On Campus

What do I do if I'm tempted to cheat?

Journalism prof Alex Gillis says that not all cheaters are morally deficient—but you should honour the research of those who came before you

Grades are the currency in university and students know it,” says Ryerson journalism professor Alex Gillis. And this is one of the reasons that students cheat. A recent study has found that 53 per cent of nearly 15,000 Canadian students admitted to cheating on written work. With the pressure for good grades from parents, future job opportunities, scholarships, and grad school admission, it is likely that you may find yourself in that 53 per cent at some time during your academic career. So what exactly is cheating? And what do you do if you are tempted?

Maclean’s talked to Alex Gillis to find out. Gillis is a journalist and editor who teaches feature writing at Ryerson. He was shocked the first time he caught a student cheating in one of his classes, which led him to investigate the topic thoroughly and write a story for University Affairs Magazine.

Maclean’s: You have mentioned that you were surprised to discover that many good students can be cheaters. Why were you surprised? Why do these students cheat?

Alex Gillis: I was surprised because, like so many others, I expected that the students with the Cs and the ones who are afraid of failing would be desperate and cheat. In fact, good students also cheat to jump from a B+ to an A- or from an A- to an A.

Part of the reason is because the massive pressure if they are trying to get into grad school or professional school or get scholarships or job opportunities. Grades are the currency in university and students know it.

M: What are some other motivations for cheating?

AG: Until about a decade ago people focused on individual reasons for cheating. Individual reasons could be that students are morally deficient, they are lazy, they have emotional problems, they drink too much—all individual problems.

After there was some research—mainly by Donald McCabe [founding president of Duke University’s Center for Academic Integrity] in the States—it was found that there is a second cluster of reasons called social or cultural reasons and they are quite broad. One would be: how concerned is the university about academic integrity and stopping cheating? How serious is the department and the course?

A third bunch of reasons is around pedagogical stuff, the course itself. How is the course laid out? How fair is the marking? Do students think it’s fair? For instance, if the prof has got a bunch of labs ad each one is worth a small amount of marks (say, two per cent of the yearly mark) but students have to put in seven to ten hours of work in each lab, they start collaborating and copying each other and doing things that the prof doesn’t want them to do and it’s called cheating.

Some courses are set up like games. The students figure out the rules, because they are very smart, and they play by the unspoken rules of the game instead of the rules laid out in the course description.

Students will cheat if they feel cheated (this is from Julia Christensen Hughes research at the University of Guelph). She and Dr. McCabe concluded that if students feel they are being cheated on grades then they will start cutting corners themselves.

M: What should a student do if they are in a situation where they feel cheated by a professor?

AG: Universities and departments are on to this. For lazy profs, students should go to the chair of the department because it is not fair to the students. Inevitably someone is going to get caught. More students are telling on each other because the vast majority of students are really pissed off at hardcore cheaters.

M: Do you think there is a connection between cheating in universities and cheating in work situations?

AG: The studies are mixed on that. I have two answers. One: yes. Someone who is a cheater at school may cheat at work. But those are hardcore cheaters.

About 15 to 20 per cent of students are hardcore cheaters, which means they cheat constantly and blatantly and do almost anything to cheat. On the other end, 15 to 20 per cent of students won’t cheat at all because they are very ethical. In the middle you have people who are swayed either way depending on the circumstances or their individual issues or the course or the prof.


Most students are not hardcore cheaters and the majority of students will cheat at some point but most of those students won’t go on to cheat at work. So my second answer is ‘no.’ 80 to 95 per cent of students go on to the workplace and although they saw cheating or they cheated, they are not morally deficient.

M: So not all cheaters are morally deficient. Can you explain more?

AG: That’s one thing that is common in some of the old studies: because you cheat in school you are a cheater and there is something wrong with you. A lot of profs get up in arms. And some universities are very severe about cheating, and they should be. But that does not mean that students go on to cheat in the workplace.

M: What are some common consequences of cheating? What should a student who cheats do to limit these consequences?

AG: Try not to make a mistake. But a lot of students make mistakes and don’t even know it until it’s too late. So if you do make a mistake, don’t think you are the scum of the earth. Also, don’t do the typical thing when you’re caught of saying that you didn’t know. Ignorance is no way to get ahead, whether you are cheating or not, because you get lumped in with a bunch of other students who are pretending to be or are ignorant.


If you make a mistake, go to the prof and talk about it. You don’t need to drop to your knees and confess because possibly you’re in a grey area. But definitely talk about it and get on with it because at most universities the first step is talking to the prof.

Most talks stop at that point; they don’t become official. Most profs deal with the issue on their own. This can be a good thing and it can be a bad thing. The good thing is that the problem is dealt with. The bad thing is that the university doesn’t know about it, the department doesn’t know about it, so hardcore cheaters get away with it.

Step two is usually some kind of paperwork. There is very clear policy on university websites. I’ve been through the second step and it’s actually not a big drag. Most students think it’s a terrifying thing that takes a lot of time. It depends on the department head.

If at that point, a prof hears that it is a second offence, things get moved into a third step, into the university level. It gets more serious from there: failing the course, failing the program, expelling from the university. At every step there is an appeal process for the student. That stuff gets really messy and profs don’t want to get into it, but it’s a necessary process because everyone has got to air out the grievances and the facts to come to a conclusion.

