Cheating: Is It? Are they?

The digital generation is restless and many of them are using their technological skills to cheat to get ahead — at least this is the observation made by a growing chorus of educators who are concerned about the current state of learning.

Naturally, the focus on cheating reached new heights over the course of the pandemic. When education and classes were online and remote, students found a plethora of ways to take shortcuts when it came to their learning. There were the predictable methods: texting and phoning each other during tests and quizzes as teachers were not able to monitor their behaviour in remote locations. Meanwhile, many students starting turning to ‘homework help’ apps and sites, while others would simply contract out their assignments. By the time schools had re-opened after the global health scare, cheating had become a pandemic of its own.

The Problem

One of the main problems with cheating (besides the obvious ethical issues associated with the practice) is that it has become normalized. By some estimates, 95 percent of students admit to participating in some form of cheating. Over half of students admit to plagiarizing all or portions of their written assignments, while just as many say they have cheated on tests. In other words, a pattern of behaviour has emerged among many students wherein cheating is embraced, promoted, and valued.

What is cheating?

There seems to be a debate over what constitutes academic dishonesty and misconduct. For example, let’s say a student is working on their homework and uses a homework help site to confirm that they have reached the right answer to a math problem they are working on. Some would view this as a logical extension of their learning—after all, they are working on the problem independently before they turn to the online source. However, others will view this practice as cheating because the student is circumventing the learning process by using the online source as a crutch. Similarly, many students view ‘cutting and pasting’ from articles they have read and reviewed as a legitimate practice, with many of their parents backing them up if a teacher challenges what they’ve done. Educators view this as plagiarism, plain and simple. You cannot claim other people’s writing as your own writing.

Getting students (and parents) to understand the line between what defines cheating has become a tremendous challenge for educators. Many teachers and guidance counsellors worry that, if certain practices (like plagiarism) are not addressed, a slippery slope will be descended, exacerbating the already growing problem of cheating.  

Why they cheat

Researchers have discovered that there are three main reasons why many students have turned to cheating. Here’s a closer look at each:

They rationalize it

When a student rationalizes cheating, they are choosing to minimize the moral impact of the behaviour on their sense of self. Students say things like “I just need a little help” and then turn to online sources for assistance or get their friend to text them an answer to a homework question. Once they’ve made this decision, they might find themselves on that slippery slope. Some may adopt an “everyone else is doing it” mentality that sees them start to text each other during tests or copy answers off the online sites that they have tapped into. Regardless of the reasoning behind the decision to cheat, the student has found a way to rationalize the behaviour and justified cheating as an acceptable way to complement their academic advancement. In fact, many students don’t even believe they are cheating when they are doing it. According to Dr. David Rettinger, an academic integrity scholar out of the University of Mary Washington, most students “… cheat just enough to maintain their self-concept as honest people. They make their behaviour an exception to a general rule.” Many students tell themselves they need to cheat (if they are willing to recognize what they are doing as cheating) to keep up with their peers.

To get ahead

Some students view cheating as the best way to get ahead in a highly competitive academic environment. Because educators have made many learning outcomes so ‘high-stakes’, students have opted to either alleviate the pressure or outsource their work to get ahead. They see cheating as a way of getting higher grades and improving their post-secondary options. For example, if a college or university requires a certain math grade (let’s say 85 percent) for program acceptance, many students who are not as skilled at math may turn to private schools (businesses?) that give out inflated marks or online sources (many of which require a subscription) that provide step-by-step answers to problems. In some cases, students will simply ask their friends to complete their assignments and have them text them answers (on their phones and watches!) while they are completing a test. All this is done consciously with the hope of getting ahead in the cut-throat world of academic competition.

Cheating has become normalized

Finally, cheating has become so normalized that it has become part of academic culture. The reason for this is twofold: first, the definition of what classifies as cheating seems to vary by individual and, second, almost everyone is doing it!

Let’s deal with the definition of cheating. Many students and parents view websites like PhotoMath and Chegg (more on these sites in the chart below) as invaluable homework help resources that provide students with the means to arrive at the correct answer. Educators argue that these apps and sites are providing a shortcut that is denying students the ability to learn material on their own with the guidance of a teacher. On the one hand, a stakeholder (being parents and students) view the apps and sites as education tools while. On the other, (educators) view these resources as shortcuts that are stifling learning. Clearly there is a disconnect in how the different parties perceive the resource.

The second problem deals with the prevalence of the problem—perhaps driven by the debate over what constitutes cheating. Many students are doing everything in their power to advance their education. If it means turning to PhotoMath or Chegg, they’re more than willing to sign on. PhotoMath boasts 6.5 million monthly users while Chegg says it has 7.8 million subscribers. This supports the commonly held perception that cheating can prove contagious, and high school students, who already susceptible to peer pressure, may choose sites like these because everyone else seems to be using them.

How they cheat

There are three main ways that students cheat. Let’s take a close look at these:

  • ‘Homework help’

Homework help can involve anything from copying a friends work to using a company (like PhotoMath or Chegg) to provide the answers to questions. It’s important to note that the online homework help industry brings in over a billion dollars in Canada and around $12 billion in the United States annually.

  • Cutting and pasting

In many cases, students are either simply lifting material from websites and claiming it as their own or cutting and pasting material from a homework help site and making the same claim. This is probably the most common form of cheating, and many students don’t see anything wrong with it.

  • Contract cheating

When a student asks or pays someone (or a company) to complete their assignments or write their tests for them, they have engaged in contract cheating. This is the type of cheating that causes teachers to pull their hair out. This practice became so prevalent in Ireland, Australia and New Zealand that each nation passed laws deeming it illegal. In Canada, contract cheating has been around for decades and, with advances in technology, has grown exponentially in the internet era.

Addressing the problem

Fortunately, many teachers are already adept at tackling the cheating problem. However, guidance counsellors can assist educators by sharing a few strategies if asked for advice.

  • Suggest they use a plagiarism identifying program like TurnItIn or SafeAssign for written assignments. These powerful platforms can identify when students are plagiarizing their work.
  • Encourage teachers to have students complete work in class in front of them. It might also be a good idea to set a time limit for the completion of certain tasks, adapting these time frames for students with special learning needs.
  • Recommend that they generate test banks and multiple versions of tests and assignments.
  • Propose that teachers create learning experiences that employ metacognition (often called thinking about thinking) that ask students to come up with broad ranging and sophisticated answers. This avoids the single correct answer situation that caters to students who are inclined to cheat.

As a guidance counsellor, you can also influence students to simply steer away from cheating. One of the most important (and easiest!) things a counsellor can do is turn down the pressure cooker and stop making every learning outcome so high stakes. Students get stressed out on their own; they don’t need a caring adult adding to that stress by making everything seem so vitally important. Learning is a process. Encourage calm, incremental growth, with advancing learning as the goal. Focus on praising a student for their effort and avoid putting the spotlight solely on the grade. Finally, model honesty, honour, and integrity, and educate students about these important character traits when you meet with them.

There is little doubt that cheating will continue and with advances in technology (particular in the form of AI), the cheaters will always be a step ahead. However, if educators can focus their attention on meaningful learning and get students to buy into the process, the cheaters need not prosper.

Some popular platforms used for cheating

This sampling of platforms is not even close to the massive number of choices students have available to them.

Students take a picture of a math equation, and the app provides the step-by-step solution for free. Upgrades are available with a paid subscription.

Students take a picture of a math problem, and the app provides the answer. To get the steps the student must subscribe and pay a fee.

Students can use this app for answers to algebra problems.

Students can get answers to their math problems along with the steps but, for more detail, need to purchase the pro-version.


A treasure trove of information on all things literary. From plot descriptions to character analysis, Sparknotes is the online version of the old Cliff Notes books that circulated in the pre-internet era. Similar platforms include Schmoop and LitChart .

Cross curricular

This multi-disciplined platform provides paid subscribers with solutions to problems in several subject areas from a database of textbook, test and exam questions. It can be used to provide specific answers to specific questions that many educators fee circumvents the learning process.

Course Hero
A database of tests, homework questions, textbook answers and class notes submitted by subscribers to create a community of learners. However, these same resources can be used to simply copy work and provide easy answers to common or previously asked class, textbook or test questions.

By Sean Dolan