Ethical Issue in Education: Cheating in Schools

Subject: Education
Pages: 18
Words: 4900
Reading time:
19 min
Study level: Master


Cheating has been a big issue of concern in many educational institutions. The notion of cheating has been defined as the act of presenting the work of others as your original work (McCabe, Terivino, & Butterfield, 2001). It may involve copying during exams, seeking unauthorized assistance when doing assignments, or plagiarizing other peoples’ works (Wilkinson, 2009). Cheating in academics has already been a big issue of concern and the issue has seemingly been getting out of hand in a vast majority of countries, including the U.S., where the instances of reported cheating take 64%, with plagiarism being represented by 58% of cases (McCabe et al., 2001).

It has been a problem from elementary schools straight through graduate schools. Several researchers have confirmed this and agreed that it was a problem that was global (McCabe et al., 2001; Johnson & Martin, 2005). The process of cheating has been evolving. For instance, while cheating in the past was simplistic, it nowadays has involved the use of technology. Students have begun using smartphones and other technological devices to get unauthorized access to examination materials before the date of examination or to get answers illegally during examinations. The use of technology in cheating has made academic cheating even more difficult to stop for educational officials and policymakers.

Ethics is the English word for the Greek term Ethos. The word ethics was derived from Latin and Greek which referred to both ethical and character. The character has been defined as moral behavior and could be influenced by religion, culture, and society. Therefore, ethics with regard to school leadership has become the sum of moral behavior or rules that dictate behavior or conduct in schools. Ethics has always been seen as a set of standards that delineated the difference between right and wrong behaviors. In other words, it was what society held as acceptable or unacceptable.

Ethics has been defined by both unwritten and documented principles and standards. Accordingly, ethical leadership has become a leader’s ability to model individuals to follow certain behaviors and rules in their decision-making (Tomal, Brierton, Wilhite, & Graham, 2016). Thus, ethical behavior has not always been standard; perception and analysis of situations usually have determined the actions or decisions that would be taken.

As a phenomenon observed in academic settings, cheating takes numerous forms and is intrinsically connected to numerous concepts. Some of them are worth considering to understand the gravity of the problem and the urgency thereof. Plagiarism is typically viewed as the most common and blatant type of cheating. As the existing definitions suggest, plagiarism is “the practice of taking someone else’s work or ideas and passing them off as one’s own” (Bryman & Bell, 2015, p. 123). The notion of plagiarism is quite broad, encompassing all instances in which a citation was not attributed to its due author.

At this point, it is worth mentioning that the wrong use of citations is seen as a form of plagiarism and implies appropriate penalties. While the case of misusing the citation format may not be a malicious intent and suggests only the lack of skill rather than the endeavor at cheating, it nonetheless counts as such (Bryman & Bell, 2015). In the described case, a student who misappropriates a quotation is not excused by virtue of their ignorance of the subject matter.

While plagiarism is typically deemed as the most common type of academic dishonesty, there are other specimens thereof. Cheating as academic malpractice may also include fabrication, or falsification, deception, and sabotage (Cronan et al., 2018). Fabricating data for research, deceiving a teacher to avoid punishment for failing to complete a task, and preventing others from successfully accomplishing their assignments are all punishable deeds. Therefore, establishing an academic policy that delineates the boundaries for the conduct, ethical standards, and repercussions for refusing to follow them is necessary.

Cheating has become more widespread in high schools and even on college campuses throughout the country. It has become a massive problem and has turned students into seekers of unwarranted success instead of honest young men and women with the integrity and courage to take tests without any support. Cheating has been defined in diverse ways through literature. Simply put, cheating was academic dishonesty. But a comprehensive definition of the vice has been that it was the act of students getting or providing unfair and unauthorized support for the purpose of passing an exam or an assignment. It was unfair and immoral behavior. According to Kaufmann (2008), plagiarism has also been considered a form of cheating throughout the body of research on student cheating.


