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Attitudes Toward Cheating

by Eli H. Newberger, M.D. (6 December 2003)

(This lesson is based on an excerpt of the book "The Men They Will Become: The Nature and Nurture of the Male Character" by Dr. Newberger.)

Chapter 19 in my book "The Men They Will Become" addresses the problem of cheating, especially by boys in the academic setting. This section discusses the different attitudes towards cheating. It follows the section on Why Do Students Cheat?

Some examples of cheating

Early in his career, long before he had become an icon of American architecture, Frank Lloyd Wright was so desperate to acquire a commission that he showed his potential client one of Louis Sullivan's great buildings in Chicago and claimed that he, Wright, was its architect. He got the commission. I think of Wright whenever I'm tempted to assume that it's the untalented who cheat, or that cheating will surely corrupt talent.

Of the three parties most interested in the outcome of a high school cheating incident—the accused student, the teacher (and the school administrators behind him or her), and the parents, each has a different perspective. The alleged pressure that leads to cheating is attributed by most high school students to their parents, to their peers, and sometimes to their own personal calculations.

The overwhelming testimony of high school students is that when a student is caught cheating, the teacher, out of sympathy, misguided or not, or out of desire to avoid personal confrontation with the student or his parents, often looks the other way. Many instances of exposed cheating are not followed up. The teacher knows that even the most blatant case may provoke hassling by parents, administrative hearings, maybe an override decision by the principal, or even litigation. For whatever reason, most of the time there is no penalty. Consequently, there is little general deterrence based on fear.

Sympathy for students

In some instances, I'm sure, the disinclination of the teacher to pursue evidence of cheating is based on sympathy for students trying to cope in a grade-oriented system. My brother has a high school teacher colleague who, when he is teaching a class drawn from a low-achiever track, deliberately leaves the room for a few minutes during each test so that the students can swap answers. He rationalizes this action on the basis that those students need "all the help they can get." So, in certain respects, the status quo pits students and teachers as allies against the grading system.

In times now gone by, a teacher could afford without risk to judge each case of cheating on its merits, meting out either punishment or exemption. These days, however, teachers are often judged on the overall performance of their classes, compared, when feasible, to standards set on a statewide or nationwide basis. Teachers now have incentive to collude with students' cheating in order to make it appear that the teacher has been successful in raising class performance to an acceptable level.

Example of faculty colusion

In 1995 the Academic Decathlon team from a Chicago high school compiled a tremendous score on the six-hour written examination that is the basis of the competition, and it appeared the school had won the coveted state title. But elation soon turned to dismay when evidence of cheating turned up. With the collusion of the faculty mentor, the team had prepared ahead of time, using a stolen copy of the exam questions. "It was such a good team," the principal remembers ruefully. "A dream team. They didn't have to win it all. It would have been wonderful if they had finished tenth or twelfth in the state. We'd have been so proud. Instead they went right down the tubes. It was gut-wrenching." The school hasn't fielded a team since then.

Parents may swing back and forth from a parental role in which they are interested in remedying their sons' cheating, to overidentifying with their sons. A father whose eighth-grade son had been suspended for cheating, said that he supported the suspension; but, he said, if the suspension caused any permanent blemish on his son's school record, or if the matter were made public in such a way as to harm his son's reputation, he would immediately switch passionately to his son's defense.

Campaign against cheating

Educational Testing Services, known worldwide for its standard entrance examinations for colleges and universities, recently proposed a national public service campaign against cheating, especially in test-taking in schools. The rationale for the campaign cited the same kind of statistics I've cited above concerning the prevalence of academic cheating. The plan targeted nine- to twelve-year-olds in public schools as a group to be taught individual values such as honesty, integrity, and responsibility. Though I think there are flaws in the proposal, I applaud attempts to raise the level of national awareness of character issues.

Individual competition

One theme of the proposal emphasized individual competition: "Children need to understand that tests are a part of life-whether it be your turn at bat or a spelling quiz. Each is a test, and each requires practice. . . . In order to prepare themselves for winning, children need to understand that winning requires doing, and doing requires learning. If a child hasn't learned to swing a bat, he won't hit the ball." As the proposal concluded, at another point, "Cheating undermines integrity and fairness at all levels. It leads to weak life performance and corrodes the merit basis of our society."

Value of learning

Another theme of the proposal emphasized the intrinsic value of learning, though not without getting learning, values, and success intertwined: "Children must know that learning, knowledge, values and ethics are more important in assuring moral character and success, than just getting by or getting a grade:' (Italics mine.) If only individual children would adopt the view that it is learning that matters, and that cheating obscures lack of learning, it is suggested, all will be well. There is a degree of contradiction between these two themes. A college student newspaper essay quoted in the Educational Testing Service proposal identifies the contradiction without knowing how to resolve it. For some students, the essay says,

the desire to secure the best grades has become a paramount force that drives their education. With so much emphasis placed on outcomes in our society something is lost along the way. The learning process becomes overshadowed by the final outcome. . . . Grades, rather than education, have become the major focus of many students entering universities today. Their goals become simple: get in, survive, get the grade, and get out.

