The Art of Cheating


With one stroke of a pen, Clayton High School students pledge themselves to a particular set of academic standards, guaranteeing they will abide by the school-wide regulations provided to maintain a high level of academic and moral integrity.

Each year, during the first week of school, time is taken out of one class to review these guidelines for preserving educational honesty. Despite the fact that all Clayton High School students are required to sign this contract, some – and perhaps the majority – disregard the words which they have promised to observe.

CHS is recognized as a school with high achieving students, but such success among the student body generates a highly competitive atmosphere with intense pressure on students to perform well. In facing such pressures, with only 24 hours in a day and an overwhelming amount of responsibilities, one of the means by which success can be attained is through cheating.

But what are the other chief causes contributing to cheating at Clayton High School? Why do many seemingly academically honorable students turn to dishonorable means of acquiring the grades they desire, and how many of them do so?

As it turns out, numerous factors contribute to why Clayton students resort to cheating. In a recent survey conducted by the CHS Globe staff regarding Clayton’s views on academic integrity, 97.9 percent of students describe themselves as being “generally very busy” during the school year. While a possible motivator could be the sheer fact that some students are just lazy and do not have the confidence to obtain good grades on their own, it is clear that nearly all CHS students consider themselves to be heavily involved; and for some, the lack of time in their daily lives is a dominant force in contributing to the presence of cheating.

CHS student Laura* feels that success at Clayton is almost socially imperative, which also may drive kids to cheat as a means of getting better – and more “acceptable” – grades.

“I think it’s mostly the stress factor that makes Clayton kids cheat. If you have college riding on how well you do on your final exams and you have the option to cheat, you’re probably going to find some way to do it,” Laura* said. “There’s so much pressure at Clayton for kids to ace tests and to have a 4.0 GPA, and when it comes down to it, when you have homework in every class, you have to prioritize.”

Nancy*, a CHS junior, frequently endures 14 hour days away from home during the school week due to in-and-out of school extracurriculars.  She then must shift her focus directly to homework, and like many CHS students, hardly has free time during the day.

“I think if you are in a position where you have an insanely busy schedule and are sometimes not even getting home until 9 a night, and you know you just can’t make everything happen by yourself, it’s completely understandable to have the work of others sent to you every once in awhile,” Nancy said.

CHS places immense emphasis on gaining a competitive advantage via excellent grades, rigorous courses and multiple extracurriculars. In a day occupied by many different activities, the joy of learning is often then compromised. This, in turn, compels students to make a difficult decision: is it worth sacrificing personal integrity in order to properly “play the game of school” and develop an attractive transcript, contributing to a supposedly brighter future in college and beyond?

According to the survey, 65.03 percent of Clayton High School students admit to having ever cheated on homework by sending or being sent an assignment. With nearly two thirds of students participating in this breach of academic integrity, such instances of cheating can almost be considered commonplace.

According to Stacy Felps, current CHS instructional coordinator and former math teacher, this break with ethicality can largely be attributed to the fact that students, over all else, prioritize achieving respectable grades.

“At Clayton, what’s really interesting is you end up with a lot of good people almost forced into making choices about cheating because they care so deeply about the grades and because they are overextended,” Felps said. “It doesn’t make them bad people, it makes them people who are stuck between a rock and a hard spot and they have to make a really devastating choice.”

CHS history teacher Sam Harned warns against what he views as this preoccupation with end goals at the expense of the acquisition of knowledge and life skills gained through the learning process.

“I think the dangerous thing with a high achieving school like Clayton that puts lots of emphasis on getting good grades and going to a selective college is people mistake product for process. If you’re all about the product, you’ve turned yourself into an object. You’ve commodified yourself. The process of learning is so significant, it’s deep, it’s long, and it will outlast any product you create,” Harned said.

Long-time CHS psychology teacher David Aiello has taught rigorous courses at Clayton such as AP U.S. History and AP Psychology. Aiello has worked with many capable students during his Clayton tenure, but has been disappointed to encounter students willing to compromise their moral rectitude and affinity for the learning process if they believe it will translate into easier achievement of better grades.

“In [the Clayton] community, achievements matter a whole lot – I would suggest that maybe they matter a little bit too much – and the journey along the way is not as valued,” Aiello said. “And so the mindset is, as long as I get the grade, as long as I get the score, as long as I get that rush, I can become addicted to that and not have to worry about the joy of just learning.”

Aiello provided insight into the psyche of the adolescent mind and the root causes of the overzealous student’s desire to achieve good grades.

“Our brain is wired to give us rewards, and a lot of things give us rewards. One of those things is feeling like we just did something well, or made an accomplishment,” Aiello said. “When you get a good grade, it’s going to give you a little dopamine rush.”

However, Aiello also mentioned that experiencing guilt for having acquired this dopamine rush through dishonest means can also manifest itself within the subconscious mind when someone cheats.