Several assumptions will be made for the purpose of understanding why individuals engaged in academic cheating. The main assumption will be that students cheated because it paid off. There were obviously huge risks for academic cheating but those who did it undetected usually ended up getting into the superior colleges and graduate schools desired and ended up with high-paying jobs. The study will also assume that students cheated because they feared failing because they were lazy because they did not have good role models, because of poverty, or because of lack of enough time to prepare for exams.

Another assumption was that technology has made it easier for students to cheat. Technology included smartphones and hearing aids that have made it easier for students to get unauthorized access to answers during examinations. Some students also felt a lot of pressure to perform. The pressure usually resulted in them plagiarizing assignments or cheating during exams to impress their parents or peers (Moeck, 2002). Lastly, this study will assume that many students did not regard academic cheating as a serious offense. They thought of it as sort of bending the rules and not breaking them. This made them justify cheating and did it while downplaying the possible consequences.

However, other explanations for the phenomenon of academic cheating also exist. There is the assumption that students fail to understand the effects that cheating has on their professional progress and, instead, view it as a valuable tool for gaining leverage in the academic field. Indeed, studies show that very few students actually realize that cheating comes at the price of their professional deterioration and missing the opportunity to build the skill set that will make them valuable in their field (Kaufmann, 2008). Applying the theory of planned behavior to consider the reasons behind the students’ choice, one will find out that some learners consider themselves to be disadvantaged compared to others as far as the available amount of resources or skills is concerned (Chudzicka-Czupała et al., 2015).

The phenomenon in question is especially common among ESL and EFL learners, who experience major impediments in learning due to their language issues (Kaufmann, 2008). Therefore, to approach the problem from a multifaceted perspective, one may introduce the theory of social conflict and the problem of resource allocation as some of the primary factors that motivate students to cheat.

In addition, the sense of support and camaraderie among learners may encourage them to cheat by plagiarizing each other’s works. As the study performed by Cronan, Mullins, and Douglas (2018) has shown, the misconstrued sense of moral obligation and the fear of the subsequent feeling of guilt motivate students to share their homework with others, encouraging further academic dishonesty and thus closing the cycle.

Therefore, the problem of cheating among students should be addressed on the foundational ethical level by encouraging them to revisit their perception of academic honesty and the effects that cheating has on their performance and the progress of their peers. It is imperative to introduce the academic philosophy and ethical code that will encourage students to reconsider the practice of offering their peers cheating options.

Theoretical Framework

In order to address the problem of cheating in the academic setting, one will have to look at it from the perspective of several theories. These include the School Effectiveness Theory, Social Learning Theory, and Achievement Goal Orientation Theory. The proposed theoretical perspectives will allow locating the factors encouraging cheating, creating the setting in which cheating will be useless for learners, and the framework that will help students to reevaluate their approach toward learning.

School Effectiveness Theory

Studies on school effectiveness theory have discussed school organizational factors and how they affected the students’ learning outcomes and behaviors. The theory of school effectiveness indicated that some particular contextual factors could be significant for the school to develop positive student outcomes and reduce negative behaviors. The study also indicated that researchers agreed on what school contextual factors were significant for the students, such as strong school leadership, teacher cooperation, and school ethos.

These factors of school effectiveness have impacted school organizational structure from the leadership to teachers and staff members, and then students. Moreover, research suggested that the significance of the school contextual factors effectively reduced undesirable students’ behaviors (Ramberg & Modin, 2019). The reason could be assumed that they had an influence on students’ cheating at school.

Social Learning Theory

Social learning theory indicated that human behavior was learned through the interaction of individuals with their environment and could preserve the behavioral problem by negative or positive reinforcement. The behavioral knowledge treatment looked at how thoughts could impact to preserve the problem. The focus was to change the deranged thoughts which could impact the behaviors and the ways in which this theory was followed by progressive formation of new behaviors by negative or positive reinforcements, modeling, and pressure management (Madara, Namango, & Katana, 2016).

