remote screen, nor will they have their parents whispering helpful suggestions into their ears.

At the risk of being dismissive, I don’t believe this is the kind of cheating that should concern us much going forward. In a year of dramatic irregularities, we could chalk some of these behaviors up to extraordinary circumstances. Students would hardly be the only part of the population just skating by over the last 12 months.

This is not the cheating explosion lurking in the shadows. Indeed, this type of cheating is front and center, and likely only a temporary phenomenon. Obscured are those who are falling behind.

How obscured? The Brookings Institute, in December 2020, released an assessment of learning outcomes among students in grades 3-8. The findings were mixed. There was some evidence of learning loss, especially in mathematics. But the declines in performance, according to the MAP® Growth™ reading and math assessments from fall of 2020, were not as dire as anticipated.

Far more troubling was the finding that “approximately one in four students who tested within these schools in fall 2019 are no longer in our sample in fall 2020. This is a sizeable increase from the 15% attrition from fall 2018 to fall 2019. One possible explanation is that some students lacked reliable technology. A second is that they disengaged from school due to economic, health, or other factors. More coordinated efforts are required to establish communication with students who are not attending school or disengaging from instruction to get them back on track, especially our most vulnerable students.”

What is happening to these students right now? And when we get them back on track, what are the challenges that await them? How deeply will these challenges be magnified by more than a year of disruption?

As we discussed in our article, Online Education and COVID-19: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, the pandemic has certainly imposed challenges on students at every level. But those who are already disadvantaged, at-risk, or struggling with learning deficits have seen a magnification of these realities. With the COVID crisis, students who have a heightened need for one-on-one instruction, academic support, behavioral oversight, mental health counseling, learning intervention, or disability assistance have been forced to navigate the virtual landscape without the proper resources or infrastructure.

A few findings highlighted from our feature on Online Education and COVID-19:

USA Today reports that “in high-poverty schools, 1 in 3 teachers report their students are significantly less prepared for grade-level work this year compared with last year, according to a report by the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research institution. Class failure rates have skyrocketed in school systems from Fairfax County, Virginia, to Greenville, South Carolina. Fewer kindergarteners met early literacy targets in Washington, D.C., this fall. And math achievement has dropped nationwide, according to a report that examined scores from 4.4 million elementary and middle school students.”

1 in 3 teachers report their students are significantly less prepared for grade-level work this year compared with last year...

Moreover, USA Today reports that, in the absence of in-class education, schools with disadvantaged populations are seeing a frightening decline in their capacity to track the whereabouts of at-risk students. “Tens of thousands of children are unaccounted for altogether,” says USA Today. “Hillsborough County, Florida, started the year missing more than 7,000 students. Los Angeles saw kindergarten enrollment drop by about 6,000. There’s scant data about missing students’ progress, of course, but few presume they’re charging ahead academically.”

The same article also warns that “Children with disabilities and those learning English [who] have particularly struggled in the absence of in-class instruction. Many of those students were already lagging academically before the pandemic. Now, they’re even further behind – with time running out to meet key academic benchmarks.”

Why does any of this matter in a conversation which is ostensibly about the ethical and practical realties of cheating? Because, as we’ve noted from the outset, neither the moral ambiguity or practical ease of cheating are more compelling forces than sheer desperation.

In the coming years, this desperation will be felt in myriad ways. The coming surge in cheating will be–as it has always been–a mere symptom of this desperation.

What can educators do?

The Wall Street Journal points to an array of strategies that teachers and schools are employing to better deter, detect, and enforce violations of the honor code. From video monitoring during testing and online proctoring systems that prevent the opening of other windows to strict time limits on test questions, schools do have technology-based options at their disposal to reduce the likelihood of cheating.

Of course, the availability of these resources is highly variable from one district to another. More universally available, and likely more constructive, are the efforts put forth by educators to adapt to the changing environment. Some educators have moved from multiple choice testing to open-ended questioning, demanding that their students provide responses in their own words. Some have replaced traditional testing with the student submission of video-recorded answers to individual exam questions. Others have simply leaned into the challenge by allowing for open-note exams, and adapting the format of testing to reflect this approach.

Each of these strategies shows an intuitive recognition that changing circumstances demand changing strategies, not just for evaluation, but for connecting with students and encouraging their engagement. However, none of them confronts the true challenge that we’re about to face. Getting students back on track will reveal just how many have fallen off, and just how far they’ve fallen.

Getting students back on track will reveal just how many have fallen off, and just how far they've fallen.

Struggling students have always represented a significant portion of the learning population. The economic success of the contract cheating business proves as much. That portion will now be larger than ever before, which means the pool of prospective cheaters will be larger than ever before.

This means that the only real strategy for preempting the coming surge in cheating is through outreach and intervention. We need to identify struggling students before they become desperate cheaters. The process of bringing our students back into the classrooms must include extensive academic support, personal engagement, reinstatement of support services, readily available mental health counseling, and engagement of parents, communities, and public support services.

It may also require us to reorient our general attitude toward cheating, which should certainly be met with policy, monitoring, and enforcement. But knowing what we know, both about what factors lead to cheating, and what our students have been through over the last year, we need to balance our suspicion with some measure of sympathy.

Reducing the number of prospective cheaters in education means giving help and hope to the desperate, whose numbers have surely grown this year.

If you’d like to learn more about how COVID-19 has affected the education landscape, check out these articles: