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Minnesota State University, Mankato
Minnesota State University, Mankato

Academic Dishonesty

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One of the perennial issues in higher education is that of academic dishonesty by students. Most faculty are reluctant to think much about the issue. Yet most surveys of students indicate the widespread use and toleration of cheating on college campuses. A recent survey found that 1/3 of all students admitted to cheating on an examination, 1/2 admitted to cheating on a class assignment, 2/3 admitted to cheating at least once during their college career, and 2/3 have seen classmates cheat on exams or assignments. Paradoxically, 3/4 of those in that survey believe that cheating is not justified under any circumstances. Finally, 1/2 of the students surveyed believe that the faculty of their university do not try to catch cheaters.

This newsletter will address several issues surrounding the topic of academic dishonesty. What are the reasons that students cheat? Who are the students most lik ely to cheat? What are the institutional constraints and institutional incentives when it comes to cheating by students? What can be done to reduce the incidence of cheating both in the individual college classroom and the university in general?

The Two Dimensions of Cheating

Almost all of the research surrounding academic dishonesty has fallen into one of two dimensions. The majority of the research has focused on individual factors correlated with cheating. This research ends up painting a kind of offender profile by emphasizing the typical characteristics of those most likely to cheat. Below is a discussion of some of the characteristics linked to cheating and a review of some of the research results.

Individual Characteristics

  1. Gender. Of the four recent studies that included gender as a possible explanatory variable for cheating, three studies found that males were more likely to cheat while one study found no significant correlation of gender and academic dishonesty.
  2. Grade Point Average. Five recent statistical studies found a significant negative correlation between cheating and GPA. That is, poorer students with lower GPA's tend to be more likely to cheat. Two other studies, however, found no statistically significant correlation of student GPA and academic dishonesty.
  3. Resident Member of Fraternity or Sorority. All four of the recent studies that included this characteristic discovered a positive correlation between cheating and student residence in a fraternity or sorority house. The increased opportunity for collusion, personal friendships, and the tendency for more time spent away from academics increased the likelihood of academic dishonesty.
  4. Years in School. Many recent studies have explored the relationship between a student's years in school and the propensity to cheat. Some have reasoned that, with graduation approaching, students would have more to lose and would be less likely to cheat. Other researchers have hypothesized that upper-level students are more adept at cheating which would increase the frequency of academic dishonesty for them. Statistical results from these studies have proved inconclusive. Two studies found that juniors and seniors were more likely to cheat while one study found that first year students and sophomores were more likely to engage in cheating. Two other studies found that there was no statistically significant relationship between years in school and cheating behavior.
  5. Other Variables. Studies have also included other variables that could be linked to the incidence of cheating. For example, one recent study found a weak but positive link between cheating and students whose parents attended college. Another study found that students who actually observed others cheating or even just believed that others in the class were cheating also tended to cheat. Another result from another study found that answer copying on examinations is positively related to the degree of friendship, that is, friends tend to copy from friends. Finally, another recent research article discovered a positive correlation between cheating and the level of consumption of alcoholic beverages.

The various reasons that students give for cheating can also be instructive in obtaining a picture of academic dishonesty. Gleaned from a variety of sources, the list of student reasons for cheating given below is meant to be illustrative rather than exhaustive:

  1. Today's generation of student has less of an attachment to the institution so that cheating is more impersonal and seen as less painful because of this detachment.
  2. The difficult job market places a premium on a high grade point average so that any means necessary will be employed to achieve and maintain good grades.
  3. Some students believe that professors are cheating them in the classroom by shirking their teaching responsibilities. Therefore, students come to believe that turnabout is fair play.
  4. New entering students find themselves in courses beyond their capability so they resort to cheating to succeed in the course.

The metaphors and social constructs provided by students in surveys can also provide insight into the rationale for academic dishonesty. In one recent study, students used the following metaphors for cheating:

  1. Cheating is just a game, so that it is not important how you win but what is important is that you win.
  2. Cheating is an addiction. Once a student has successfully cheated in some academic context, the urge to continue can become addicting.
  3. Cheating is an easy out. Rather than working hard to master the material, a student can be tempted to use the shortcut of academic dishonesty.
  4. Cheating is a personal dilemma. Students do not begin to cheat because they are ignorant of the potential consequences. Rather the decision to cheat is a difficult decision for most students.
  5. Cheating is theft. The act of cheating robs the institution, the professor, the cheating student, and the other students.
  6. Cheating is a team effort. Cheating does not occur in a vacuum. Where there is a culture that condones cheating and where a student sees other students cheating, academic dishonesty is more likely to flourish.