Albert Bandura’s main argument in his social learning theory was that learning was cognitive and that it occurred in a social manner (e.g., through direct instruction or observation regardless of whether there was direct reinforcement or motor reproduction). Apart from observation and direct instruction, learning also could happen via observation or awareness of the rewards and the punishments for certain actions (Madara et al., 2016). This was referred to as vicarious reinforcement. Bandura’s theory was an expansion of several classic behavioral theories that primarily posited that learning was by reinforcements but did not clarify what internal processes resulted in behavior being picked up or shunned.

The social learning theory (SLT) posited that learning was observing and forming behaviors based on the observed consequences. Social learning theory explained academic cheating as a consequence of observed behavior. Practically, SLT could be used to explain cheating as a consequence of students observing or becoming aware of the positive results of cheating (e.g., better grades or less work).

The results or “rewards” pushed them to cheat. Social learning theory could also be used to explain cheating in terms of moral disengagement. A student who cheated several times is likely to suffer cognitive distortion resulting in them viewing the transgressive behavior as acceptable and not an abandonment of societal norms (Farnese, Tramontano, Fida, & Paciello, 2011). Thus, moral disengagement could lead to more continued cheating regardless of the risks. Moral disengagement was usually utilized to explain how people known to be generally committed to certain moral and ethical principles may end up violating some of them without being conflicted or feeling any guilt or shame.

Achievement Goal Orientation Theory

The achievement goal orientation theory is a framework that clarifies the academic motivations in terms of the goals which the students seek to achieve when doing the academic tasks which are (personal goals) and their understanding of the goals of their teachers (goal structure). In addition, the achievement goals could be understood as a concentration on mastery (which is referred to the students’ goals to learn materials) or a performance (which is referred to the students’ goals to have proficiency) (Wankat & Oreovicz, 2015).

An extra goal that was argued in the studies on academic cheating was called an extrinsic goal, in which a student’s goal was to have a higher grade or reward or avoid lower grades or punishment. Much research has mentioned that the kind of goals that students follow, and goal structures affect the decisions to cheat or not cheat. The results of the research on cheating found that students were less likely to cheat if they had master goals or structures. This meant that they were less exposed to involvement in academically dishonest behaviors in class, as Anderman & Koenka (2017) explain. Thus. The issue of cheating has to be addressed as a serious concern that affects learners’ potential and development.

Rationale and Factors Associated with Cheating

The issue of academic cheating has seemingly been on the rise even though the problem has been morally and societally unacceptable in many countries. Some students might, through moral disengagement or other psychological processes, considered cheating to be normal but it was unacceptable. This study will investigate the issue and develop a plan to deal with it comprehensively. The thinking behind the development of the plan was that cheating was a huge problem in global education and that was why it must be checked and properly controlled. Many students were already aware of the fact that cheating was breaking the rules and it was not fair to those who worked hard but they still did it.

Even though cheating seems to have its rewards, it almost always leads to catastrophic failure. One may successfully pass a test by cheating and convince the teacher that they have mastered the course, yet, in the end, it is the student who loses the opportunity to gain new skills and acquire the knowledge that will advance them in their professional field. It should be noted that what is initially perceived as a reward by a cheating student is going to provide the foundation for professional collapse.

While being ostensibly a short-term win, successful cheating leads to the perceived interpretation of a positive grade as the main objective; as a result, a student fails to focus on their academic and professional growth (Dahiya, 2015). Thus, the basis for developing inability and the lack of motivation to progress in the selected field of studies is planted. Herein lies the need to define the failure in question as catastrophic.

The inability to evolve professionally and focus on self-directed learning will entail problems in advancing in one’s career and, ultimately, attaining professional excellence (Cronan et al., 2018). Cheating entails not only problems in managing one’s academic life but also addressing issues in professional development, in general. Therefore, educational institutions must invent strategies and plans to deal with cheating and punish those who were not ready to learn and master their subjects the right way.

