The following is a criminological theory I developed as part of a graduate research project. The theory (Convenience Theory) combines most previous criminological theories into a single theory to explain why students cheat. References, cites, footnotes, and figures have been left out to preclude anyone from submitting the paper in a college class, they have been replaced by (Cite).
Dealing with student cheating is a problem faced by all colleges and universities. Student cheating is not a new problem for institutions of higher learning; it has existed for as long as the institutions have existed. Many of the older techniques that students have used to cheat in the past are still effective today, but with the constant influx of new technological advances into all aspects of society, students are finding new methods of cheating. Instead of colleges spending so much time and resources trying to find new ways to prevent student cheating, a better approach would try to understand why the students cheat. Once there is an understanding of what motivates college students to cheat, then resources can be redirected toward attempting to change the motivations so that the students will better be able to resist the urge to cheat when an opportunity to cheat arises.
This paper analyzes college student cheating and the criminological theories that have been used to explain why the students cheat. It also proposes a new criminological theory to explain why college students cheat. The paper is divided into three major sections.
Section 1 is a literature review. It explains what cheating is, the extent of college student cheating, and why college student cheating is a major problem. The section then explains how researchers have attempted to apply existing criminological theories to college student cheating in efforts to explain why the students cheat.
Section 2 is the author's integrated theory (convenience theory) to explain why college students cheat. The section provides a systematic explanation of the convenience theory's development process and explains how convenience theory integrates previously developed theories into a single unified theory.
Section 3 is the conclusions section. It describes the author's conclusions about how well previously developed criminological theories and the new convenience theory explain college students cheating.
Section 1: What constitutes college student cheating?
Cheating is non-plagiarism academic misconduct as defined in the publications of each higher education institution. Methods of cheating may include using hand signals, concealing notes, obtaining a copy of a test in advance, leaving information in restrooms, looking at someone else’s answers, or letting someone else look at your answers, and destroying library materials to gain an academic advantage (Cite). In 1992, McCabe surveyed 6,096 students at 31 American colleges to determine the influence of situational ethics on cheating (Cite).
The cheating methods most popular with the students in the McCabe survey (listed in decreasing order of mention) were: failure to footnote sources in written work, collaboration on assignments when the instructor specifically asked for individual work, copying from other students on exams, fabrication of bibliographies, helping someone else cheat on a test, and using unfair methods to learn the contents of a test ahead of time. Plagiarism is a separate issue from cheating and is not discussed in this paper.
Cheating is a problem that is prevalent today. It seems as if everyone cheats in one way or another. Workers cheat on their income taxes. Physicians cheat on Medicaid claims. Accountants cheat on their clients. Cheating occurs in practically every profession.
When do people start cheating? Cheating may begin in early childhood but cheating in school seems to be where most children first learn to cheat in the real world. Cheating appears to be prevalent in all grades of school, up to and including college. A 1997 national survey of the nation’s top high school students conducted by Who’s Who Among American High School Students, found that 76 percent of the students surveyed admitted cheating on schoolwork. Of those students who admitted cheating, 65 percent said they copied some else’s homework, 39 percent said they had cheated on a test or quiz, and 60 percent said they cheated because it did not seem like such a big deal (Cite).
When students reach the competitive world of college, the temptation to cheat is greatly increased. For some reasons not fully understood, some students do not feel capable or simply choose not to fulfill their goals and expectations through legitimate means (Haines et al., 1986, p. 16). Studies of student cheating in college have shown that it is both epidemic and endemic. It is so common that some college students even brag about their cheating and the methods they use. They brag about everything from having “incredibly gifted eyes” to breaking into the offices of professors. College cheaters seem to feel that, under certain circumstances, the ends justify the means (Cite).
Cheating in college is an important issue since it goes to the heart of the purpose of higher education. The academic reputation and personal integrity of students and faculty are at stake when cheating occurs. Honesty in meeting academic requirements and respect for the academic processes are important values in developing properly educated students (Cite). Also, academic cheating is a significant problem because of its frequency and because it interferes with conventional learning and evaluation processes. With colleges having to accept more and more students regardless of their academic credentials, due to changing social standards, and with the problems colleges are having in monitoring a large number of students in some of today’s overcrowded classrooms, the amount of student cheating is steadily increasing (Cite).
Studies have found the frequency of students cheating to range from 13 percent to 95 percent of sampled populations. In a 1984 survey of 380 American undergraduate college students (Cite), 54 percent of the students admitted cheating during the previous six months. In 1989, Michaels and Miethe found that 85.7 percent of their sample of 623 undergraduate students reported they had cheated in college (Michaels and Miethe, 1989, pp. 870-871, 876). In 1992, McCabe surveyed 6,096 students at thirty-one American colleges to determine the influence of situational ethics on cheating and found that 67percent of the responding students indicated they cheated at least once as an undergraduate (Cite) A 1996 self-report survey of 102 undergraduate criminal justice students at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte (Cite) found that 51 percent of the respondents admitted cheating while enrolled in the criminal justice major.
There is disagreement on the frequency of cheating. Karlins et al. (Cite) analyzed log cheating behavior in the 1,374 students taking a management course during two target semesters. The results of the study found that only three percent of the students cheated. Karlins et al. proposed that college cheating is typically overestimated when students are asked to assess their level of academic dishonesty in a questionnaire format. Another problem in estimating the frequency of cheating was mentioned in the Coston and Jenks (1996) study of criminal justice students. They found that acts defined as cheating by the university or by the researchers were not considered cheating by some students. They found that excluding the students who cheated solely on homework would decrease the total frequency of cheating.
