Insights into How & Why Students Cheat at High Performing Schools

A LOT of people cheat and I feel like it would ruin my character and personal standards if I also took part in cheating, but everyone tells me there’s no way I can finish the school year with straight As without cheating. It really makes me upset but I’m honestly contemplating it because colleges can’t see who does and doesn’t cheat.” – High school student

“Academic dishonesty is any deceitful or unfair act intended to produce a more desirable outcome on an exam, paper, homework assignment, or other assessment of learning.” (Miller, Murdock & Grotwiel, 2017).

Cheating has been a hot topic in the news lately with the unfolding of the college admissions scandal involving affluent parents allegedly using bribery and forgery to help their kids get into selective colleges. Unfortunately, we also see that cheating is common among students in middle schools through graduate schools (Miller, Murdock & Grotwiel, 2017), including the high-performing middle and high schools that Challenge Success has surveyed. To better understand who is cheating in these high schools, how they are cheating, and what is driving this behavior, we looked at recent data from the Challenge Success Student Survey completed in Fall 2018—including 16,054 students from 15 high-performing U.S. high schools (73% public, 27% private). We asked students to self-report their engagement in 12 cheating behaviors during the past month. On each of the items, adapted from a scale developed by McCabe (1999), students could select one of four options: never; once; two to three times; four or more times. We found that 79% of students cheated in some way in the past month.

How Students Cheat & Who Does It

There are two types of cheating that the students we surveyed engage in: (1) cheating collectively and (2) cheating independently. Overall rates of cheating collectively were higher than rates of cheating individually. Examples of cheating collectively include, working on an assignment with others when the instructor asked for individual work, helping someone else cheat on an assessment, and copying from another student during an assessment with that person’s knowledge. Examples of independent cheating include using unpermitted cheat sheets during an assessment, copying from another student during an assessment without their knowledge, or copying material word for word without citing it and turning it in as your own work.

When we looked more closely at who is cheating according to our survey data, we found that 9th graders were less likely than 10th, 11th, and 12th graders to cheat individually and collectively. This is consistent with other research in the field that shows that cheating tends to increase with grade level (Murdock, Stephens, & Grotewiel, 2016). We also found that male students were more likely to cheat individually than female students. Broader research from the field about cheating by gender has yielded mixed results. Some find that rates for boys are higher than for girls, while others find no difference (McCabe, Treviño & Butterfield, 2001; Murdock, Hale & Weber, 2001; Anderman & Midgley, 2004).

Why Students Cheat

“I think what causes us stress during the school year is the amount of cheating going on around school…Some of my friends and classmates who have siblings or friends that took the classes before in a way have a copy of what the tests will look like. It makes them have a competitive advantage over other people who have no siblings or known friends that took the class before. To have people who have access to these past tests, it creates more stress on students because we have to study more and push ourselves harder.” – High School Student

Why are students cheating at such high rates? Previous research on cheating suggests students may be inclined to cheat and rationalize their behaviors because of various factors including:

  • Performance over Mastery: Students may cheat because of the risk of low grades due to worry, pressure on academic performance, or a fixed mindset (Miller, Murdock & Grotewiel, 2017). School environments perceived by students to be focused on performance goals like grades and test scores over mastery have been associated with behaviors such as cheating (Anderman & Midgley, 2004).
  • Peer Relationships/Social Comparison: The increase of social comparisons and competition that many children and adolescents experience in high performing schools or classrooms or the desire to help a friend (Miller, Murdock & Grotewiel, 2017) may be another factor of choosing to cheat. Students in high-achieving cultures, furthermore, tend to cheat more when they see or perceive their peers cheating (Galloway, 2012).
  • Overloaded: Another factor in students cheating is the pressure in high-performing schools to “do it all” which can be influenced by heavy workloads and/or multiple tests on the same day (Miller, Murdock & Grotewiel, 2017)
  • “Cheat or be cheated” rationale: Students may rationalize cheating by blaming the teachers or situation. This often occurs when students see the teacher as uncaring or focused on performance over mastery (Miller, Murdock & Grotewiel, 2017). Students may rationalize and normalize cheating as the way to succeed in a challenging environment where achievement is paramount (Galloway, 2012).
  • Pressure: Students may also cheat because they feel pressure to maintain their status in a success focused community where they see the situation as “cheat or be cheated” (Miller, Murdock & Grotewiel, 2017).

We see many of these factors reflected in our survey data. Students listed their major sources of stress as grades, tests, finals, or assessments (80% of students) and overall workload and homework (71% of students). We also found that 59% of students feel they have “too much homework,” 75% of students feel “often” or “always” stressed by their schoolwork, 31% of students feel that “many” or “all” of their classes assign homework that helps them learn the material, and 74% worry “quite a bit” or “a lot” about taking assessments while 70% worry the same amount about school assignments.

Reflecting high pressure from within their community, only 51% of students feel they can meet their parents expectations “often” or “always,” 52% of students worry at least a little that if they do not do well in school their friends will not accept them, and 80% of students feel “quite a bit” or “a lot” of pressure to do well in school. Meanwhile, only 33% of students feel “quite” or “very” confident in their ability to cope with stress. Open-ended responses reported by students on our survey reinforce the quantitative data:    

“It is hard to do well in classes and become well rounded for applying to college without something giving way… in some cases students cheat.