Why target nine- to twelve-year-olds in a campaign about cheating? It is in the middle school years (sixth or seventh through eighth or ninth grades, depending on where a particular school system makes the divisions) that grading gets emphasized in many American schools; there are schools that do not give numerical or letter grades for achievement until the sixth or seventh grade. It is in the middle school years that widespread cheating is first noticed, and the phenomenon intensifies in high school.

Cheating patterns

Researchers at the University of Kentucky studied cheating patterns among almost three hundred middle school students. Forty percent of the students admitted to cheating. "Cheaters thought the purpose of school is to compete and show how smart you are," says the main author of the study. "To them, what's most important is doing better than others and getting the right answers."

Defining cheating as an individual moral issue for a meritocracy carries a barely hidden ideology with it; and that ideology, of course, is as open to moral scrutiny as is the issue of cheating itself. The implication of pure meritocracy is that everyone should take the test honestly, and the (perhaps relatively few) winners should reap the coveted rewards, and all the losers should accept the verdict and make do with the scraps that are left over. The tracking system in many middle and high schools begins early in life to assign kids their probable destinations in the meritocracy.

Rig the system

Is it any wonder that adolescents try to rig the system to their own benefit and that they often do it in collaborative ways that suggest collective solidarity as much as individual self-interest? As Robin Stansbury wrote in the Hartford-Courant,

"Jake Raphael was sitting quietly in his sixth-period foreign language class at West Hartford's Hall High School last year when his teacher passed out a weekly quiz—a quiz Raphael had already obtained the answers to. It happened quickly earlier that morning, as students shuffled between classes. Another student, who had taken the test earlier, shoved the copied exam into Raphael's outstretched hands. He wasn't the only student given an advance copy of the test. Most of the students in the afternoon session had seen the quiz by the time the class began. Raphael, now a senior, said he debated with himself for only a minute that morning before deciding to memorize the quiz. And as he sat at his desk, the perfectly completed quiz sheet before him, Raphael said he had no remorse."

To evaluate a school

One way to evaluate a school is to analyze how it emphasizes two different modes—a learning mode or a selection mode. The latter mode emphasizes the selection, mainly through grading, of the students who are the brightest. There is certainly a very substantial overlap between good grades and the amount of learning that has occurred. Sometimes, though, real learning occurs but it isn't fully reflected in the grading system. In other instances, grades bestowed indicate more learning has occurred than is true. Cheating would account for some of this disparity, but not all of it. Favoritism by teachers accounts for some of it, too.

For the learning mode to fulfill its promise, I think a society has to establish hope for every student that diligent and honest effort will be rewarded with attractive continuing opportunities in life, no matter how well his results stack up against the grades of the best students. It is too idealistic to argue that learning is its own reward, because you can't expect kids growing up not to make decisions based heavily on how their choices might take them toward a satisfying career.

A learning mode would naturally take into consideration the many factors that can adversely influence an individual student's capacity: a difficult temperament; emotional problems such as depression; neurological problems such as ADD/ ADHD or dyslexia; health problems that affect vision or hearing; distracting. sometimes abusive, family situations; social barriers such as racial, ethnic. or class prejudice; the amount of family support available; and the quality of instruction both technically and temperamentally. A learning-based system tries to take account of all these factors. because only in doing so can the potential of the student be maximized. Merit or grading systems, I believe, show less incentive to try to make the playing field as level as it can be for all.

Every school is a mixture of both these modes. The teachers that most high school students remember with highest affection are the teachers who inspired them to learn, often by teaching a subject with notable brilliance and enthusiasm, but many times also by showing acute sensitivity to the particular needs of students. But most middle and high schools are dominated by the grading system, and the evidence of it is the prevalence of cheating.


When learning is most highly valued, there is little incentive to cheat. When grades matter most, cheating rises as students begin to use every available means to increase their class ranking, or be seen as helpful to friends when they offer work to copy. Thus we may think of cheating as a social phenomenon induced by grading pressure at least as much as it is a phenomenon of individual character failure. The grading pressure is generated by the culture and personified by many parents. We can see resistance to this pressure when better students give worse students their homework to copy—by far the most common form of school cheating. This is too massive a phenomenon to be dismissed individual by individual; it amounts to social resistance by the young. Collaborative academic cheating is, in its way, an odd expression of altruism among adolescents at the same time that it is a deceitful breaking of rules.

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