“Although you might get that dopamine rush, if you’ve achieved that score or grade form cheating, you would like to think that there’s some other part of your brain that thinks, ‘Oh, God, this is horrible, I can’t believe I did this.’ And oftentimes, that’s what happens,” Aiello said.

Aiello is correct in his assertion that experiencing guilt as a result of having cheated is a sentiment shared by some Clayton High School students, but not many admit to feeling regret for breaking the guidelines of academic integrity. Only 34.07 percent of students who admitted to having ever sent or received a homework assignment also reported feeling guilty for having done so.

Perhaps one explanation as to the prevalence of cheating is not just the ambiguity of Clayton’s stance on academic integrity, but the fact that both teachers and students have varying opinions on what constitutes cheating itself. This, in turn, causes every individual to subjectively interpret the language of the document binding them to maintain academic probity.

Felps, for instance, discussed how although she felt a responsibility to uphold Clayton’s guidelines as enshrined in the academic integrity contract, she also believes teachers deserve the liberty to implement the standards how they see fit within their own classrooms.

“Yes, there is a sheet, and yes it does have guidelines for what to do. As a classroom teacher, I am bound to follow the guidelines that are there.  But at the same time, I have taken some leeway at times – so I’ve cheated on the cheating policy,” Felps said.

Similarly, Aiello believes many teachers regard Clayton’s policies on the academic honorability of students with subjectivity. While teachers do have a duty to uphold school policy, a reality of the matter is that students and teachers alike naturally have different preconceptions on what constitutes cheating.

“I tell my students what my opinion is, not what school policy is, not what the community belief is,” Aiello said. “I know as a faculty, we’ve never had a really detailed discussion and I’m kind of curious as to what that kind of discussion would be. I think you would find that teachers are on just as wide a spectrum as kids about what is and what is not acceptable.”

From the perspective of a CHS student, it is understandable that the Clayton administration desires a set of standards by which all students must abide – but perhaps also unrealistic.

  “I think it’s fair to say kids shouldn’t cheat and shouldn’t plagiarize but I do think that most kids, whether or not they will admit to it, have cheated in one way or another,” Laura* said. “I think the idea of academic integrity is really ambiguous because everyone has their own definition of cheating. I don’t consider doing homework with a friend as cheating.”

The Clayton academic integrity contract, while serving mainly as a source of guidance for what is considered cheating, fails to specifically name consequences for doing so. In turn, the responsibility of administering penalties to students is reverted to the interpretation of the individual teacher.

Harned also described how these subjective interpretations of the regulations relates to the implementation of discipline in the outside world.

“Anytime you pass a law, there will be a subjective interpretation of that law,” Harned said. “I can see teachers using a case-by-case situation. I think teachers will treat you differently if cheating is a one time thing, just as police will treat you differently if you commit a crime and it’s a one time thing. But if you have a repeated offender, there’s going to be more of a punishment.”

The subjectivity of Clayton’s academic integrity contract and the ambiguity with which it defines cheating is also evidenced by the way that teachers and students generally interpret the language of the document differently.

While many teachers consider the sharing of assessment questions or answers by students who have already taken the test or quiz to those who have not yet done so to be cheating, 71.32 percent of students reported having done so; additionally, 65.85 percent of students who admitted to having shared or received answers on an assessment stated they do not consider this supposed breach of academic integrity to be consistent with their personal perceptions of what constitutes cheating.

Nancy is among the majority of students who feel that certain elements of cheating are inevitable within the CHS student body.

“I think more of the extremely direct examples on the academic integrity contract are fair, but the more day-to-day examples like students sharing homework or telling the next class a question on the test are just simply not very preventable,” Nancy said.

With such diverse opinions regarding Clayton’s academic integrity standards, there also come different notions of what transgressions of the contract are more or less severe, are therefore also to what degree they are excusable. Similarly, teachers and students support varying opinions on whether or not cheating is more excusable dependent upon individual circumstance.

For instance, is it more understandable if a student with rigorous classes and intense extracurriculars copies a homework assignment than one who is guilty of the same infraction but is just too lazy to do the work? In other words, do the causes contributing to the students’ decision to cheat impact whether or not their actions are more justifiable?

54.22 percent of the CHS student body believes so.

“I think that if you’re cheating because you’re stressed you are doing it because you have high standards for yourself,” Laura said.  “But if you are just cheating because you are lazy, there is no excuse to not at least try.  And if you are in really hard classes and honestly can’t make the time to study for a test, I think it’s more acceptable to cheat.”

To a degree, Felps acknowledged the legitimacy of that sometimes challenging situation, but notes that it is still a violation of integrity and of the academic standards that students are held to.

“Students end up in too many clubs, or too many sports, or too many AP classes to do everything to the level they wish they could. I think it can get to the point where students feel like cheating is their only way.  So, you end up with really good people who sell their integrity for those reasons,” Felps said.