Cheating has been a big and somewhat prevalent problem in schools, colleges, and universities. However, the question of why students cheat needs to be answered to resolve the issue. Modern society has been the main factor for students to cheat because it has been very competitive. It was expected that everyone should work as hard as they could to succeed. However, when the competition became too much, especially in schools for grades that could get a student admitted to top schools, the pressure and stress could lead to young men and women resorting to cheating (Shalvi et al., 2011). Therefore, the pressure from society to succeed and to do everything they could was a factor.

Another factor that made students resort to cheating was the failure to adequately prepare for an exam. This failure made cheating sound like the only other alternative. Researchers have discovered that there were also situational factors that could lead to teaching (e.g., a lecturer’s teaching methods, the difficulty of an assignment or a class, where a student was seated in class, the size of the class, and the size of the educational institution). In many studies, researchers have noted that students seemed to demonstrate a lack of fear for punishment (Arnold, Martin, Jinks, & Bigby, 2007). Most cheaters usually just weighed the risks versus the rewards before deciding on whether to engage in academic dishonesty. If the situation was right, they cheated and if it was not, they were less inclined to cheat.

Researchers have also investigated the influence of personal factors in the inclination to cheat. Some of the personal factors that have been investigated previously included self-esteem, membership in certain character-building organizations, course enrollment, personality, work ethic, GPA, and gender (McCabe, 1992).

Some of these factors contributed to cheating while others made it difficult to cheat. In yet another study, researchers Barnett and Dalton (1981) noted that some of the factors that have had a very significant influence on whether or not someone would cheat included: moral will and judgment, lack of awareness of what constitutes constituted cheating, personality, intelligence levels, the environment, and pressure to obtain good grades. Understanding these and the other factors of cheating discussed in this section would help in the development of solutions.

Action Plan

Prevention of Cheating

One of the best ways of minimizing cheating has been to come up with a surrounding that does not encourage cheating itself. When a good relationship was existent between a professor and his learners and amidst learners themselves, the act of cheating was significantly minimized. The decision to cheat is reported to be easier to take when the rapport between a teacher and a student is very weak or nonexistent (Wankat & Oreovicz, 2015).

A pupil that saw themselves as a number and knew that their professor had no knowledge of their name found it much easier to cheat when compared to a pupil that the professor knew by name. There was less cheating in a class of learners with common goals and where learners were excited to learn. The described phenomenon can be explained with theories of motivation, such as the Theory of Self-Efficacy and Theory of Rational Choice (Fida, Tramontano, Paciello, Ghezzi, & Barbaranelli, 2018). Allowing learners to focus on their professional progress as opposed to the grades that they receive, the approach in question reduces the phenomenon of cheating by virtue of changing students’ perception of tests and exams.

A class whereby the learners viewed their professor as a learning partner would most likely have very little cheating. Additionally, a professor that developed a repute of coming up with fair tests and fair grading would experience less cheating when compared to a professor that had a repute of coming up with unfair tests or being a “difficult” grader (Wankat & Oreovicz, 2015). Learners must be challenged but not overwhelmed. Discussing the rules of plagiarism and cheating with learners would be important. A lot of learners were simply not aware of the rules regarding plagiarism, and so this particular discussion was very important and should definitely be held.

Another way of reducing cheating was minimizing the anxiety placed on exams (Kibler, Nuss, Paterson, & Pvela, 1988). Pressure on exams could be minimized by giving several tests or quizzes to learners. Allowing equal access to examination files would minimize the need to cheat among those who did not have access. The described solution allows managing the problem of cheating from the perspective of the Social Conflict Theory, by reducing inequality and offering students equal opportunities (Kibler et al., 1988). Also, a short help session or access to TAs or professors for assistance right before the exam would help minimize pressure as well.

