Why student cheating is rampant

At Harvard University, close to half of first-year students have cheated on homework or exams, a recent report shows. But cheating is far more rampant north of the border, Canadian research suggests. The Current explores why and how students cheat, and how they're caught in these tech-driven times.

And how technology helps, and foils, cheaters

Cheaters abound at Harvard University — 42 per cent of first-year students admitted to cheating on homework or problem sets, and 10 per cent of them admitted to cheating on exams during high school, according to a survey by the Crimson student paper earlier in September.

Those numbers sound bad enough. But research by a University of Guelph management professor suggests that there may be even more cheaters among Canadian first-year students. Almost 60 per cent of first-year students admitted to cheating on tests in high school, and almost 75 per cent on written work, according to a study a few years ago by Julia Christensen Hughes, who is dean of the university’s College of Management and Economics and a leading expert on academic misconduct in Canada.

Interestingly, she told CBC’s The Current, few of these students said they would be embarrassed to admit their cheating to a friend, or thought they would be caught, or receive any significant penalty if they were caught.

Hughes is in the process of analyzing new data to update the study, which was published in 2006 in the Canadian Journal of Higher Education.

She offered some insights into what kinds of cheating students are doing and why it is so rampant.

The most accepted kind of cheating among students, she said, is getting help from others when asked to work alone.

Parents involved

"Increasingly, this is quite troubling," she said. "We see parents involved in that."

She added that part of the problem is that, culturally, students are being sent the message — by their parents, and by others in society such as politicians using questionable robocall techniques and athletes using performance enhancing drugs — that it’s important to win at all costs.

Also, technology has made it easy for students to turn in work that is not their own.

Hughes said she was both amused and horrified by the proliferation of sites that sell custom essays.

"The amusement was that they were claiming to provide 100 per cent plagiarism-free papers …Well, in fact, by submitting it as their own work, it’s been entirely plagiarized."

Jill Duffy, a writer for, who wrote an article in 2011 about how students use technology to cheat and how their teachers catch them, said that the kinds of cheating haven't actually changed that much over the years.

Technology helps catch cheaters

She added that technology may also help teachers catch students.

For example, many instructors have access to a service called turnitin, which asks teachers to upload student work to a huge database. It then checks the papers for plagiarism by comparing the work to everything else in the database, including published papers and papers that other teachers and students have submitted over the years.

Christensen Hughes said there are other many other ways schools and teachers could discourage students from cheating.

For example, students were less likely to cheat in a class where they respected the professor, and felt he or she was really assessing the students based on what they learned and what they were capable of doing.

They were far more likely to cheat in cases where professors re-used assignments and exams, giving an unfair advantage to classmates who had access to past tests and papers.

She added that professors were far more likely to report cheating if the penalty for a first-time offence was an official warning rather than a more severe punishment.

Listen to thefull item on The Current to hear more from Christensen Hughes and Duffy along with:

  • Personal confessions from cheating students.
  • The confession of a University of Saskatchewan professor who cheated back in his student days.
  • Simon White, operational director for, a custom essay writing business with offices in Vancouver and Seattle, who shared his thoughts on the ethics of businesses like his.


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