How You Can Stop Cheating (Before it Starts)

Over half of the students in your class are cheaters. 

Sorry to break it to you, but the national averages have confirmed that:   

52% admit to cheating on a test at school.

74% admitted to copying another student’s homework.[i]


Why Do People Cheat?

There are a number of reasons, but  cheaters do not actually see themselves as immoral.  Rather, they tell themselves a different narrative.

Dan Ariely, head of Duke’s Center for Advanced Hindsight, and his team of researchers realized that mental exhaustion, the chance of getting caught, and how recently we were reminded of our moral compass were just some of the variables that affected our penchant for cheating and dishonesty.


(Check out this TED Talk for more on our “Buggy Moral Code.”)

There are a few proven ways to prevent cheating in the classroom. 

Below are four easy tips to implement today:

1. Have them think about the Ten Commandments.

Cheating is a very complicated psychological process. Dan Ariely has run multiple studies on cheating.  He found that if given the chance people will cheat, but only enough that they do not feel like a bad person. (It’s about social proof which we have discussed before)

“We came up with this idea of a fudge factor, which means that people have two goals: We have a goal to look at ourselves in the mirror and feel good about ourselves, and we have a goal to cheat and benefit from cheating. And we find that there’s a balance between these two goals. That is, we cheat up to the level that we would find it comfortable [to still feel good about ourselves].”[ii]

Dan and his team tried a few different strategies to get people not to cheat.

His solution:

Have them try to recount the Ten Commandments before a test.

“In one test, he and his collaborators asked participants to recall the Ten Commandments just before a situation that tempted them to be dishonest. They found that every single participant played it straight, even though none could recall all 10 moral directives. They even “invented all kinds of new commandments,” said Ariely.

What about the students that are not from a Judeo-Christian background?

“It’s not so much about God,” he said. “It’s about reminding people of their own morality.”[iii] 

(Remember: Our Brain Thinks First about Survival, Then Social Status, and Finally about Problem Solving.)

If our unconscious brain believes that we stand a better chance of survival or we will be accepted more by cheating, then we are more likely do to so.

However, eliminate these factors through the restating of social norms and we will be less likely to cheat!

So before your next test, you may want to just have a quick question and answer session where the students try to name the Ten Commandments.



2. Sign the test or project before you begin

People need reminders.  You could discuss plagiarism and cheating before tests or projects, but having them sign the test or project is a seemingly effective way of stopping them from cheating or plagiarizing. “Using both field and lab experiments, we find that signing before rather than after having faced the opportunity to cheat raises the saliency of ethics and morality and leads to significant reductions in dishonesty.”[iv]

Fig. 2.

3. Have Students Sign an Honor Code Before A Test or Project


Very similar to above is when students signed an honor code they were a lot less likely to cheat. Dan Ariely’s team “ asked students to sign an honor code before participating in a task that offered them the opportunity to misreport their performance in order to earn more money in an experiment. While the students overstated their performance in the absence of an honor code, the authors observed no cheating when students were asked to read and sign an honor code at the beginning of the task.[v]


4. Have Students Read An Honor Code Before a Test or Project

Another study took the honor code strategy a bit further and in this case the students were simply asked to read the honor code.[vi]

Researchers Shu, Gino, and Bazerman compared people‘s self-reports when they simply read or did not read an honor code before participating in a task that offered the opportunity to overstate one‘s performance to earn more money.  Once again, participants who first read an honor code were less likely to cheat than those who did not. As the authors state,

That a simple signature following an honor code can drastically change behavior points to the malleability of moral self-regulation. Determinants of honesty do not lie completely within the individual; seemingly innocuous factors outside the individual can dramatically affect the decision to behave honestly or dishonestly.”

In conclusion:

  1. Make sure that you eliminate the ability for students to rationalize cheating.
  2. Clarify that the student’s honor is at stake.
  3. Finally, have them think about ethics and morality prior to the event in which they are able to cheat.

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You also might want to check out: Why Your Students Don’t Pay Attention How a Navy SEAL Would Plan Your Lessons Is it Possible to Learn an Entire Curriculum in an Hour? References: [i]… [ii] Zetter, K. (2009, January 1). TED: Dan Ariely on Why We Cheat | WIRED. Retrieved January 2, 2015, from Page on [iii] When Economics Met Psychology. (2011). Retrieved January 2, 2015, from When Economics Met Psychology [iv] “When to Sign on the Dotted Line? Signing First Makes Ethics Salient and Decreases Dishonest Self-Reports” from Harvard Business School Working Paper Number 11-117 [v] On Amir, Dan Ariely and Nina Mazar (2008), “The Dishonesty of Honest People: A Theory of Self-Concept Maintenance.” Journal of Marketing Research. Vol. 45: 633-634. [vi] Shu, L., Gino, F., & Bazerman, M. (2011). Dishonest deed, clear conscience: When cheating leads to moral disengagement and motivated forgetting. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37(3), 330-349.

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