M: Of the students I know of who were caught for plagiarism when I went to school, many of them didn’t know what plagiarism is. What exactly is it? And how can students avoid being caught by surprise?

AG: A lot of students don’t know exactly what plagiarism is. The prof has got to talk about it in the class and discuss it because one department’s plagiarism is another department’s research. For instance, in government policy fields there is a lot of lifting of stuff. One prof had a PhD student who was lifting stuff from all kinds of documents for his research. He had come from a government policy background where they did that as a norm. It was their research.

The big mistake is cut and paste plagiarism. When you are cutting and pasting, find out not only the url but where that specific sentence or paragraph came from—there’s tons of plagiarism online. Secondly, get organized so that later you don’t inadvertently plagiarize by thinking “That’s a great sentence I wrote” when it’s actually from the Village Voice or something.

M: How is online plagiarism software changing how professors check for cheating?

AG: Plagiarism is getting harder to do. The online detection services are getting really good and I can’t see how students are going to keep up with that. They are picking up all of the tricks that students are doing, assuming that universities sign up to Turnitin.com and similar programs. Turnitin.com and the others are building up massive databases of past essays and from all over the place.


M: How does exam cheating happen and what should students avoid?

AG: Exam cheating happens more than people think. There is usually a ringleader—the smarter one in the pair or group and the others copy from them. Or someone obtains a copy of the exam beforehand. The first thing is to try to find out if that is allowed. Talk to the prof and read the course description to find out if you are allowed to be looking at near identical exams. It’s possible that a copy of an old exam is stolen but some profs will put old exams in the library.

I’ve heard of lots of students who have studied an exam and then walked into the exam room and found out that the exam is totally different, that the prof switched it at the last minute. Often prof have two to four different versions of the same exam and they will alternate them throughout the classroom. So one version is the one that the students studied for but three others aren’t. And if students copy from each other, one has exam version one and the second copier has exam version two and it’s complete a gobbley-goop and they get 15 per cent on the exam because they copied the wrong version.


Study for the exam. There are all kinds of things that profs and TAs do to help students prepare for exams.

M: How are universities cracking down on exam cheating?

AG: There has been a trend for the past three or four years of opening academic integrity offices at universities, hiring integrity officers, and rewriting the policies around test writing: no electronic gadgets or cell-phones allowed in the room. I heard one extraordinary case of one university considering metal detectors at the door. But it was such an outlandish suggestion that they chucked out the window. They are looking at everything and it is changing.

M: What can a student do under stress and pressure to avoid the temptation of cheating?

AG: Every course demands two bunches of skills from a student: learn the material in the course and be organized enough that you can do all the exams, essays, and assignments. This is a logistical thing, but also connected to an emotional state involving how much they party, how much they are into the material. So one bit of advice is: get organized. But how you do that is up to the student. There’s all kinds of services at the university to help with that.

The simple answer is, be somewhat of a Buddhist. Get some balance in your life. If you are a hardcore partier, also be a hardcore studier, which means you have to be strategic about when you are partying and what exactly you are studying for and when you study.

If all else fails, go to the prof. Find out when the office hours are and tell the prof about the problem and sincerely try to find a solution. Frankly, profs will change dates for things. There are all types of rules and loopholes and appeals that universities have to help out students. The whole system is set up to help them out.

M: From your experience in your classes, do you have any advice for professors?

AG: My main advice would be, educate the student. It’s somewhat of a taboo issue. You are teaching psychology or you are teaching physics or business administration and then you have to stop and talk about cheating. Just saying the word ‘cheating’ in class creates a feeling. You have to be careful the words you use. But you have to address it in class. You have to tell the students what the definition of cheating is in your class. Tell them was fabrication is, what plagiarism is, what collaboration is. Talk about consequences and be very clear about it.

On one end of the spectrum you have the profs who get intense about it and really ethically uptight and on the other end you have profs who totally ignore it. Both extremes are wrong. Students know which profs are lazy or tired or near to retirement and it pisses them off. But they also know the profs that are too uptight about the rules. That creates an awful feeling in the classroom. How is that conducive to learning, if your prof is a cop?

Secondly, students need to know that there is some kind of justice in the class and that all the rhetoric means something. That’s enforcement. The students know if their classmate is cheating. It pisses off most students. The prof needs to actually do something about it. When a student fails an assignment—which should really be the bare minimum for a first-time offence, if the prof has talked about it beforehand clearly—all of the students in the class know. Profs need the guts to do that so that students don’t see them as wimps.


The profs have to know the administrative process. You have to be very careful what you say. When you talk to a student about potential cheating, it is still potential. Maybe they have made a mistake and they don’t even know it is cheating.

M: Any other advice to add?

AG: The last bit of advice I have is that contrary to what students might think, profs do care about students’ learning experiences. Most of them have big hearts. From the students’ points of view, I think most students do want to learn and do well in the course and they don’t want to cheat. They want to do honest good work.

Part of being in university is striving for some kind of truth in your discipline, whether it’s the sciences or the arts. Part of being an undergraduate is understanding academic values, acknowledging the research of the people who came before you. That’s the way civilization has progressed.


Read Alex Gillis’ article on cheating in University Affairs here.

Comments? Alex Gillis can be contacted at a.gillis@sympatico.ca.