It’s Obvious Why Students Cheat; We Just Can’t Agree on the Reason

If you love cringes – and hey, who doesn’t? – then walk into a school and try to start a conversation about cheating.

Depending on the school, I suspect you’ll find a superficial consensus (cheating is terrible! and, thankfully, our students do it very rarely!) masking deep rifts. Is the problem with cheating that it undercuts your own learning? That it steals glory from classmates in the zero-sum competition for grades? That it betrays the teacher’s trust? Are all acts of cheating equally terrible, and if not, what does that mean for “zero tolerance” policies?

We all know cheating is bad. But we seem unable to talk honestly about why.

So, I offer up these dialogue-starting cartoons, a few badly drawn meditations on the most basic question: Why do students cheat?


Is cheating a crime of character, or of opportunity?

Talking to teachers, I find they talk a lot about virtues like honesty and integrity. Good students have ’em, and cheaters don’t.

Talking to students, you hear a lot more about circumstance. “I wasn’t sure how to do it.” “I was just looking over to check my answer.” Cheaters are people who work hard at their lies; so if my copying is effortless and victimless, then how can I be a cheater?


Moral intuition is a funny thing.

If I hurt someone else to help myself, you’ll probably judge me morally deficient. Fair enough. But I’m willing to wager that your judgment depends heavily on one detail:

Am I harming that person in order to fulfill a wish, or merely to relieve a pain?

Harming someone else to bring myself joy (e.g., stealing money so I can buy a fancy car, or beating someone up so I can gain status among my friends) makes me an antisocial jerk. But harming someone else to spare myself harm (e.g., stealing money so I can afford painkilling medication, or beating someone up to avoid a beating from my “friends”) is more sympathetic. The former is moral black; the latter, moral gray.



In many classrooms, teachers would have you believe that cheating is a rare and terrible crime, like a small-town homicide. When it happens, it is so horrible and conspicuous that the criminal is brought to swift and certain justice.

There’s no two ways about it: So far as I can tell, that’s wrong. Cheating happens in every school. It’s the nature of an educational system where the assessments are both high-stakes and game-able.

Meanwhile, though, students (especially those caught in the act) would have you believe that the whole class was doing it, that cheating (particularly on homework) is as mundane as going 3mph over the speed limit.

This, also, strikes me as wrong. Cheating may be everywhere, but it ain’t everyone.


Sometimes students are lazy. I know this because students are people, and I am a people, and sometimes I am too lazy even to decide whether I am plural or singular.

But sometimes students are bewildered and afraid to ask.

I know this because… well, students are people.


One of the most fascinating justifications I’ve heard from a cheating student (via anonymous online op-ed, not in person) is that he felt perfectly righteous in cheating whenever he felt his teachers were failing to educate him.

The logic is pretty simple: “You cheated me first. I owe you nothing.”

I can think of counter-arguments. But to me, it’s a reminder that those arguments are necessary. Even to bright students, the “wrongness” of cheating isn’t self-evident.20170330153747_00011

It’s lovely to think that students are driven by curiosity alone.

It’s also lovely to think that Flintstones cars are driven by motors.

But look down at those little scurrying feet, and you’ll see what’s really providing the forward momentum. Grades are so economically important that, for most kids, they are inevitably the primary carrot and the #1 stick.

“They only care about grades” isn’t a fair knock on students, any more than “They only want to work here because we’ll pay them” is a fair knock on job applicants.

22 thoughts on “It’s Obvious Why Students Cheat; We Just Can’t Agree on the Reason

  1. My college prof would ask his students to grade themselves at the end of the term. Only ONE ever gave themselves a higher grade than was earned by looking at their test scores, homework and projects. This contradicts the idea that ‘students are cheats’.

  2. All of the reasons used to oppose cheating suggest that they are “rationales.” They are reasons that we tell ourselves, but they are not the real reason. Perhaps the real reason stems from a broader social perspective.

    If one looks at the education system as a whole, one sees that the more cheating there is, the worse the system operates. I believe it would be easy to show that massive cheating undermines the education system. Perhaps this is the reason that schools oppose cheating.