Interestingly, cheating on homework often does not correlate with cheating on exams; despite their tendency to cheat outside of school, many students maintain confidence in their own ability to perform on tests without cutting corners. Although almost two thirds of students admit to cheating on homework assignments, only 29.6 percent have done so on examinations.

Indeed, the survey indicates that students are more than two times as inclined to cheat when outside the walls of Clayton High School.

This data suggests that students have the ability to perform because they have successfully mastered the “game of school.”

Harned makes the argument that a truly high achieving student should not have to relent to breaking the guidelines of academic integrity. After all, he argues, it is the student’s choice to select challenging courses and to participate in a myriad of extracurriculars.

“I would say nothing is excusable. With a high ability kid, cheating shouldn’t happen,” Harned said. “There’s just no excuse for someone with high ability to say they are going to get their answers from somebody else.  You are on a dangerous path if you start making excuses about cheating.”

Ryan Luhning, CHS assistant principal, has the responsibility to discipline students regarding academic integrity. In Luhning’s perspective, any act of cheating, regardless of magnitude, is a loss of academic virtue and deserves of equitable consequence.

“I think all cheating is the same,” Luhning said. “It doesn’t have to be cheating on a test or a final exam.  It doesn’t have to be a large project.  It can be as simple as a one question from your neighbor – to me, that constitutes cheating.”

Only 15 years ago, exactly zero Clayton High School students used smartphones as a means of cheating on homework assignments and in-class assessments. Today, two thirds of the student body has sent and received homework. Due to the abundance of technological resources, students have been enabled to access virtually all of the knowledge in the world.

“Technology is huge [for cheating],” Laura said. “You have the Internet right at your hands, and you can just search up any question and in 30 seconds get the answer.  And kids can easily find ways to be discrete about it.”

Felps echoed Laura’s statement on the prevalence of cheating via technology, believing that over time, the means of cheating have evolved in conjunction with development of portable resources.

“I wouldn’t say that cheating has gotten any worse through the years in terms of the number of offenses. I would say the way cheating is done is much more sophisticated. Technology has moved so quickly that we are kind of defining cheating as it is happening,” Felps said.

Laura attests that bending the rules has become easier due to the advent of technology.

During her sophomore year, Laura was caught cheating on a test when she was using her phone to look up answers. When the teacher noticed Laura had been using her phone to do so, her test was confiscated. Though Laura was not allowed to finish the test, her teacher still graded what she had completed, and she ultimately received a C on the assessment. After apologizing profusely for her transgression, Laura was convinced further punishment would still ensue. No disciplinary action, however, was taken by either her teacher or by school administration. Although her grade did not suffer due to the incident, Laura said it caused her to undergo a transformation in her moral character, and that she has become more pragmatic in her actions regarding academic integrity.

“Sophomore year, that wasn’t the only time [I cheated],” Laura said. “There were a few other times I was involved in a homework exchange.  But since then I don’t show my friends my homework anymore because I’m so paranoid about it now.”

Laura’s story demonstrates the increased capacity students have for cheating with handheld technology. However, her story also emphasizes how consequences for cheating can greatly impact an individual mentally rather than tangibly.

Harned also discussed the philosophical implications of immoral acts, both including cheating and any form of dishonesty. Screen Shot 2016-01-08 at 12.08.34 PM

“When you commit any ethical or unethical act, you should ask yourself, ‘would I want to live in a world where this act is universalized? Do I want to live in a world where this occurs [frequently]?’ So, when you think about cheating, you have to ask yourself if I want to live in a world where cheating occurs on a regular basis,” Harned said. “If your anesthesiologist cheated, you would be very concerned. We live in a world based on certification, and that certification is based on legitimacy, that there is a legitimate course of studies, and you know these things.  Once that legitimacy is called into question, and you don’t have correct certification, then you live in a world where anything goes.”

Indeed, a world in which individuals are not truly the characters they profess themselves is a world of complete dishonesty and chaos. In a school environment, as well as in the outside world, an individual’s character requires years of careful and purposeful cultivation to inspire admiration, but can suddenly be destroyed through a single action.

“You can walk around with a stellar reputation, yet it only takes one micro incident to crash you all the way to the bottom,” Felps said. “So what I wish for people is that they would be honest about what they are able to do, and honest about what they are not able to do, and then their reputation is going to stand.”

In a world where such commonplace deceit and disingenuousness exists, how can we determine what is genuine and what is fallacy?    

Ultimately, individuals have the ability to make their own choices.  Guidelines and rules in society are, of course, necessary, but people will intrinsically use their own judgements as to which regulations are to be regarded and disregarded.

Every individual has distinct motivations for committing unethical acts, subjective interpretations for any set of rules and differing opinions on what consequences in life should be.  While only allowing an individual to interpret regulations imposed by society would undoubtedly lead to a state of chaos, there has to be a degree of faith that people can interpret laws in an appropriate fashion.