Academic Dishonesty among High School Students

By McCabe, Donald L. | Adolescence, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

Academic Dishonesty among High School Students

McCabe, Donald L., Adolescence


Research on academic dishonesty has generally relied on survey techniques, which may fail to capture students' true feelings about cheating. The present investigation used focus group discussions to gain a fuller understanding of students' beliefs about academic dishonesty. The results suggest that, in regard to their cheating, students generally place the blame on others.


The literature on cheating among college and high school students has shown that it is widespread and growing (McCabe & Trevino, 1996; Schab, 1991). For their part, students have readily offered a variety of rationalizations for academic dishonesty (Evans & Craig, 1990; McCabe, 1992). High school students in particular conveniently place the blame on others--the school, teachers, parents, or society (Anderman, Griesinger, & Westerfield, 1998).

Most of the research, however, has utilized survey techniques, which define the topics that respondents are to address. As a result, it is not clear that the most relevant questions have been asked, and that we truly understand how students themselves frame the issue of cheating. In contrast to survey techniques, focus group approaches provide qualitative information about a topic, and allow participants to raise the issues that they feel are most relevant.

In an effort to better understand student thinking about cheating, four focus group discussions--led by the Center for Public Interest Polling at Rutgers University and funded by a grant from the Educational Testing Service--were held on the issue of academic dishonesty. Each session lasted about two hours. Thirty-two high school and college students in northern New Jersey participated.

In these discussions, students displayed little reluctance to discuss the topic of cheating, and they talked freely about their own experiences as well as those of their peers. Almost all admitted to some type of cheating. The high school students were decidedly more blase about cheating than were the college students. Since their views may well be a harbinger of change that will soon be reaching college campuses, findings from the two focus groups conducted with high school students are presented here. They came from eight high schools, representing a mix of urban and suburban, public and private, and single sex and coed. Eighteen were college-bound seniors and one was a junior. Firm college plans included Cornell (two students), Hartford, New York University, Notre Dame, Seton Hall, Virginia, Wellesley, and Yale (two students), among others.


Cheating is a complex issue for most students (e.g., Michaels & Miethe, 1989). Their standards in regard to what is and what is not cheating often vary depending on the context (LaBeff et al., 1990). Decisions about academic dishonesty are clearly influenced by societal and school norms, as well as the attitudes of teachers and, most importantly, friends (McCabe & Trevino, 1993, 1997). Unfortunately, these influences are not always positive, as the following student comments suggest.

I think times have changed. Cheating is kind of considered, I don't know, just a kind of daily thing that's out there, almost kind of acceptable. Teachers know it and students know it.

Maybe when our parents were growing up or their parents were growing up, it was a lot tighter and stricter on people cheating. Today it's just not happening. I think grown-ups have gotten a little bit more with-it in terms of knowing that you're just going to kind of cheat.

It's almost a big deal if you don't cheat.

It appears that cheating does not weigh heavily on the conscience of high school students.

I guess the first time you do it, you feel really bad, but then you get used to it. You keep telling yourself you're not doing anything wrong.... Maybe you might know in your heart that it's wrong, but it gets easier after a while to handle it. …

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