Institutional Environment

The second dimension of cheating has been an increased focus of study and recommendations in the literature. Many authorities believe that this second dimension carries as much explanatory power as the first dimension of individual but includes a much more powerful possibility for the effective deterrence of cheating. The overall academic climate at an institution can be critical. If the college or university can develop a sense of community, of shared intellectual purpose and excitement, then academic dishonesty will find it difficult to thrive in that environment. There must be some common sense of integrity that pervades the institution. Various authors who have examined this dimension have suggested strategies and techniques that can begin to build this sense of integrity and shared purpose. Some of these suggestions are:

  1. There must be consistent and vocal support for the concept of academic integrity. It should be clear to the students as soon as they arrive on campus that the institution has high expectations as a community of scholars and that violations of this ethos will not be tolerated.
  2. A highly publicized and well-known code of academic integrity is crucial in developing this sense of shared values. But this code of conduct must be the joint product of students, faculty, and administrators so that everyone has ownership of the code. Such a code can make expectations and norms clear and can provide a clear standard by which to judge behavior. Most studies are especially adamant in their insistence that students must be involved from the beginning if any honor code or student code of conduct is to be effective in changing the norms and the culture on campus.
  3. Since one of the most important determinants of student cheating is the belief or perception that everyone else is already cheating, "An institution's ability to develop a shared understanding and acceptance of its academic integrity policies has a significant and substantive impact on student perception of their peer's behavior, the most powerful influence on self-reported cheating." (McCabe and Trevino, p.533)


Based on all these studies, what can we do to reduce the amount of academic dishonesty on college campuses? Two avenues are suggested by the literature: the classroom environment and the campus environment.

In the classroom, the following suggestions are relevant:

  1. Increased Use of Essay Examinations and Questions. Research indicates that the only commonly used deterrent for cheating on examinations that is consistently effective is the use of essay questions.
  2. Random Seating for Examinations. Since students tend to sit near their friends or become friendly with those sitting near them during the term, allowing students to sit in their usual seats during the examination increases the likelihood of answer sharing or copying.
  3. Widely Spaced Seating During Exams. Here again the goal is to change the incentives for cheating. Research indicates that, if students believe others are cheating, they themselves are more likely to cheat. One study found that even students with strong moral compasses are more inclined to cheat when both the temptation and opportunity are present. Separating test takers will serve to reduce some of their incentives and motivations to cheat.

[Note: faculty who are looking for ways to minimize plagiarism on written assignments should consult the article by Steven Wilhoit "Helping Students Avoid Plagiarism" in College Teaching (Fall, 1994). This article contains a great list of simple and effective deterrents for curbing plagiarism.]

In the overall institutional context, the recommended solutions are simple in principle but difficult in practice as they involve changing some of the culture of the institution.

  1. The rules and principles of academic integrity must be consistently communicated to the campus community so that both faculty and students are aware of the institutional norms.
  2. Student and faculty must accept and support the concept of academic integrity communicated by and to the institution.
  3. There must be a willingness to employ consistently and conscientiously the disciplinary procedures embedded in the code of academic integrity.
  4. Perhaps most concretely, there should be either a specific required course or a campus-wide forum for newly entering students to acclimate them to the culture of academic responsibility on campus and to explain the expected code of conduct for members of an academic community. Such a course or activity, early on in the first term on campus, could help articulate the concept of academic honesty.

After this tour of some of the literature on academic honesty and dishonesty, the Center for Faculty Development would like to solicit your opinions about the situation here at MSU. Do we have a problem with cheating? What is the campus culture regarding academic integrity? Is academic dishonesty enough of a problem to warrant more attention by individual instructors and the institution at large? If this newsletter has prompted any questions or concerns about academic dishonesty at MSU, please forward them to the Center for Faculty Development, c/o Richard C. Schiming, Box 14. via campus mail, e-mail, or by voice-mail (389-5855). If there appears to be enough interest and concern, the Center may provide further information and programming to address this issue.

Richard C. Schiming


  1. Alfred S. Alschuler and Gregory S. Blimling, "Curbing Epidemic Cheating Through Systematic Change" in COLLEGE TEACHING (Fall, 1995), pp.123-127.
  2. Leslie Fishbein, "We Can Curb College Cheating" in THE EDUCATION DIGEST (March, 1994), pp. 58-61.
  3. Joe Kerhvliet, "Cheating by Economics Students: A Comparison of Survey Results" i 9n THE JOURNAL OF ECONOMIC EDUCATION (Spring, 1994), pp.121-133.
  4. Donald L McCabe and Linda Klebe Trevino, "Academic Dishonesty: Honor Codes and Other Contextual Influences" in the JOURNAL OF HIGHER EDUCATION (September/October, 1993), pp. 522-538.
  5. Stephen L. Payne and Karen S. Nantz, "Social Accounts and Metaphors about Cheating" in COLLEGE TEACHING (Summer, 1994) pp. 90-96.
  6. Gail Tom and Norm Borin, "Cheating in Academe" in THE JOURNAL OF EDUCATION FOR BUSINESS, (January, 1988), pp.153-157.
  7. George Stevens and Faith Stevens, "Ethical Inclinations of Tomorrow's Managers Revisited: How and Why Students Cheat" in THE JOURNAL OF EDUCATION FOR BUSINESS, (October, 1987), pp.24-29.
  8. Steven Wilhoit, "Helping Students Avoid Plagiarism" in COLLEGE TEACHING, (Fall, 1994), pp. 161-164.