I don’t think anyone is having a great time here, when all they’re focusing on is cheating and getting the grade that they want in order to ‘succeed’ in life after high school by going to a great college or university.”

Teachers often give very challenging tests that require very large curves to present even reasonable grades and this creates a very stressful atmosphere. Students are often caught cheating because that is often times the only route to getting a decent grade.

Quotes like these suggest that there may be a relationship between heavy amounts of homework on top of busy extracurriculars and students feeling that cheating is the only way to get everything done.

What Can Schools Do About It

Schools may find the prevalence of the cheating culture overwhelming—potentially daunted by counteracting the normalization and prevalence of achievement at-all-costs and cheating behaviors. Students themselves, in our survey and in previous research, call for a learning environment where cheating is not an expectation or everyday behavior for getting ahead, and students are held responsible for their behavior (McCabe, 2001).

The administration needs to punish students who cheat. The school does not crack down on these kids, and it makes it harder for others to succeed.

Since I was in 9th grade it feels like our counselors only really care about our class rank and GPA. I am a hard worker but I don’t have the best GPA. Our school focuses too much on grades. This creates pressure on students to cheat just to get a good grade to boost their GPA. Learning has been compromised by a desire for a number that we have been told defines us as people.

Schools can work with students to change the prevailing culture of cheating through listening to students about their experiences and perceptions, acknowledging the issue and predominant culture, and collaborating with students to clarify and redefine how and why students learn. Some areas we (and other researchers) recommend that schools can address underlying causes of cheating include:

  • Strive for school-wide buy-in for honest academic practices including defining what constitutes cheating and academic dishonesty for students and providing clear consequences for cheating (Galloway, 2012). Further providing open dialogue and discussions with students, parents, and teachers may help students feel that teachers are treating then with respect and fairness (Murdock et al., 2004).
  • Educate students on what cheating means in their school community so that cheating is viewed as unacceptable (Miller, Murdock & Grotewiel, 2017)
  • Establish a climate of care and a classroom where it is evident that the teacher cares about student progress, learning, and understanding.
  • Emphasize mastery and learning over performance. One strategy is through using formative assessments such as practice exams that can be reviewed in class and homework that can be corrected until students achieve mastery on the concepts (Miller, Murdock & Grotewiel, 2017).
  • Revise assessments and grading policies to allow for redemption and revision.
  • Ensure that students are met with “reasonable demands” such as spacing assignments and assessments across days and reduce workload without reducing rigor (Miller, Murdock & Grotewiel, 2017)
  • Teach students time management strategies (e.g. using a planner, breaking tasks into manageable pieces, and how to use resources or ask for help). Schools may even teach parents how to help students organize and manage their work rather than providing them with answers. (Miller, Murdock & Grotewiel, 2017)

Overall, schools should aim to change student attitudes around integrity through “clear, fair, and consistent” assessments, valuing learning over mastery, reducing comparisons and competition between students, teaching students management and organization skills, and demonstrating care and empathy for students and the pressures that face (Miller, Murdock & Grotewiel, 2017).


Anderman, E.M. & Midgley, C. (2004). Changes in self-reported academic cheating across the transition from middle school to high school. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 29(4), 499-517.

Galloway, M. K. (2012). Cheating in advantaged high schools: Prevalence, justifications, and possibilities for change. Ethics & Behavior, 22(5), 378-399.

McCabe, D. (1999). Academic dishonesty among high school students. Adolescence, 34(136), 681- 687.

McCabe, D. (2001) Cheating: Why students do it and how we can help them stop. American Educator, Winter, 38-43.

McCabe, D. L., Treviño, L. K., & Butterfield, K. D. (2001). Cheating in academic institutions: A decade of research. Ethics & Behavior, 11, 219-232.

Miller, A. D., Murdock, T. B., & Grotewiel, M. M. (2017). Addressing Academic Dishonesty Among the Highest Achievers. Theory Into Practice, 56(2), 121-128.

Murdock, T., Hale, N., & Weber, M. (2001). Predictors of cheating among early adolescents: Academic and social motivations. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 26, 96-115.

Murdock, T. B., Miller, A., & Kohlhardt, J. (2004). Effects of Classroom Context Variables on High School Students’ Judgments of the Acceptability and Likelihood of Cheating. Journal of Educational Psychology, 96(4), 765-777.

Murdock, T., Stephens, J., & Grotewiel, M. (2016). Student dishonesty in the face of assessment. In G. Brown and L. Harris (Eds.), Handbook of Human and Social Conditions in Assessment (pp. 186-203). London, England: Routledge.

Wangaard, D. B. & J. M. Stephens (2011). Academic integrity: A critical challenge for schools. Excellence & Ethics, Winter 2011.

Samantha Selby is a Research Associate with Challenge Success, managing the quantitative and qualitative data analysis of Challenge Success student surveys and supporting the organization’s overall research efforts. 

Interested in learning more about your students’ perceptions of their school experiences? Learn more about the Challenge Success Student Survey here.