Why Students Cheat

Students cheat because they’re desperate. This isn’t a mystery novel. No need to bury the lede. Sure, there are other reasons that students cheat—laziness, arrogance, disposable wealth. But these motives are secondary to, and not mutually exclusive from, desperation. For the majority of students who cheat—and for a large percentage who may consider but never actually resort to cheating—the educational experience is shrouded in anxiety, dread, and the feeling of being overwhelmed and underprepared.

Why Students Cheat

Ask the average educator about the problem of underprepared students. Most would no doubt regale you with tales of daily struggle, about the challenge of overcoming student learning deficiencies, unsupported mental health issues, and structural failures in the broader education system.

Now ask the average educator about the problem of cheating. Many teachers can tell you from personal experience that some students are simply dishonest, unmotivated, and unmoved by the honor system.

But how many educators recognize the connection between these two patterns? How many are willing to acknowledge the causal relationship between the former and the latter? And how many are willing to move beyond the punitive approach to academic integrity, to consider a more constructive way that addresses cheating at its root?

Students Are Underprepared and Overwhelmed

If the surveys are to be believed, most students have cheated at least once during their formal education. The International Center for Academic Integrity reports that between 2002 and 2015, 58% of surveyed high school students admitted to cheating on a test, and 64% admitted to committing some form of plagiarism.

As long as we’re throwing stats around, here’s a big one. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, 80% of surveyed students report feeling stressed sometimes or often, with 34% of respondents reporting feelings of depression.

In other words:

  • Students cheat in such large numbers that one could suggest school cheating has achieved mainstream acceptance; and
  • Students are under intense pressure—both struggling students attempting to keep their heads above water and elite students in fierce competition with one another—and the result is a widespread vulnerability to stress, anxiety, depression, fear, and dread.

These are two patterns that most educators intuitively understand. It is less intuitive, perhaps to recognize the connection between these patterns.

During my 10-year career as an academic ghostwriter, I wrote thousands of papers for cheating students. As I got to know the clientele, I noted some common themes. I wrote papers for hundreds of students every semester. On the surface, these students fell into countless different categories: ESL students facing language barriers, adult learners raising kids, average high schoolers muddling through college admission essays, online students completing impersonal computer module courses, Ivy Leaguers overmatched by their course content, doctoral candidates far too deep into the dissertation process to turn back. All were fairly typical customers.

But whatever their personal differences, each of them was just as likely as the other to exhibit or express feelings of stress, anxiety, depression, fear, dread—all symptoms of endemic student despair. Desperation.

But whatever their personal differences, each of them was just as likely as the other to exhibit or express feelings of stress, anxiety, depression, fear, dread—all symptoms of endemic student despair. Desperation.

While researchers don’t always connect these feelings with the act of cheating, students understand the connection quite well. Whether it is ethically right or wrong, many students are overcome by the feeling that cheating is their only option.

Lazy, Arrogant, and Unmotivated Students Can Also Be Desperate

On the surface, students cheat for a lot of reasons that educators would rightly characterize as indefensible. Some students are lazy. Some are arrogant. Some are unmotivated. Many are all three, and these characteristics can be readily spotted in many a cheater. I saw these features constantly in my work as a ghostwriter.

But here’s the thing. That’s just what you can see. The fact that students are lazy, arrogant or unmotivated does not mean they aren’t also desperate. Sometimes, these defense mechanisms are rooted in a hidden kind of desperation.

Desperation is the unspoken root condition shared by too large a number of students to really quantify. It is shared by high achievers and remedial stragglers; by middling students with elevated ambitions and brilliant students facing enormous expectations; by student demographics traditionally classified as at-risk and by student groups whose risk factors are obscured by their privilege.

To the earnest educator, American education is defined by opportunities for enrichment, personal growth, and intellectual enlightenment. But those kinds of opportunities are a relic from a time when only wealthy, white men had access to higher education. Most were born into a kind of comfort that affords the luxury of a Classical education—the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake.

American education is defined by high stakes testing, costly college tuition, and a near-constant emphasis on competition—besting one's peers, gaining access to the limited number of seats at top universities, and emerging with an edge in the job market.

For today’s student, American education is defined by high stakes testing, costly college tuition, and a near-constant emphasis on competition—besting one’s peers, gaining access to the limited number of seats at top universities, and emerging with an edge in the job market.

These observations are not meant as a broadside critique of education in America. This is merely to draw a distinction between the antiquated idea of education for its own sake and the very actual reality thrust upon students today—it’s a sink or swim, dog-eat-dog world out there; you either succeed or fail; either vanquish your fellow classmates or risk one day shining their shoes for a living. This means that wherever students are on their educational journey, and whatever track they find themselves in as they proceed on that journey, the prospect of desperation is very real and therefore so is the allure of cheating.

