Why Students Cheat

By David Smetters, CEO, Respondus

We often promote Respondus LockDown Browser with the line: “Most students don’t cheat during online tests. But those who do, spoil it for the rest.”

There isn’t hard data to back this claim. But all instructors have had classes where the dysfunctional behavior of a student (be it disruptions, extreme apathy, or cheating) poisons the classroom environment. Maybe poison is too strong of a word, but most will agree that the actions of one or two students can make the difference between an awesome class and an awful one.

To understand cheating better, we need only to turn to basic social science theories. Economists say that cheating and stealing is a cost-benefit analysis — people weigh the probability of getting caught against the benefit of cheating or stealing. Simple enough.

But behavioral economist Dan Ariely points out a few bugs in this theory. Research shows that, in fact, a large percentage of people are willing to cheat, but just by a little bit. The reason they cheat by only a little bit is because they don’t want to think of themselves as cheaters. Ariely refers to this as a “personal fudge factor,” an allotment we give ourselves for cheating and stealing.

It’s easy to think of everyday examples of the fudge factor, whether it’s bringing home pens from work, driving a little over the speed limit, spending time on Facebook while being paid to do something else, and so on. We don’t consider these behaviors significant forms of cheating and stealing — and hence, the chocolately moniker.

Ariely’s research points to two additional factors that affect whether someone cheats or steals. The first is whether a person’s moral compass is put on alert ahead of a situation where cheating might occur. For example, the simple task of having students sign an honor code prior to taking an assessment will significantly reduce the incidence of cheating.

The second factor is whether we see others in our “in-group” cheating or stealing. That is, if peers with whom we identify are cheating and stealing, we are more likely to do it ourselves.

While the results of this research aren’t particularly startling, they provide a nice starting point for a discussion about cheating in online learning. Consider these three points:

#1 – A lot of students cheat a little bit.
A little bit of cheating might consist of writing a paper and intentionally omitting citations, using Google to look up an answer during an online test, probing a classmate who took an exam ahead of you about the questions, referencing someone else’s year-old homework for the same class, and so forth. While some educators say this type of behavior isn’t so bad because it ultimately leads to learning, the bottom line is that a lot of students are doing it. They are cheating a little bit.

#2 – Students weigh the risk of cheating against the benefit.
As the benefit of cheating increases, so is the likelihood that students will try to cheat. Cheating is also more likely to occur as the risk of getting caught decreases. This suggests that a student is more likely to cheat on a high stakes exam, opposed to a 5-point quiz. Likewise, a student taking an online exam in a proctored environment is less likely to cheat than in a non-proctored one (because there is more risk of getting caught in the former situation).

#3 – Students are more likely to cheat if other students cheat.
I refer back to our marketing promotion for LockDown Browser: “Most students don’t cheat during online tests. But those who do, spoil it for the rest.” If a student takes an online exam in a classroom setting where classmates are Googling for answers and opening documents they shouldn’t, it doesn’t take long for cheating to become endemic.

When the last two items are combined, you have a recipe for trouble. If students are openly cheating and nobody is getting caught (i.e. the risk is minimal), it fuels the dysfunctional behavior in a class. Indeed, it becomes the norm. “I’m just doing what everyone else is doing. Besides, it’s necessary to cheat to keep up with others,” or so the mind rationalizes.

The recent cheating scandal by crew members of a U.S. Navy submarine illustrates this point. Widespread cheating was occurring with the crewmen, so there was undoubtedly a sense that nobody would be caught. In turn, an atmosphere was created that you must cheat to keep up with peers. Over time, cheating became the norm, it became acceptable. The moral line was blurred, the poison spread. And, ultimately, the careers of many sailors were sunk.

While the marketer in me wants to conclude with some mention of how Respondus LockDown Browser combats cheating, I’ll refrain. You’d be too savvy for it anyway. I respect your intelligence and wouldn’t try something so simple and manipulative as promoting a fine product like LockDown Browser in this manner.

I suddenly find myself craving a piece of chocolate.