Motivated to Cheat

By Kevin Bushweller — October 16, 2006 2 min read
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A survey released today by the Josephson Institute of Ethics found that 60 percent of the 36,122 high school students surveyed admitted cheating on a testing once during the past year, 35 percent said they had cheated two or more times, and a third said they had used the Internet to plagiarize a school writing assignment.

The Josephson Institute has released figures on cheating every year since 1992. And, unfortunately, the cynic in me becomes less and less surprised by the seemingly high percentages of high school students who cheat.

That might be, in part, because I examined this topic in significant depth several years ago in a project published in American School Board Journal and sponsored by the Education Writers Association. The research and hundreds of interviews I did with students, teachers, principals, and ethics experts for that project, “Generation of Cheaters”, was the spark that lit the cynicism I now have about the ethics of today’s high school students.

Just the other day, a teenage boy who lives in my county and is a very good student (and a nice kid) told me that “cheating is a skill. It’s something you need to learn how to do well.” Undoubtedly, his perspective troubled me. But it did not surprise me. I had heard similar comments from hundreds of students I have interviewed over the years, for the special project on cheating and for other stories.

Students who cheat are motivated to do it for a number of reasons. At the higher end of the student academic ladder, it is to compete with peers for higher class rank or to earn higher grades and, in turn, get into a better college. At the lower end of the ladder, it is to get by without having done the necessary preparation for a test. And in some cases, cheating is motivated by a basic lack of confidence--a student might see that someone else has a different answer and switch his even though his answer might be correct and the one he is copying is wrong.

Whatever the motivation, I think it stinks that more than half of the high school students surveyed had admitted cheating and more than a third had done it more than once. But it troubles me more that those figures no longer surprise me or other adults. As much as they can, teachers, principals, and parents need to discourage and prevent this type of behavior.

One important lesson I learned in doing my research on cheating is that the kids who don’t cheat are really ticked off that it is so easy for so many others to get away with it. If we begin to lose the ethics of those kids too, that 60 percent cheating figure might be 75 percent in another five years.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Motivation Matters blog.