Cheating and Honor

June 4, 2004

by Howard and Matthew Greene

Are students today more likely to cheat, steal, and lie to get ahead in high school? Apparently, and unfortunately, the answer appears to be "yes." According to the Josephson Institute of Ethics (www.josephsoninstitute.org), which has been tracking students' ethical attitudes and behavior for more than a decade, students today are more likely to report cheating on an exam, stealing from a store, lying to a parent or teacher, and lying or cheating to try to achieve success. In 2002, almost three-quarters of students surveyed admitted to cheating on an exam at least once in the prior year. The large majority of students reported quite good intentions about acting ethically, but behaviorally most were not living up to the expectations of parents, teachers, schools, and themselves.

Anecdotally, we have also seen and heard many stories from students, parents, and schools about cheating, plagiarism, lying, and breaking the bonds of trust meant to exist between students, parents, peers, and schools. What is driving this behavior and what can well-intentioned students and parents do about it? Several forces seem to be fostering this trend toward dishonesty. First, there is increasing competition among students to succeed in high school and to get into a good college. Failing to achieve in high school may mean not getting a diploma for some students in states that have implemented mandatory school leaving exams. Not graduating near the top of the class may prevent some students from gaining entrance to desirable selective colleges and universities. Athletes who do not maintain a sufficient grade point average and reasonable academic progress may be disqualified from playing their sport.

In addition to the stress on achievement, sometimes by any means, there is also a sense among many students that it is easier than ever to cheat and plagiarize. The internet and the proliferation of easily accessible information and technology have made it simpler for students to cut and paste from multiple sources, documents which are hard for the average teacher to track down. Some students steal papers from their friends' computers, or share homework or take-home exams electronically. Finally, in many instances, students do not understand the rules associated with plagiarism, cheating, proper citation of sources, and how to work in a group without "borrowing" their friends' material.

Many students we encounter are fed up with this situation and are looking to attend high schools and colleges that set higher expectations for their students. While all schools prohibit cheating, some have established honor codes that help students take more responsibility for policing each other. Students are often asked to sign pledges establishing that their work is their own. Students may also be required to speak out when they witness cheating on the part of another student. The Center for Academic Integrity (www.academicintegrity.org) is a clearinghouse of information on ethics, values, and behavior associated with academic conduct. The Center has over three hundred member colleges and universities. For students interested in seeking out schools that actively promote a different approach to learning and ethical behavior, and approach which has been shown to be associated with lower levels of cheating, the Center's Web site is a good place to continue your college research. In exploring any college you can also find out information on honor codes and disciplinary policies by reading the college's Web site and course catalog and by asking college representatives how they approach these issues on campus. You may also work with your high school to help promote a more inclusive and comprehensive approach to academic integrity before you get to college. While cheating may be on the rise, a lot of students are not happy about it. Given the right education and responsibilities, and the sense that most of their peers are not likely to cheat, we believe most students will make better decisions.