In recent years, news coverage has focused on the problem of high school and college students cheating on tests and in their coursework. Some believe that failing the ethical standards of their institution is less important than getting the good grade they will receive due to their less-than-honest efforts. To address cheating in college, develop a code of ethics for your classroom and make it clear that the consequences for cheating are severe enough to want to avoid.

Why do students cheat?

Matt Clutch, in his NACADA review of Cheating in College: Why Students Do It and What Educators Can Do about It written by Donald McCabe, Kenneth Butterfield, and Linda Travino, listed major findings the authors discussed in the work:

  • College students develop habits in cheating prior to college.
  • More than 2/3 of college students admit to cheating.
  • Attitudes toward cheating have shifted to make it more socially acceptable.
  • A strong code of ethics can discourage cheating.

Clutch wrote about why the findings are important for academic advisors, who work with students to adjust from a high school mentality (where they already developed attitudes toward cheating) to college. “Advisors to find ways to convey that the definition of cheating is different in college than high school and the penalties much more severe,” Clutch explained.

But why do students cheat? Wilbert J. McKeachie and Marilla Svinicki wrote in McKeachie’s Teaching Tips, 14th edition, “In today’s high-stakes testing environment, where there is such a strong emphasis on grades, students believe there is a large reward for success at any cost.” (97)

How do we address cheating?

According to Clutch, McCabe et. al., promote the idea of developing a strict code of ethics in the classroom to deter cheating behaviors. McKeachie also broke down some ideas for addressing cheating:

  • Reduce the pressure. You can’t change the atmosphere of all of academia. “You can influence the pressure in your own course … by providing opportunities for students to demonstrate achievement of course goals, rather than relying on a single examination.” (98)
  • Discuss the issue. Talk to your students about the code of ethics for your course. Include that information right in the syllabus.
  • Test to what you teach. Some students develop frustration when assignments are too long and broad or tests cover information that feels irrelevant to the course goals. Limit writing assignments to topics that students can cover with confidence. Make sure your tests are both reasonable and interesting.
  • “Develop group norms supporting honesty.” (98) McKeachie does this by having students vote on whether tests will be conducted using the honor system The conversation opens up the topic of academic honesty and the importance of ethical standards.
  • Identify students who are not performing well in the course and speak to them outside of the classroom. Students who are not doing well will feel greater pressure to succeed and may decide to risk cheating more readily than others who are already performing well.

This last is not a guarantee, of course; studies have shown that even high-performing students are prone to cheating behaviors in order to maximize their test scores. And students are increasingly prone to cheating if they see peers cheat, not get caught, and receive higher grades. It can be hard to change peer acceptance of cheating, but changes in those attitudes, developed before college, are needed in order to develop ethical standards that will stick with college students through their academic careers and beyond.

Reference: McKeachie, Wilbert J. and Marilla Svinicki. 2014. McKeachie’s Teaching Tips, 14th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

How do you develop a code of ethics for our course? What steps can professors take to change student attitudes toward cheating? Let us know your thoughts or concerns on this topic in the comments.