Gamer's Perspective: Why Do Students Cheat? - Part 1

(Taken from my blog on student-directed learning, Power to the Learner!)

Cheating isn't a concern unique to the classroom - gamers also have very strong feelings about it. I found a simple question posed on

Do you think cheating takes the fun out of the game?

The majority of gamers who answered said that of course, if you cheat, the game is ruined. So why do teachers often complain that cheating is rampant in schools? Why must we take so many measures to prevent cheating, often at the expense of what's best for student learning? If not everyone has taken a quiz, we withhold timely feedback so as not to leak the answers. We squander our time wandering around the room during a test to watch for roaming eyes, even though we could sure use that time to grade papers or plan lessons. But taking precautions against cheating is, unfortunately, a necessary part of any good teacher's job.

So why do students who refuse to cheat at home, when completely unsupervised and no real consequences exist, still try to cheat at school? They know they're being watched and that they could get in big trouble if caught. So why is cheating suddenly worth it? Wouldn't they rather "just play the game" and learn?

To answer these questions, let's look at the few gamers who, at least sometimes, condone cheating. Here's what they said:

"It's fun if the cheat is difficult to pull off. Like, if you cheat in a game on Monopoly, you have to use subterfuge, and I'm pretty sure that's at least half of the fun of the game anyway."

"I encourage my brother to try cheat against me in many games so that he stands a chance of winning. Alas he's not very good at that either."

"Nope, cheating can be a challenge too."

These were the only gamers that thought cheating is OK, and even they agree that it's only worth it when cheating is a challenge. If you can just type in a code and suddenly you're invincible, that's no fun. When we tell students that they can't cheat, we are, in fact, turning cheating into an exciting challenge. In my own education, I rarely cheated, but when I did, it was because a challenge presented itself and I just couldn't resist. One instance, in particular, sticks out in my mind.

It was 9th grade English with Mr. Gardner. I had an A in the class but forgot to memorize the poetry vocab for the quiz that day. Mr. Gardner's policy on cheating, if I'm remembering correctly, was an automatic zero on that assignment if caught. I figured I'll get a poor score on the quiz anyway and even if I got caught and handed a zero, my overall grade could easily handle it. Why not just put the vocab list in my lap, between my legs, with my left leg over my right knee? That way, no one could see the sheet unless you were standing right above me and I was leaning back. Plus, Mr. Gardner saw me as a 'good' student, so he wouldn't be looking at me that closely. It was a foolproof plan! I made a bet with myself right there that I could get away with it. And I did. I was exhilarated! I had learned none of the vocab I was supposed to memorize, but I achieved something, in my mind, even more impressive - I fooled Mr. Gardner and cheated the system! And boy did I brag! About a week later, I even bragged about it to Mr. Gardner. I was expecting him to give me the zero I deserved, but he just casually congratulated me on my cunning. I was shocked and disappointed. Suddenly, my cheating seemed a lot less impressive. Did he know the whole time and just not care? Why wasn't he punishing me? That zero was to be my trophy! Suddenly, cheating wasn't a challenge anymore and I never cheated in his class again.

While I don't think this is the only reason for students to cheat, the point I'm trying to make here is that students love a good challenge and if cheating is presented as a challenge, it will seem more attractive, especially if the student has nothing to lose by trying.

So what can teachers do? Well, Mr. Gardner wisely stripped the challenge from cheating. If there are no consequences, what's the point? I might as well just learn. You might now be thinking, "No consequences for cheating?! That's madness! We have to hold students accountable! The consequences for cheating just need to be more severe!"

I agree, but probably not in the way you think. There are consequences we can set for cheating without framing it as a challenge. Here are a few strategies:

  • Make effective learning essential for effective play. Have a sense of humor and use it in your classroom. Mr. Cox, my high school economics teacher, told a lot of jokes and made great puns (and I'm a sucker for a good pun). If I decided to cheat on everything and learn nothing in that class, it would have been (even more) boring, because learning the material was sometimes essential to getting his jokes. I hated economics, but I actually sat down and learned sometimes because I wanted to understand what just made a lot of others laugh.
  • Make our students socially accountable by having them post their work publicly, online. If a student's peers, parents, and potential employers can easily view and give students feedback on their work, there will be social pressure to produce good work. In case you're thinking posting the assignments might make it easier to copy each other's work, well, that's a solvable problem too, covered in the next bullet point.
  • Design assignments that students can personalize. This will not only make cheating more difficult, but also less appealing. Even in math and science, if I can calculate the mean height of the members of my own family or bring in my own home's tap water and test it for various chemicals, that lesson is suddenly more relevant to me and I'm going to be more interested in the accurate results of my work.

If you have more ideas to make students more accountable without turning cheating into a challenge, please chime in with a comment! In my next post, I'll talk about another reason gamers sometimes cheat: to get around a flaw in the software.

Views: 83

Comment by Jeremy Kaiser on February 18, 2010 at 8:23pm
Very insightful ideas. I agree that catching the "cheaters" is often a game the students want to play. I often feel this way with cell phones in the classroom. I think that if students could just use them, maybe they would pay more attention when they weren't. Every time I turn around, some student is slyly shoving their phone in their pocket. I have noticed that when we are using cell phones for instruction, students are less likely to be texting. Now, the hard part is convicing administrators that we need to change the way things work.
Comment by Chris Fritz on February 19, 2010 at 5:05am
Ira Socol (over at has a policy that if students are going to use cell phones in class, the phones have to be visible, on top of the desk. This is at a university, so he has more freedom in making up his own classroom rules, but this makes a lot of sense to me. Students can use cell phones as assistive tech if they'd like, and it's also (even move) painfully obvious if they're texting inappropriately.


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