Why do high-achieving students help others cheat?
I first faced consequences for cheating in middle school. During an algebra test, my friend Samantha, who sat next to me, asked to borrow my eraser, and I slid it over to her. This violated Mrs. Connor’s strict rule against talking during tests, and she immediately marched over and announced we’d both receive zeroes. We were two of the most straitlaced students in the school and would never have dreamed of cheating, but here we were with our first Fs, sobbing in front of the whole class.
I convinced Mrs. Connor not to punish me because I technically hadn’t spoken when I passed the eraser over. So I took the rest of the test with tears streaming down my face, but Samantha’s zero stayed a zero. Even now, that ruling seems unfair. If Mrs. Connor really thought we were cheating, then why did I get to go free? Shouldn’t nonverbal cheating be against the rules? If I’d passed Samantha a notecard with the answers on it, surely that would have counted as cheating, despite the fact that I hadn’t talked. But if Mrs. Connor didn’t really think we were cheating, then why punish Samantha? If a test lets a teacher gauge a student’s understanding of course material, why sabotage your own measuring stick? Why distract every student in the class from the test with a spectacle? Why make Samantha’s experience of math class one of public shaming (followed by parental punishment)?
At the time, it felt like Mrs. Connor’s goal was not to keep us honest but to get a sadistic thrill from making two young girls cry. To be honest, it still feels like that.
WHY do students cheat? To get better grades, obviously. But why do they so often help each other cheat? Why did Mrs. Connor need a “no talking” rule and not simply a “no checking the notes you wrote on your hand” rule? If a student has studied hard, why does she risk receiving an F in order to help someone who didn’t put in as much work? Taking that risk for a close friend might make sense, but that’s not always or even usually the case.
During a biology test in ninth grade, for example, I gave an answer to Jacob, the boy who sat behind me. I had already turned in my test when he whispered, “What’s the answer to number 27?”
We weren’t close friends -- we knew each other only as “the person who sits near me in bio.” What motivation did I have to help him? Well, he was retaking freshman biology as a sophomore, so I (condescendingly) felt a little bad for him. But more importantly, I was a nerd and didn’t have the social capital to say no, which was why cooler kids had been copying my homework for years. I considered whether Jacob needed the help, whether I might get caught, and whether he and his friends would consider me a bitch or a goody-goody if I ignored him. That cheating itself might be wrong didn’t enter into my calculations.
Why didn’t I turn him in? First, I’d never have done that because I didn’t want to have even fewer friends than I already had. But more importantly, it would never have occurred to me to rat out Jacob because I had no problem with him. I didn’t resent him for trying to get a better grade than he “deserved,” and I didn’t feel he was personally injuring me by dragging me into potential trouble. I saw him as a person trying to solve a problem. To tattle would have been sadistic, like Mrs. Connor making me and Samantha cry.
I may have been a borderline social outcast, but I felt deeply that it was us against them, even if I didn’t have much access to the “us” and wasn’t exactly sure who the “them” was -- teachers? The educational system? Adults in general? What I knew for sure was that no adults understood my life.
WE romanticize public education as the institution that lets citizens engage meaningfully with democracy, society, and the economy, but that’s not what usually happens and never has been. We laud teachers for their noble profession, but how many of them are apathetic, petty, closed-minded, racist, sexist? How many sexually abuse their students or drop them down the school-to-prison pipeline?
Some educators and educational reform advocates do try to address the root causes of cheating. Teacher and Atlantic writer Jessica Lahey says, “If my teaching practices create an atmosphere in which students resort to cheating rather than rely on their own hard work and discovery, I’m doing something wrong.” According to Lahey, those errant teaching practices include “high-stakes testing,” overvaluing “performance on assessments,” “the pressure to achieve academically,” and chronic sleep deprivation. I agree with those conclusions and respect her honesty and openness to change. But how can an individual teacher, even one with all the right ideas, change the system that leads high-schoolers to cheat?
I lived the best-case scenario in a system like that, attending a well-funded public school in an affluent school district. There the object of education was to hyper-achieve in order to get into a competitive “good college” and then get a “good job.” I strove for perfect test scores, a perfect GPA, perfect extracurricular activities. For four years straight, I worked virtually every waking hour and slept fewer than six hours a night, in constant terror of the tiniest mistake.
Unsurprisingly, chronic stress and sleep deprivation weren’t great for my mental health. I contemplated suicide more days than not. But high school hadn’t been like this for the adults I knew, and they were unsympathetic. Teachers scolded me when I fell asleep in class because I had been up all night doing the homework they assigned. My parents told me things would only get harder when I grew up; they actually got much easier.
If adults didn’t understand my reality, why would I side with them over the Jacobs of the world, on cheating or on any other issue?
THE teachers at my high school constantly entreated us to consider our own self-interest before we cheated. There was an ongoing issue they couldn’t stamp out: Students who took a given test early in the day would leak information to students who would take it later in the day. If you took a US history test first period, you’d tell your friends in fifth-period US history what was on it so they’d be better prepared. Our teachers warned us that because the tests were graded on a curve, early-in-the-day test-takers only harmed themselves by helping their later-in-the-day counterparts. If the fifth-period class did better on the test, the curve would be higher, and the first-period class would receive lower grades than if they hadn’t blabbed. Nobody listened. Nobody cared. I can only think of one friend who refused to participate in this system; she now teaches high school.
