Why Do Students Cheat?

Understanding why students commit acts of cheating or plagiarism contributes to efforts for deterring these incidences. Students may intentionally or unintentionally cheat or plagiarize. While many dismiss the act of academic dishonesty with a simplistic: “Students cheat because they are lazy” or “Cheating is easier than working hard to succeed,” the issue of academic dishonesty proves as nuanced as it is persistent. The most common reported reasons that students give for cheating include:

  • Cultures that instill “by any means necessary” attitudes,
  • Pressures to earn and maintain a higher GPA throughout a heavy college course load,
  • Fierce competition for jobs and graduate school,
  • Cultures of cut-paste (file sharing, Google search, Wiki-style internet resources, etc.),
  • Course content not perceived as important or applicable to success, and
  • Time-management difficulties juggling social and work schedules. (Thomas, 2005).

The Carnegie Mellon Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence lists more possible reasons:

  • “having a different understanding of what constitutes academic dishonesty that is not compatible with the instructor’s understanding and policy;
  • feeling that the course/assignment/exam is too difficult and/or the instructor is unfair;
  • feeling a social obligation to help another student cheat or plagiarize;
  • feeling unprepared for an exam or assignment due to poor study skills;
  • feeling anxiety or having low expectations for success on a high-stakes exam or assignment;
  • feeling competitive with other students over grades;
  • perceiving a lack of consequences for cheating or plagiarizing;
  • perceiving that they can commit academic dishonesty without suffering consequences;
  • feeling motivated only to earn grades and having a poor understanding of the relationship between learning and grades; and/or
  • feeling anonymous in class.”

But how big of a problem is academic dishonesty? The New York Times (2003) reported that:

“Thirty-eight percent of the undergraduate students surveyed said that in the last year they had engaged in one or more instances of ''cut-and-paste'' plagiarism involving the Internet, paraphrasing or copying anywhere from a few sentences to a full paragraph from the Web without citing the source…Forty percent of students acknowledged plagiarizing written sources in the last year.”

In his 2004 book The Cheating Culture: Why More Americans Are Doing Wrong to Get Ahead, David Callahan attributes academic dishonesty to cultural messages that favor ruthlessness and competition as the only means to success.

A study by O’Connor (2015) has called this trend “Extreme Plagiarism,” identifying “behaviour that seems to indicate a desire to short-circuit the learning process” by some students “keen, in true Machiavellian style, to pass their subjects by any means possible.” Another study suggests these student habits and attitudes can spiral into dangerous self-deception about their own education and abilities if cheating practices go unchallenged:

"We find that those who exploit opportunities to cheat on tests are likely to engage in self-deception, inferring that their elevated performance is a sign of intelligence. . . Findings show that people not only fail to judge themselves harshly for unethical behavior, but can even use the positive results of such behavior to see themselves as better than ever." (Chance, Norton, Gino & Ariely, 2012)

Other researchers, however, worry that such alarmist figures misrepresent the root problem underlying most cheating practices: a failure to adequately educate students about the importance and benefits of academic integrity. In his 2015 article “Cheating Inadvertently” at the Chronicle of Higher Education, professor and author James Lang finds little consensus across disciplinary boundaries on what constitutes academic dishonesty and this creates confusion for lax student citation practices: “Even faculty members disagreed on when paraphrasing becomes plagiarism,” Lang observes, “How can we expect students to know?” Too many college teachers, it’s suggested, erroneously assume that students have already been fully trained in standards for academic integrity. Thus, inadvertent plagiarism may be a far more common problem than extreme plagiarism.

Such findings echo researchers like Dr. Susan Blum, whose book My Word!: Plagiarism and College Culture (2009) makes the case that academic dishonesty is as much the consequence of shifting educational praxis, rather than simply lax student ethics. As she explains in an essay for The Chronicle of Higher Education:

“All of those trends signal that we need an alternative to the top-down approaches of plagiarism prevention represented by honor codes and rule enforcement. A third strategy treats academic integrity, especially the mandate to cite sources, as a set of skills to be learned. That notion has both philosophical and practical dimensions: Students must be persuaded of the value of citation — which is far from self-evident — and instructed over time in how to do it. …The nuances of citation are complicated, even though we summarize them by saying, ‘Give credit.’ Faculty members in various disciplines differ vastly in their expectations concerning citation and quotation. In engineering, for instance, quotation is not considered desirable, while in the humanities it is expected.” (Blum, 2009: par. 9-10)

Differences in disciplinary expectations of citation, much less overall importance to academic inquiry, is rarely obvious to novice undergraduates. The proactive educational approach recommended here by Blum, and shared by other researchers, views academic integrity as a set of values and skills to be taught and consistently reinforced throughout a lifetime of learning.

Student plagiarism is thus perhaps more often a lapse in judgment or error in application, rather than a defect in character, which is largely due to a lack of adequate instruction and reinforcement. As educators, we need to do a better job of making sure that students understand why academic integrity matters and why cheating does not help them in the long run. Teachers should justify, explain, clarify, and reinforce “best practices” for student success, not just expect them.


Blum, S. D. (2009). Academic Integrity and Student Plagiarism: A Question of Education, Not Ethics. The Chronicle of Higher Education: Commentary. Retrieved from http://www.chronicle.com/article/academic-integritystudent/32323

Callahan, D. (2004). The Cheating Culture: Why More Americans Are Doing Wrong to Get Ahead. Orlando, FL: Harvest Books.

Carnegie Mellon Eberly Center. (n.d.). Students cheat on assignments and exams. Retrieved from http://www.cmu.edu/teaching/solveproblem/strat-cheating/index.html

Chance, Z., Norton, M.I., Gino, F., and Ariely, D. (2012). Temporal view of the costs and benefits of self-deception. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States, 108(3).

Center for Learning Enhancement, Assessment and Redesign. (2016). Teaching Resources for Engaged Educators [online training modules]. Denton, TX: University of North Texas.

Lang, J. (2015, May 4). Cheating Inadvertently. The Chronicle of Higher Education: Advice. Retrieved from http://www.chronicle.com/article/Cheating-Inadvertently/229883/

O'Connor, Z. (2015). Extreme plagiarism: The rise of the e-Idiot? International Journal of Learning in Higher Education, 20(1), 1-11

Rimer, S. (2003, Sept. 3). A Campus Fad That's Being Copied: Internet Plagiarism Seems on the Rise. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2003/09/03/nyregion/a-campus-fad-that-s-being-copied-internet-plagiarism-seems-on-the-rise.html

Thomas, D. (2005). Encouraging Academic Honesty Toolkit. Center for Faculty Development, University of Colorado at Denver. Retrieved from http://www.ucdenver.edu/faculty_staff/faculty/center-for-faculty-development/Documents/academic_honesty.pdf