    On the other hand, students are not likely to avoid cheating just because it hurts the education system. As educators, we need to motivate students to avoid cheating, and it helps to have a compelling reason, or two, or three, or …. So, we develop the arguments against cheating.

  3. “Cheating happens in every school. It’s the nature of an educational system where the assessments are both high-stakes and game-able.”


    …which also explains why so many schools cheat.

  4. “They only care about grades” isn’t a fair knock on students, any more than “They only want to work here because we’ll pay them” is a fair knock on job applicants.

    That’s dead-on. And a telling commentary on the value we’ve given “education.”

  5. Do we all know cheating is bad? Life cheats all the time because it is a low cost solution to a problem. We, as humans, cheat all the time to. I make TV dinner, I am cheating since I do not have to cook it from scratch. My fast thinking processes wants to say that the baseball is 10 cents, if the bat and the baseball are a dollar and ten cents and the bat costs a dollar more than the bat, because I am trying to cheat and get a fast answer.

    And in life how many times have we done to reference works to get some information instead of working it out, how many times do we go to the memorized formula’s instead of deriving from scratch again.

    So if cheating isn’t necessarily bad the question becomes how is it harming the students to copy someone else’s work without understanding how the other student got their answer??

    Thank you for a wonderful and thoughtful post.

  6. When looking over tests, students generally do not have a way of looking at the questions they got right that they did not know the answer to (as far as I am aware). However, they do look at the questions they got wrong, some of which they did know the answer to. I wonder if this causes students in general to have some belief that they deserve a higher grade than they get, in the sense that they would get higher grades on average if they answered every question they knew correctly and every question they did not incorrectly (although grade inflation complicates the matter).

    Of note is that, at least on a multiple choice test with 5 choices, the chance that the student gets a question right without any knowledge of the answer is 20%. So, if a student has a 95% chance of getting a question right that he knows, then if the student knows less than 80% of the test, he will on average get higher grade than he deserves, but if he knows more than 80% of the test, then he will on average get a lower grade than he deserves.

    If c is the chance that a student gets correct a question he knows and w is the chance that he gets correct a question he does not know, and x is the proportion of the test he knows, then the grade he will receive on average is cx+w(1-x)=w+x(c-w). Cheating increases w and also c, studying increases mostly x but also c and some w. I wonder if teaching strategies to increase w would decrease cheating…

  7. A few more thoughts.

    If the student doesn’t have the choice to take or not take this class, it is not reasonable to expect them to achieve based solely on a desire to learn or curiosity. Face it, they didn’t ask to be there, and may not care about the subject material as much as the teacher might. It may well be the case that grade IS the only thing that matters.

    Students are selfish… of course they are selfish. Everyone is selfish. That is how you get what you want in this world. Our whole socio-economic philosophy takes a person’s desire to pursue the self-interest.

    You are “the man.” And kids will go to great lengths to get one over on “the man.” I can remember cheaters going to far greater efforts to pull-off a good cheat than it would have been to merely study. The trickster / prankster / con-artist is a hero.

    It give status to the “honest student” to help his friends to cheat. There is a cheating conspiracy.

    Kids are constantly testing limits and boundary, and cheating is one more boundary to test.

    When feasible let the students have more resources at their disposal, notes, books, calculators, etc. It is tougher to cheat that way.

  8. Came home from school today in a dark blue, navy perhaps, funk. My seniors are in the cheating mode as there are just a few weeks of school left and they must graduate. I’ve heard the ‘I wanted to help him out’ version and the ‘I have so much to do with sports, work, theater, AP classess…’ version. I tell them they offend my intelligence to think I don’t notice 4 of the same thing getting turned in. (We all laugh at this.) I say, ‘You are cheating yourself out of the education’ but who is right? We, the education system, tout the big tests and teachers are forced to teach to that test and students ask, ‘when are we going to learn something’ in response. I want to find a new way to do this thing we call classroom learning but the observation system says I must do it their way. I want the classroom to be a place where cheating doesn’t have to happen, just joy in learning. I’m still working on that… Thanks for posting this – I’m fading down to something closer to baby blue for having read! Jilly

  9. I was an AmeriCorps tutor a couple years ago. At one point, I caught a student cheating, and I was thrilled because he finally cared enough to cheat. Before that, he just wrote “IDK” (I don’t know) on all the questions.