Having a TA stand at the back of the class or lecture room would be a good deterrent in the huge lecture halls as learners would not be capable of easily keeping track of the supervisor’s location. Also, if possible, have the learners sit in alternating seats as this would significantly minimize cheating involving wandering eyes. If a large room was not readily available, consideration should be given to making use of two rooms. Allocate learners to both rooms in advance with supervisors for each room.

Another option would be to use alternate exam forms that contain either the answers or questions in different orders or simply use different values for calculations. Before commencing the exam, one should ask the learners to place their books beneath their desks, unless it was an open-book exam (Kibler et al., 1988). Given that a lot of calculators are now capable of storing huge quantities of alphanumeric data, it should be considered a potential cheat sheet.

Given that the intent was prevention and not finding proof of any cheating, immediate action should be taken when something suspicious was observed. An appropriate deterrent might be going to stand near the learner while waiting to give answers to the queries of fellow learners.

Asking the pupil if they had any questions would be an intelligent way of making them aware that you were actually being watching. However, if the situation still persisted, have the pupil move elsewhere. If the pupil mentioned that they preferred remaining in their present seat, suggest that that the preference would be that they move. Other professors have stated to the entire class that learners should not look around the class. This could be effective, especially if the professor stared at any suspicious learner but would be somewhat distracting for the rest of the learners (Wankat & Oreovicz, 2015). Thus, the premises for preventing cheating from taking place in the academic context will be created.

Cure for Cheating

As soon as cheating was detected, solving the situation could be quite time-consuming and painful. Cheating should be totally documented. Where possible, have an individual witness the evidence. In case of reasonable doubt that cheating had indeed taken place, put down the learner’s name on a piece of paper and be watchful. When proof of cheating was very clear, obtain a copy of the institution’s regulation and carefully read and follow the appropriate steps. The majority of institutions, especially universities, have rules and regulations in place that offer learners a proper due process for such occurrences. AS Kibler et al. assert (1988) if the cheating allegations were made in good faith and regulations were abided by by the university, then the professor would be protected from individual liability even when the learner was found not to be guilty of the offense.

An effective way of affecting norms and minimizing cheating in higher learning institutions would be using honor codes. Learning institutions with honor codes generally have lower cheating levels compared to those without. It has, however, been debated that it was not the honor codes themselves, but instead the learner’s perceived outlook towards integrity, ethics, and the supposed seriousness of the act of cheating that impacted behavior (McCabe, Terivino & Butterfield, 2001).

Learning institutions without official honor codes might come up with a casual code of conduct that would minimize cheating. Indicating an institution’s devotion to integrity appeared to be a major factor amidst these particular findings. For instance, various researches revealed that, for the effectiveness of the honor code, learners actually would need to be constantly reminded of the high ethical standards, as McCabe et al. (2001) explain, using ethical primes in examination scenarios being a good way of reminding learners.

The professor, however, would be accountable if the learner was found innocent and they still decided to enforce penalties regardless. There have been universities that permitted the learner and their professor to discuss the case, and in these cases, the learner confessed their offense, the penalty was decided by the professor (Grym & Liljander, 2016). The penalty might range from scoring a 0 on the exam to a lower overall grade in the unit or course.

According to Kibler et al. (1988), in case the learner later withdrew and stated that they were forced into confessing, the professor might be accountable and blamed even if the learner signed the confession. The advisable way of handling cheating would be to go through formal university channels. In addition, the university committee would have access to student records that might show whether the learner had past cheating cases, something that might lead to a harsher penalty (Cronan et al., 2018). There have been professors who reduced the learner’s grade without necessarily discussing the claims with the student. This would be unfair and unwise because proper due process had been clearly denied to the learner and the professor might be held liable. Once again, it would be better to try to prevent cheating compared to dealing with the situation once it had taken place.