The Cure is in the Classroom

If you expelled every student that cheated, sued every contract cheating company out of business, and installed a monitoring chip into the brain of every single student with the expressed intent of eliminating the impulse of cheating, you would probably succeed. Schools would be free of cheaters.

But the desperation would remain. This is not to suggest that students shouldn’t face the prospect of punishment. Learning accountability for one’s actions is as important as any lesson one could receive in school.

But addressing this problem in a universally punitive way will not address what’s at the heart of student cheating. In this fantasy world where we’ve eliminated cheating, students may not have the option of cheating, but they’ll be no less desperate. Whatever it cures, this approach would leave struggling students twisting in the wind.

An interesting project from the Harvard Graduate School of Education offers a more nuanced look at student cheating, one that moves beyond the reductive debate over right vs. wrong. Researchers consulted a group of “youth informants,” students from high schools in Texas and Massachusetts, to explore the question of why students cheat. The reasons these informants said they opted to cheat run a wide gamut—from peer pressure and high stakes testing to the apparent desire to seem cool.

But deeper reading suggests these aren’t exactly the reasons students cheat. These are merely the rationalizations supplied, which is not to say that they aren’t true. It’s simply to note that these rationalizations share a common origin in desperation.

According to the Harvard project, students “want teachers to enable ethical behavior through holistic support of individual learning styles and goals. Similarly, researchers describe ‘horizontal support’ as creating ‘a school environment where students know, and can persuade their peers, that no one benefits from cheating,’ again implying that students need help understanding the ethics of cheating. Our youth informants led us to believe instead that the type of horizontal support needed may be one where collective success is seen as more important than individual competition.”

...students “want teachers to enable ethical behavior through holistic support of individual learning styles and goals.”

This observation is worthy of further consideration. Whether the “informant” means to or not, he seems to suggest that schools can’t really justify confronting cheating in strictly ethical terms in their current structure. Where students are pitted against one another in competition, where practical goals far outweigh ethical constructs, where educational experiences are uniform and impersonal, the idea that academic integrity is first and foremost in the minds of students is out of step with everything they’ve been trained to do.

An article in the Chronicle of Higher Education recognizes as much, noting that “students are mostly focused on success and achievement, a bottom-line mentality that has helped them gain admittance to the highly selective institutions that are, in fact, trying to enforce the norms of academic citation. If students pursued education for its own sake — as do most professors — they would try to produce academic work that increases learning and to model their behavior on their professors’. But many students don’t especially value the process of classroom learning — so, in fact, any process will do.”

If you’re looking for some practical tips on exactly how to deal with instances of cheating or plagiarism in your class, this CHE article offers a good starting point. Much of it revolves around acknowledgment that the rules of citation can be somewhat hazy, especially as digital technology shifts the way we use and share intellectual property. There is an appropriate emphasis on helping students improve their own use of information, their ability to conduct research, and their ability to report effectively on this information.

But more than any other steps that can be taken in the classroom, educators need to consider their role in magnifying and perpetuating student desperation. Are there ways to improve outcomes that aren’t academically punitive? Are there ways to encourage students to be their best without pitting them against one another? Are there ways to deemphasize high-stakes evaluation in favor of experience and progress?

To reiterate a point, the era of the Classical Education is long behind us. Students must gain practical skills and meaningful credentials to succeed in their careers and lives. But there must be ways of creating enrichment and encouraging intellectual progress that are both practical and non-punitive. Sam, another of Harvard’s youth informants, observes that “A school where cheating isn’t necessary would be centered around individualization and learning. Students would learn information and be tested on the information. From there the teachers would assess students’ progress with this information, new material would be created to help individual students with what they don’t understand. This way of teaching wouldn’t be based on time crunching every lesson, but more about helping a student understand a concept.”

As a former ghostwriter, I can’t say for certain that such a school would have produced zero customers for my business. But this approach to education would be about as effective a strategy for putting cheating companies out of business as I can think of. Students who are fully supported, who are given the opportunity to struggle and grow without the crushing stigma of bad grades, who have the chance to refine individual learning styles rather than conform to one expected approach—these are students who may also have the support and attention needed to manage and navigate stress, anxiety, and depression.

And if they have this type of support, they have far fewer reasons to cheat. If I’m wrong, and somehow improving outreach to struggling students isn’t the answer to cheating, the worst that can happen is that you’ll actually improve the educational experience, outlook, and outcomes for those students who might otherwise while their education away in quiet desperation.

If you’re interested in diving a little deeper into the student cheating epidemic, check out our article The Student Cheating Surge Lurking in the Shadows of COVID-19.