A Park City Teacher's Thoughts from the Trenches

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Why Kids Cheat

Despite all the myriad changes in our world since people started attending schools, some things never change. One of those things, unfortunately, is cheating. I suppose that as long we as humans have to accomplish things, there will be those who will try to find the easy way out for a variety of reasons.cheating-pic.jpg Perhaps it is to avoid effort, to avoid frustration, or perhaps it is to compensate for a lack of preparation. In any case, students have cheated in the past and still continue to cheat today. Why? Perhaps something called the “fraud triangle” can help to explain why it happens. The problem is what can we do to stop it?


What I see as the most dangerous aspect of cheating is that more and more students are participating in this activity. While students the age of mine, 11-12 year olds, will tell you they know that it is wrong, they do it anyway. What concerns me is that more and more, cheating seems to be becoming an acceptable activity, despite the fact that it is considered to be wrong. Is this a case of one side of the brain not knowing what the other side is doing? Or, is more blatant and rampant cheating a result of societal factors? Well, not being a brain expert, but being part of society, I’ll say much of it has to do with the societal factors.

The term ‘fraud triangle’ is one I learned watching an episode of “The West Wing” while working out. The explanation of it really hit home as I realized that it could just as easily be applied to students cheating as it could to people in business committing fraud (the application of the original model). And to think some say you can never learn anything from television. Anyway, I really didn’t know if it were a real model, but it provided such a great description of why basically honest people feel the need to commit an act of wrong, I had to know if there were more to learn. As usual Google came through with a number of listings for the fraud triangle. It seems it is an actual model that was created by criminologist Dr. Donald Cressey to explain why people, who are otherwise honest and good in nature, commit the crime of fraud. The children who cheat, just like people in business who commit fraud, are not serious, career criminals. Most people who commit fraud are people who perceive a short-term problem as having no solution other than to go the way of fraud. I believe the majority of students cheat because they feel there is no other way to achieve success at the particular moment when the cheating occurs. The action of cheating is spontaneous, not premeditated.

The first leg of the fraud triangle is pressure. Now we all know that students constantly face the pressure of learning an incredible amount of information. At one point, knowledge was doubling every five years. But are there other, more subtle pressures that are placed on children that we, as adults, don’t even realize are perceived as such by the children? Yes, I believe there are. What I am referring to are the ubiquitous “rewards” that some parents dangle in front of their children believing it is a good motivator, or on the flip side of that, the negative consequences that other parents use for the same reason. Knowing that every A will get you $100 (the average of my students), or some other expensive gift, is an incredible pressure. Who wouldn’t want $100 let alone several hundred dollars? If that isn’t pressure, what is? On the flip side, how threatening must it be to know that if you don’t have all As, your parents will ground you, or take away your belongings (I had a parent a number of years ago that took away the student’s bed), or do something even worse. Yeah, I’d say that would all qualify as pressure. The sad reality of these pressures, is that the students faced with these consequences, positive or negative, lose the reason behind the learning. Their time in school becomes nothing but a way to make money, or to avoid punishment. The concept of learning skills to help them succeed in life never occurs to them. Everything they do is for the here and now; the future bears no importance.

The second leg of the triangle is opportunity. Just as an employee perceives opportunity to steal if they think they won’t get caught, so too does a student feel they can cheat if they think the teacher won’t see. At the level I teach, I sometimes laugh at how blatantly students cheat. They don’t stop to think about the quality of the paper they are copying, and copy it right down to the same misspellings. They are then shocked when I question them about their papers.

The third leg of the triangle is rationalization. The students who cheat, have not set out from the beginning with the intent to cheat. Instead, I think they suddenly find themselves in a no win position. They suddenly realize that the quiz or test is a reality, and that they really don’t know the information. With my students the latter is usually due to a lack of reviewing. Rarely is it due to a true lack of understanding of the material. This is very similar to the rationalization of fraud on the part of employees. The employees engaging in this behavior are not criminals, and certainly don’t perceive themselves to be such. Instead, these are people who have found themselves in a bad situation, and they have only done what is necessary to solve it. They believe themselves to be honest people who are deserving of what they have taken.

As a teacher, I talk frequently with the students about the consequences of cheating, and how cheating prevents them from really understanding what they know, and with what they need help. It essentially stunts their learning. We discuss at length the negative consequences a student faces if they are caught cheating. The interesting thing is that with students and adults, because the cheating or fraud is done with the belief they won’t get caught, any use of negative consequences as a deterrent is futile. If you don’t believe what I am saying, I highly recommend watching the movie “Cheaters” which is based on an actual event involving students in Chicago. It is an extremely frightening look into the motivation and the rationalization of a group of students involved in cheating to win a national competition. Even after all was said and done, and the students had been caught, not one of them thought they had done anything wrong. Some even went on to cheat in their jobs as adults.

What can we do to put an end to cheating? I don’t know if there is a way to totally end it, but I do think we can stop some of it. According to Cressey, employees only commit fraud if all three legs of the triangle are present. One major way to deter fraud is to remove the perceived pressure. Perhaps for students, if parents removed the external rewards such as money, and the punishments for less than the desired grade, students wouldn’t feel the need to cheat. Would this work? I can’t prove that it would, but I do know that the students in my classes who are most likely to cheat are the very ones who say “If I don’t get an A I won’t/will get…” You can fill in the blank with the appropriate dollar amount or punishment. If there ever was a reason to sit back and rethink what we as parents present to our children, this must be it.

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