Ethics and Cheating

School officials have had to make many decisions every day in the running of schools. For example, they have had to develop and implement school programs. They also have had to evaluate the said programs regularly to make sure things were going as planned. Additionally, they have had to administer the day-to-day operations of the school, supervise the school’s teachers and other employees, respond to the needs of students, manage the financial aspects of school operations, respond to and implement government policies, and manage public relations (Tomal et al., 2016). All the decisions that school officials make could influence either the school, teachers, students represented by learners aged 12 and older, or other stakeholders in one way or another.

Apart from the direct effects, it has also been known that the decisions taken by the school officials and their behavior had influenced the ethical culture of the schools they ran. When school officials understood this, they gained a lot by then positioning themselves to offer ethical school leadership (Fida et al., 2018). The positioning involved taking active steps to learn about ethical leadership and becoming more aware that most decisions involved considered ethical issues.

This helped them to learn how to make the right decisions, how to prioritize the right things, and how to positively inspire and mentor students into doing the right thing. When the officials consistently provided ethical leadership, they created an ethical culture that would automatically be adopted by most stakeholders (Tomal et al., 2016). Therefore, the existing set of values and ethical standards requires revisiting.

Ethical Priming

One’s ethical behavior is usually has been influenced by both his/her conscious and subconscious mind (Reynolds, 2006). The subconscious influence of ethical behavior could happen via priming. According to Meyer and Schvaneveldt (1971), priming was a psychological concept where, when one was exposed to a certain stimulus and made to react in a certain way, they would react in similar behavior when exposed to the same stimulus (Cojuharenco, Shteynberg, Gelfand, & Schminke, 2011). So ethical behaviors could be primed. In other words, one could be molded to act the right way. In a study conducted a couple of years ago, it was found that students primed to consider their relational selves were less likely to cheat compared to those primed to consider their independent selves.

A study by Mazar and Ariely (2006) concluded that many people could tolerate a bit of cheating. They also concluded that honest students and cheating students did not have major differences in terms of the perception of their morality and honesty. Their point was that those who did a bit of cheating did not update/adjust their perception of self in any negative way and that this made them think of cheating as more of bending existing rules (Mazar, Amir, & Ariely, 2008; Shalvi, Michel, Handgraaf, & de Dreu, 2011; Welsh, Ordóñez, Snyder, & Christian, 2014).

Nevertheless, it has been found that such types of students could be primed to do the right thing. This could be done in several ways, such as by reminding them that cheating affects their professional development adversely and by asking students to abide by the school moral code, and by having students do a mandatory ethics course (Mazar et al., 2008; Welsh et al., 2014). Expecting an immediate change in learners’ behaviors would be naïve, yet an open discussion of the reasons for students to cheat may spark solutions to the problem.

Cheating and Emotions

Several studies have attempted to investigate the emotions that cheating and non-cheating students felt about academic dishonesty. Some have concluded that non-cheating students felt they had been robbed and that it was unfair when they found out there had been cheating. However, the non-cheating students had also been found to be forgiving when the cheating students confessed, apologized, and showed remorse. Those who did not confess or show remorse were usually perceived negatively for a long period of time (Kerby & Johnson, 2005; Caruana, Ramaseshan, & Ewing, 2000). Nevertheless, the most frequently reported emotion by non-cheating students was indifference.


In the academic world, honesty has been a lot larger compared to other ethical and moral issues on university campuses. Students that cheated developed an unethical and non-moral character that was carried into other aspects of their lives. Learners that cheated in class or outside class were constantly in search of shortcuts. Learners that displayed dishonesty in their schoolwork were most likely going to act dishonestly in the employment world after they graduated from campus. All schools need to endorse and apply honor codes in order to hold pupils responsible for integrity and honesty when learning.

A university surrounding that encourages integrity and honor would inspire these particular traits upon learners in and out of class (Kaufmann, 2008). It would be important to teach students the value of following ethics. It was highly unlikely that pupils who cheated all through their education would suddenly become ethical after graduation. Professors should not assume that their students were naturally ethical. Ethics has been something that has been instilled by including it all through the curriculum instead of just including a course on ethics at the conclusion of the student’s learning period.


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