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Looking for the easy A: Why do good students cheat?

FILE: The media is seen outside the Edward R. Roybal Federal Building and United States Courthouse on March 13, 2019 in Los Angeles, California, where actors Felicity Huffman, Lori Loughlin and designer Mossimo Giannulli faced charges in a college admission cheating scheme involving bribery and fraud in attempts to get students recruited as athletes and help them cheat on exams. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

SALT LAKE CITY — Thanks to technology and many COVID protocols, students can more easily cheat on math tests and spelling quizzes. But students who do their own work feel pressure to share their answers with other students. 

More than 70 West Point cadets are accused of cheating on a calculus exam, administered remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It is the worst academic scandal since the 1970s at the Army’s premier officer training school. Most of the cadets will be required to repeat a year of schooling. Eight cadets were expelled, academy officials said earlier this month.

Dave Noriega and Debbie Dujanovic decided to look into the topic of cheating in school. They were joined by BYU psychologist Tom Golightly to answer the question: Why do good people cheat?

Why students cheat? Pressure to share answers

Dave pointed out that cheating in schools is as old as schools themselves. 

“Cheating is eternal, right? What I’m finding is that it’s so much more prevalent now because it’s so easy to share answers to share quizzes because of technology,” he said.

Dave sat down with a junior high school junior named Sadie and talked to her about cheating and specifically pressure to share her answers to tests, quizzes and exams. This is what she said:

“I would say yes. If someone just asked, I just felt bad saying no. And I just feel like they’re accountable for them needing it rather than me giving it. It’s almost expected because it’s just so normal that people don’t even think twice about it,” Sadie said.

Golightly said he observed in his own children during elementary school more of an emphasis on group work and group projects as opposed to individualized learning.

“When we do that sharing, there are people that are harmed by it. There is an accountability to the person that’s willing to share as well as the person benefiting from the sharing,” he said. 

Another reason? Outcome-based worth

Dave asked Sadie why students are cheating. This is what she said:

“I just feel like today people are so caught up with letter grades or achieving that ‘A.’ They’ll do anything for that. . . . I feel like getting a letter grade or an A or a 4.0 [grade point average, it’s just what everyone’s focusing on, just the pressure of living up those expectations,” Sadie said.

Golightly said so often a person worth is defined by the outcomes he or she is able to perform academically or athletically.

“I agree with Satie 100 percent that it’s about the grade. If I don’t get the grade that I’m worth not as much as my peers. My parents view me less. And whether that’s right or wrong in that household, that’s definitely the perception that many students have,” he said.

Golightly said there’s a notion reinforced by parents that the outcome is more important than the process.

“It doesn’t matter what we’re learning or how we’re learning. It’s just show me that you did it right,” Golightly said. “We really create some performance anxiety, a pressure of . . . not just pass the class but to establish my worth.”

Personal worth is not graded

“As parents we can start to establish [children’s] worth outside of performance. Yes, we need to be nice to people; that’s a good thing, but can we establish worth that’s not based on any certain outcome,” Golightly said.

He said when a student is caught cheating on a test, the tendency for parents is to save them from the consequences that follow.

“Those natural consequences of being caught and whatever the teacher and the school is going to do if you have to do . . . summer school. Let that natural consequence play out. They’re probably going to learn better from that than anything that we would impose as parents,” Golightly said.


West Point accuses more than 70 cadets of cheating

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