Don’t Do it—Never, Ever!

The problems and perils associated with cheating at the college level.

Posted May 15, 2018

In the several years I’ve been writing this blog on teaching psychology and broader issues related to psychology and higher education, I’ve never discussed cheating. Yet I have noticed in talks with colleagues around the country that forms of cheating –great and small—exist. Although the academic year is over for most undergraduates in the U.S (unless they are on a quarter system, which will end sometime in June), discussing the issues surrounding the perceived benefits of dishonest behavior is always important. In fact, high school graduates who are college-bound should consider why cheating is never a good choice or solution. I hope the points I raise below give them some things to think about this last summer before they enter college.

One big reason that cheating is relied on is the real and perceived pressure to succeed where grades are concerned. Higher grades are assumed to lead to admission to better graduate schools or more prestigious (and higher paying) first jobs. At one level that’s true, but consider what happens if someone cheats and never properly learns key course material that will be necessary, even essential, to performing well in a grad program or work setting. Or worse, if cheating seriously damages their grade point averages (i.e., their infractions are recognized and punished) or they are expelled from their school of choice. Still, a student might not have been found out when he or she looked on another’s test for an answer; copied homework; bought, downloaded, and submitted an academic “paper” written by someone else (or took one from the archives of a fraternity or sorority); plagiarized the words and work of someone else found on the Internet or elsewhere; snuck notes into an exam; used a cell phone to Google a solution while taking a test, and so on. Alas, ingenuity at cheating is evergreen—but reasons not to cheat are fairly fixed.

Many students cheat because they become overwhelmed by schoolwork, the pull of social life, and the need to hold down part-time employment to pay bills. In short, they fall behind and promise themselves that just this once and never again will they take unfair advantage of a situation. But, like many other behaviors, cheating can become familiar, easy, and then suddenly it’s a habit (unless, of course, the cheating is noticed—that is, the cheater is caught and punished).

Instead of focusing on the act, however, let’s focus on reasons not to do it in the first place, including:

Before you do something foolish or reckless, ask for an extension. Your instructor may not grant it, but then again, she might. It can’t hurt. And if you are really lost, asking gives you the opening to discuss the problems you are having with the material. Faculty members are sincere in wanting to help you learn, that is, until you break the pact by trying to get ahead in a class using the wrong means.

Cheating can lead to cheating. As just noted, once a simple “success” at cheating isn’t caught, then some students think it’s not such a big deal and a habit—or worse, pattern of behavior—is born. The slippery slope is just that.

Punishments vary widely, but they exist. On some campuses, cheating can lead to a failing grade and a letter of reprimand in your file. On others, you may fail the entire class for even the most modest of indiscretions (i.e., wrong is wrong). On still others you may face an honor trial led by peers. And on a few, the honor code relies on a single sanction: Cheating, whether great or small, is punished by immediate expulsion from that college community forever. And don’t think peers don’t know what it means when an acquaintance disappears from his dorm and classes in the middle of the semester—they do, and they gossip about it. A (now lost and forgotten) friend becomes a cautionary tale—and often a target for derision.

Your instructor will never look at you the same way again. Getting caught cheating is embarrassing. Once caught, denying that cheating occurred and then being shown clear evidence (e.g., verbatim text cut and pasted from an unacknowledged but easily found source—thank you, Google) by an instructor is even worse (reflect on how it feels to be caught in a lie and to then try a second lie to save face). You may get to stay in the class, but you will likely not be trusted again—which may seem unfair, but then so is (was) the cheating.

One grade, no matter how low, does not define you. As a student said to me recently, “Being caught and then labeled a cheater isn’t worth it. Take the low grade you deserve if you can’t finish a paper on time or study for the test. You’ll sleep better and maintain self-respect.” There is no shame in accepting a low mark on some assessment or assignment—and it will likely encourage you to work harder and/or seek help from your instructor or other campus sources. Take a lower grade and sleep better—come back to fight (study) another day.

Integrity. Would you want your friends and family to think of you as someone who cuts corners in order to appear to succeed? Would you want to be in a relationship with a successful or unsuccessful cheater? Isn't it a form of lying? And no one celebrates a cheater. Ever.

Self-loathing. Is it worth knowing you didn’t earn a grade legitimately? Or lying to loved ones about false success? Ugh.

Struggling in a major. If you are struggling academically in a major and doing poorly in related classes, then that may signal something to you. Perhaps the major you chose is not a good fit for your abilities. Cheating is a foolish way to cope in the short run and an easy way to wreck what you might accomplish in the long run. Consider changing to an alternative major where you can excel and display those talents you have.

Cheating simply is not worth the risks. Don’t do it. Ever.