Cheating: How students decide to resist or yield to temptation

iStock_000015964380XSmallCheating is a pervasive problem in American classrooms. According to some estimates, as many as 80% to 90% of students cheat before high school graduation, with a similar percentage cheating as college undergraduates.

In an article published in Educational Psychologist, Tamera B. Murdock and Eric M. Anderman propose a framework for analyzing the extensive literature on the subject.

The researchers propose that when students are considering cheating they are basically asking themselves three key questions:

• What is my purpose?
• Can I do this?
• What are the costs?

Based on their review of the literature, the researchers conclude that students are more likely to cheat if:

• they are motivated by extrinsic and performance goals, such as needing a certain grade to play on a sports team or get into the right college rather than by an intrinsic desire to master the subject
• they lack confidence in their ability to succeed in a particular academic task, even if they feel confident in other areas
• they feel they can get away with it, that the chances of getting caught are low and the penalties not a major concern

What is my purpose?

Students approach their classroom learning with a range of goals, the researchers note. Some students have a genuine desire to understand (i.e. high intrinsic value, strong mastery or learning goals) and others are more motivated by performance goals, ego goals, and other extrinsic factors. “Conceptually, cheating can be viewed as a viable strategy to attain extrinsic or performance goals,” the researchers write.

In one study of cheating in middle school, students who reported cheating had lower levels of personal mastery goals than non-cheaters and perceived their classrooms as being less focused on mastery. Several studies of college students, based on self-reported cheating, have shown associations among extrinsic and intrinsic goals and cheating–students focused on extrinsic goals are far more likely to cheat.


When students believe they can accomplish an academic task there is little reason for them to cheat. But the researchers note that lack of self-efficacy is a motivation for cheating not just among students in lower-ability tracks. High-achieving students may feel driven to keep up with their highly competent classmates if they lack confidence in a certain subject area. One study of college students reported that the effect of GPA on cheating was small, but that “a lower grade in that specific course was a significant predictor of dishonesty.”

Perceptions that the instructor is unfair can also lead to cheating. In one study, students were asked to read vignettes about students who justified their cheating with a choice of 19 reasons and then to rate the acceptability of those motives. Unfair treatment by the instructor was ranked as one of the five most-cited justifications for cheating.

What are the costs?

Cheating offers a tempting alternative to spending more time studying and doing schoolwork. But students must weigh the costs of getting caught, which can include failing a course, or, at some colleges, losing scholarships or even being dismissed as a student. Other costs can include the student’s diminished self-image.

The researchers note that students are very conscious of how easy or difficult it is to cheat. While personal morality and higher or lower levels of moral reasoning are related to cheating, several studies show that if it is easy to cheat, students are more likely to cheat, whatever their beliefs.


The researchers note that it is not clear how much teachers can reduce cheating by helping students focus more on mastery and less on performance and outcomes. While acknowledging that most schools are competitive to some extent, they note that “instructors can work with students at all levels to focus on individual programs and personal effort.” One way to demonstrate this commitment, the researchers say, is through grading systems that focus on personal improvement and mastery rather than on norm-referenced criteria.

Despite the clear connection between self-efficacy and cheating, many teachers do not consider it during instructional planning, the researchers say. They recommend placing more emphasis on helping students set short-term attainable goals. This  gives students an opportunity to feel a sense of satisfaction, a sense that they have mastered a task and helps reduce their anxiety.

Schools should make the costs of cheating clear to students, the researchers say, and should implement preventative strategies. Spaced seating is a simple but effective strategy. Scrambling both the order of the questions and the order of the answers can be another effective measure, according to one study reviewed by the authors.

Cheaters may justify their actions by blaming others for their actions, including boring or unclear teachers. Educators should institute clear learning objectives and fair assessment procedures to reduce students’ ability to shift blame away from themselves.

Emphasis on self-image

Finally, while they acknowledge that this tactic is not often used in the classrooms, the researchers urge teachers and counselors to encourage students to think about the potential costs to their self-concepts by being clear about what is expected of them. Honor code statements that specify that there is no tolerance for cheating have been found to increase students’ perception of risk, the researchers note.

“Although it would be nice to say that students with a specific set of characteristics cheat, cheating behavior is much more complex,” the researchers conclude. Students who cheat in one class often do not do so in another. When there are incentives to cheat, but few clear consequences, many students, no matter what their values, will be tempted to cheat.


“Motivational Perspectives on Student Cheating: Toward an Integrated Model of Academic Dishonesty,” by Tamera B. Murdock and Eric M. Anderman, Educational Psychologist, Volume 41, Number 3, pps. 129-145.

Published in ERN September 2006 Volume 19, Number 6

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