    When I was in high school, an obnoxious kid was obviously copying my test. A real easy one in health class. One question was (I’m not making this up) “T/F Smoking is good for you.” I answered every question wrong, and when the other guy handed in his paper I erased my whole test and started over. The teacher mentioned to the class that he’d never had anybody score a perfect zero on that test before.

  10. My experience with cheating is this:

    I actually did it regularly because I discovered that if I wrote facts on a small paper beforehand, I would never actually need it because I was still remembering them. So, the notes stayed in my pocket, but technically it was cheating to even bring them. But they kept me calmer, so there is that….

    The one time I was actually accused of cheating, I didn’t do it. My teacher thought I did because I misspelled a word exactly like the one beside me. Thing is, I was really bad in French and she wasn’t, so naturally I got the veiled accusation. But it was kind of logical to misspell the word this way, so the while thing was most likely just a coincidence. I’m still bothered by the unfairness of it all.

  11. As Doug pointed out, the wild card here is that students will often be in classes they don’t want to be in, don’t care about, and will probably never make use of again. But they need a good grade in that class to get into the college they want.

    Looking at it from that perspective – you’re there against your will, forced to do something you don’t want to for a reason you don’t care about and will probably be irrelevant in the long run.

    The only good reason NOT to cheat is the risk of getting caught.

  12. A teacher once accused me of cheating on an essay, which we wrote in class, because she couldn’t believe a 4th grader knew so much about the subject. Instead of being proud of my work, I was angry at teachers.

    I didn’t cheat in school because even in those subjects I struggled with, I was always arrogant enough to believe I was better than those students who sat near me.

  13. I’m appalled that people on this site think that not wanting to be in a class is justification for cheating. I was taught that you never know when or how you might use something you learn, so you should always do your best to learn it. And besides, it is not fair to other students who work hard to achieve their grades honestly to cheat. And yes, it is incredibly disrespectful to the teacher. Having been a teacher before, any kind of cheating is the kind of thing that keeps you up at night, makes you want to cry, makes you wonder whether your job is worth it, etc… If you think the teacher isn’t doing a good job teaching or an assignment is meaningless, you should go talk to them, not cheat on the assignment. In the long run, integrity is way more important than one grade in one class. A huge part of school is learning how to have a good work ethic, how to be faithful, how to endure things you don’t like. It’s about building character and skills, not just the subject matter at hand. Those things are good for ANY job and life in general.

    1. I think you misunderstand the other commenters. I don’t think they accept coercion as a *justification* for cheating: they have the compassion to understand why a pupil would see it that way and are resigned to the reality that mostly-reasonable kids will fall into this error. We live in a culture that tells us all (over and over) that what matters is results. We should not be surprised when some take that message at face value, ignoring all the other things that (in fact) do matter, but that get less air-time.

      I’d like to recaption the last picture above – the same as the one before it. The teacher thinks students cheat because all they care about is grades. The students cheat because, as far as they can see, all “they” care about is grades – and “they” here means the education system, potential employers, parents and everyone else they get to interact with. You and I may understand that this is a dreadful waste of an education – the most important parts of which are learning to learn, discovering how to be a person with self-respect; the details of particular subjects studied in school are secondary (once you can learn, you can pick up things the school sylabus lacked) – but the practical reality that kids are faced with claims (very convincingly) that the only thing that matters is grades.

      Seen in that light, the reason kids cheat in school is the same as the reason corporate raiders cheat in business: if you keep saying that only the bottom line matters, you’ll foster a culture that favours those who “improve” the bottom line “by any means necessary” – which tends to mean: by any means they can get away with.

Leave a Reply