3 ways to avoid the temptation to cheat on your next exam

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Cheating happens—and despite the consequences, some of the reasons students do it are easy to understand. “I wanted to get a high mark in the class so I could get into the best colleges [near where] I lived,” says Erica*, now a senior at the University of Kansas.

Looking over someone’s shoulder can seem like it’s NBD—it’s just a little innocent glance, right? Not in the eyes of the people who determine your grades—and whether you graduate. If you get caught cheating, the consequences can be huge—think failing the entire class or getting kicked out of school completely. If you’re unsure of your school’s policy on cheating, your student handbook is a good place to look.

Despite the massive consequences cheating can have, it happens a lot—46 percent of students surveyed in a recent Student Health 101 poll copped to cheating at some point in their academic career.

Students passing notes

The problem is, cheating doesn’t always feel as black-and-white as Googling answers under your desk or paying someone to write a paper for you. “I believe, for the most part, students don’t come to [school] intending to cheat,” says James Black, director of the Center for Academic Achievement at Susquehanna University in Pennsylvania. “More often than not, they get overwhelmed and panic.”

Why students cheat—and how to avoid it

Considering the huge consequences of getting caught cheating, why do so many students still do it? “Cheating on exams is rarely premeditated,” says David Rettinger, executive director of the Center for Honor, Leadership, and Service at the University of Mary Washington in Virginia. “It’s much more commonly a crime of opportunity”—that is, students find themselves in a situation where the answers are available, and they take advantage of it.

Another major reason students cheat? “Lack of time management,” says Jessica Waters, dean of undergraduate education at American University in Washington, DC.

It’s not hard to see how this happens. Balancing classes, college applications, and an after-school job or internship would make anyone feel stressed and even desperate. Like Rettinger, Waters finds that most students who cheat don’t usually set out with the intent to be dishonest—instead, they find themselves in a situation where cheating seems like the only/best option. “Often, students who cheat haven’t set aside enough time to complete a paper, start researching online at 2 a.m., and find themselves copying and pasting material to cobble [it] together,” she says. “This is a recipe for disaster.”

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How to avoid the temptation to cheat

One of the best ways to keep yourself out of a situation where you’re tempted to cheat is by practicing better time management. Here’s how:

1. Check your syllabi at the beginning of the semester and flag any due dates that fall close together.

If you notice you’ll have four exams on the same day, block out specific days to study for each of the tests in the weeks leading up to them. This way, it’s already in your calendar and you can tackle studying one subject at a time.

2. Give yourself plenty of time to research.

When it comes to papers (even the short ones), “set aside enough time to thoroughly research, write it carefully, and then have time to check that you’ve properly attributed and cited any outside resources or work that’s not your own,” says Waters. “When in doubt, cite!”

3. Ask for help.

If you do find yourself in trouble, whether it’s a time crunch or struggling with the material, ask for help—the earlier, the better. If you’re utterly overwhelmed, let your teachers know as soon as possible. They may be more sympathetic earlier in the process rather than to an eleventh-hour plea.

Students taking a test

Citing sources to avoid plagiarism

It’s also important to ensure you know when and how to cite sources properly, since not doing so could be considered plagiarism. If you’re unclear on proper citation conventions—how to document sources and ideas in your work—visit your school’s writing lab, speak with a peer tutor, or consult your teachers. The Purdue Owl is also an excellent resource.

What to do if you get caught

“If you’re accused of plagiarism or other academic dishonesty, make sure you understand your school’s policy and the potential sanctions,” says Waters. “While such a charge can have severe consequences—including dismissal—it’s important to view this as an opportunity to learn a valuable lesson”—for example, how not to get in trouble again. If you’re allowed to remain enrolled in the class, make sure you’re 100 percent clear on what behaviors are considered cheating and what put you in the position to cheat in the first place.

Ultimately, the consequences just aren’t worth it—no matter how easy or justifiable cheating seems. “Honestly, I wasn’t happy [that] that’s how I got my grade, and so I stopped,” says Janelle*, a junior in Dayton, Ohio, who cheated during her freshman year. “I was really proud of myself after taking a test I didn’t cheat on because I knew that it was my hard work that got me the good grade.”

Find Out More or Get Help

These resources can help you learn more about academic integrity and proper citation techniques.

Academic integrity in high school: KidsHealth

Online Writing Lab (OWL): Purdue University

International Center for Academic Integrity: Clemson University

For more information about these topics, as well as your school’s honor code, consult your teacher, or writing lab or peer tutoring program, if you have one.

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Article sources

David Rettinger, executive director, the Center for Honor, Leadership, and Service, and associate professor of psychology, University of Mary Washington, Fredericksburg, Virginia.

James Black, director, the Center of Academic Achievement, Susquehanna University, Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania.

Jessica Waters, dean of undergraduate students, American University, Washington DC.

Best College Reviews. (2012). Cheating in college: The numbers and research. Retrieved from https://www.bestcollegereviews.org/cheating/

Dillion. W. (26 June, 2006). Study examines why students cheat. Ames Tribune, as printed in USA Today. Retrieved from http://www.usatoday.com/tech/science/2006-06-26-cheating-study_x.htm

Grasgreen, Ali. (16 March, 2012). Who cheats, and how. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2012/03/16/arizona-survey-examines-student-cheating-faculty-responses

Iowa State University News Service. (15 June, 2006). Why do some students cheat? They rationalize it, ISU research finds. Retrieved from http://www.public.iastate.edu/~nscentral/news/06/jun/rationalizing.shtml

Talk of the Nation. (19 July, 2010). Cheating in college is widespread—but why? National Public Radio. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=128624207

Young, J. R. (18 March, 2010). Cheaters never win, at least in physics, a professor finds. Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from http://chronicle.com/blogs/wiredcampus/cheaters-never-win-at-least-in-physics-a-professor-finds/21895

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