Teachers tried to mitigate the problem by writing multiple versions of the same test, swapping in different versions of the same questions, or mixing up their order. That may have deterred lazy cheaters, but we weren’t lazy cheaters. We studied for hours for these tests, and we just wanted to know if there was something tricky we needed to brush up on between classes: “You have to know how to conjugate subjunctive verbs,” we’d tell each other, or “Don’t forget the trapezoidal rule.” The risk of getting caught for talking to each other outside of class was essentially zero, while the risk of slipping a few points behind, marring your perfect GPA, and not getting into a good college seemed very high, or at least very high-stakes.
This “soft cheating” is the only form of cheating that I actually benefitted from, though I paid into the system just as often as I took from it. It was a sort of karmic cycle: When you were in an early period, you’d pass information to others, and in return, when you were in a later period, others would pass information to you. It would have been heartless not to help each other, like pushing your friend off the track so you could finish higher in a race no one could win.
Why did the teachers try to trick us anyway? Tricky tests turn the teacher-student relationship into a competition between us and them. Who cares whether a wiley teacher can sneak something past their complacent class? What good does that do anyone?
When students help each other cheat, they may not exactly be promoting learning, but they are choosing comradeship over competition. If schooling is at least partially about training an obedient, efficient workforce, then cheating en masse can be seen as a sort of prefiguration of collective action. Instead of working against each other, students work with each other against an unfair system.
IF you’re not familiar with the “advanced placement,” or AP, system, here’s how it works: The College Board certifies certain high-school classes as AP, meaning they cover college-level material, and administers a big exam at the end of the year to test students on that material. I took six AP tests in total: English, Spanish, European history, US history, calculus AB, and calculus BC. I got a perfect score of 5 on all of them. I didn’t cheat on any of them, in the sense that I didn’t receive any illicit help. But I cheated on several of them, in the sense that I offered illicit help to others.
At my school, we took AP tests in the library, seated five or six to a table. Scrap paper was provided so we could take notes for essays or work out math problems. Though I don’t remember discussing it, it was understood that if you’d come up with a good essay outline, you’d slide your notes partway toward the middle of the table so other people could refer to it if they wanted to. (It was also understood that you couldn’t copy someone else’s outline too closely, though I don’t remember discussing that either.)
AP tests exemplify most academic work in high school in that they are (a) high-stakes, and (b) mostly meaningless. Of course, stakes always feel high to melodramatic teenagers, but, in my experience at least, there was some truth to that feeling. Remember: hypercompetitive college admissions, perfect grades, perfect test scores. Plus, a passing score on an AP exam could be worth literally thousands of dollars in college credits.
In terms of achieving perfection, my work wasn’t meaningless. I graduated valedictorian. I got into Stanford. But what about in terms of actually learning? I’d say a significant portion of my classwork and homework were meaningful in some way. I’ve forgotten a lot of what I learned (especially math), but I got a basic framework of science and history, and a lot of practice with language skills, which I rely on in my work as a writer and editor. But tests? There is nothing like tests in my adult life. When I’m editing something and I’m not sure about a grammar rule, I look it up. When I write an essay, I rely on editors to help me improve it. That’s not cheating -- it’s the job.
I understand tests can be valuable. They can motivate students to learn the material and let teachers evaluate progress. But students can feel like their entire future depends on a question about parametric equations or something else that doesn’t and never will have a direct effect on their daily lives. Under those conditions, why shouldn’t they cheat?
Because it’s unfair to the students who actually put in the work and didn’t cheat, is the usual answer. I was one of those students who put in the work. In fact, I’ve never worked harder in my life than I did in high school -- not as an undergraduate at Stanford, not as a graduate student, not in any job. Among the people I knew, whether they did any cheating or not, some version of this was normal. In my experience, it wasn’t true that students cheated because they didn’t work hard enough. Rather, they cheated because they didn’t want their hard work to go to waste. And if they didn’t work as hard as I did, so what? I still got my perfect GPA and test scores. My achievements didn’t become less perfect if others also did well.
What was truly unfair was that some students -- like me -- got to live in wealthy school districts and attend schools that offered multiple AP classes; spend money on SAT tutors; focus on schoolwork without worrying about a part-time job or regular meals; and pay the fees to take the AP tests (currently $92 per test, but “only” $62 for students from low-income families), SATs ($45 to $57), SAT subject tests ($46 to $86), and other assorted exams. It’s not as if cheating mars the moral purity of an upright, noble system. If cheaters’ successes are illegitimate because they didn’t put in the work to do well on a test, why are mine legitimate when I didn’t put in the work to be born?
MY high-school experience felt fundamentally unfair to me at the time. Every day I was graded and evaluated by adults, punished for small mistakes (like lending an eraser to a friend) but not praised for the achievements that were simply expected of me (like receiving a GPA higher than 4.0 or going without sleep for long periods of time). It felt dehumanizing in much the same way that it now feels dehumanizing to get catcalled on the street—that bone-deep frustration you feel when you’re not being seen as fully a person and you know there’s nothing you can do about it. Nothing I thought or felt mattered to any adults, as long as I kept producing an endless string of straight As.
For me, and for a lot of teenagers, there was no such thing as the “trusted adult” you’re supposed to go to for help if something bad happens to you. Indeed, the sorts of bad things people imply when they say that did happen to me occasionally, and I didn’t tell anyone. I didn’t see adults as potential sources of help but as potential sources of judgment and punishment. People out to trick you. Obstacles.
There weren’t many people my own age I trusted or could talk to either, but I could find some tiny filament of comradeship in helping each other complete one of the tasks that felt most difficult and unfair. The cheating that I engaged in didn’t and still doesn’t feel wrong to me, even though -- maybe because -- adults didn’t want it to happen.