College student cheaters are usually ordinary students who do not come to college with the intention of cheating, but at some point, they decide to break the law by cheating. What makes them start cheating and how do these otherwise law-abiding students justify their lawbreaking?
Why do college students cheat?
Empirical studies of college student cheating
Cheating is a complex psychological, social, and situational behavior. Students may externalize that cheating is a futile endeavor because it is out of their control, or conversely, they may view cheating as a means of shifting control from the environment to themselves. Students may internalize by believing they have control over events and can deal with the situation without cheating, or conversely, they may resort to cheating as a means of controlling what appears to be a capricious situation (Cite).
No single variable has been significantly associated with cheating behavior, but several researchers have empirically studied cheating to explain why college students cheat. Six factors have been identified from research literature as having a significant influence on cheating behavior (Cite):
- Student stress. Stress in the form of pressure from parents and/or the university for good grades can cause anxiety over exams.
- Environmental conditions under which cheating flourishes. These conditions include such things as multiple-choice exams in large, crowded rooms with an inadequate number of proctors; limited secretarial assistance in preparing multiple forms; a pervading emphasis on grades; use of a limited number of exams; the opinion among students that everyone cheats; and the absence of the apprehension and/or punishment of cheaters.
- Student intelligence. There are conflicting results as to the relationship between IQ and cheating. Most of the research indicates a strong negative correlation but some evidence suggests that the relationship depends on the capability of the student to assess the degree of risk involved in cheating at a particular place and time.
- Personality characteristics of students. Students with a high need for approval cheat more often and students concerned about negative evaluations cheat even more often. Male students self-report cheating more than female students do, but studies of actual cheating have not supported this.
- Lack of understanding and consensus among students as to what constitutes cheating. The more that students perceive a particular cheating behavior as occurring, the less likely they will view it as academic dishonesty.
- The level of moral judgment and will that is expressed by students. In theory, students who think at a more sophisticated level of moral reasoning are less likely to cheat because it is difficult for them to justify such behavior on rational moral grounds. However, research on the influence of moral reasoning on conduct and will is inconclusive.
Leming (Cite) administered the Rotter Internal-External Scale to 153 college undergraduate students at a major east coast university to test for any correlation between high/low-risk conditions of detection and actual cheating. The results showed that students cheated more under low-risk conditions and that women cheated significantly more than men did under low-risk conditions. Sanction threats (a high-risk condition) were found to reduce cheating only for women. Cheating behavior was not found to be related to academic ability; however, under the high-risk condition, high ability students cheated significantly less than they did under the low-risk condition.
Singhal (Cite) surveyed 364 students and 80 faculty, at an American university, on academic dishonesty. The data showed that students with a GPA of less than 2.5 cheated almost as often as those with GPAs of over 2.5. Of the 65 percent of faculty who caught students cheating, only 21 percent of them reported the cheating. Fifty-six percent of the students admitted to cheating in college whereas only three percent admitted to having been caught. Sixty-eight percent of the students believed cheating was the direct result of competition for grades and 48 percent said monitoring of exams prevented them from cheating. Singhal proposed that increased awareness by faculty of student cheating and their acknowledgment of it in the classroom would lead to a reduction of cheating. In their 1989 study, Michaels and Miethe found that students cheat because: of the pressure to get better grades, they view cheating as not very serious conduct, they perceive the gains to outweigh the risks, and because they consider friends as being somewhat tolerant of the behavior (Cite).
Using criminological theories to explain why college students cheat
Several researchers have attempted to use criminological theories to explain why college students cheat. Although research on academic cheating is not usually theoretically driven, the literature suggests that cheating is like other forms of deviant behavior. Like other forms of deviant behavior: cheating seeks a rewarding outcome, is accompanied by the risk of detection and punishment, is motivated by both external behaviors and personal desires to achieve, and it may be deterred by certain and severe sanctions. This being the case, criminological theories should help explain college student cheating (Cite).
Deterrence theory argues that a particular behavior is inhibited or deterred in direct proportion to the perceived probability and severity of punishment expected for the behavior. Research on relating deterrence theory to cheating has been mixed. Some researchers support the hypothesis that cheating varies inversely with the risk of detection (a component of deterrence theory) while others feel some cheating is simply not deterred by the threat of sanctions. Michaels and Miethe, in their study of 623 undergraduate students, found that the perceived probability and severity of punishment was negatively correlated with cheating (Cite).
Rational choice theory
Rational choice theorists address the perceived probabilities and magnitudes of both rewards and punishment. Deterrence theory omits this reward component. Michaels and Miethe found that cheating varied directly with the extent to which students perceived that the relative gains from cheating exceeded the costs of cheating (Cite).
Social structural theories
Social structural theories attempt to explain why people commit crimes as related to the social structure of society (Cite). Social structural theories do not simply try to locate individuals above or below one another in the social structure; they try to locate individuals in terms of their relationship to one another within the structure (Cite). Harp and Taietz looked at cheating by students who were fraternity members as related to social structure. They found that a higher incidence of cheating by fraternity members was related to the fraternity system structure, even after controlling for intellectual orientation. They found support for the argument that social structure influences cheating behavior. They also found that students who aspired to attend graduate school cheated significantly less than those who did not (Cite).
Differential opportunity theory
Differential opportunity theory proposes that deviant behaviors can be explained by their location in both the legitimate and illegitimate opportunity structures (Cite). In examining cheating by students who were fraternity members, Harp and Taietz (Cite) found that higher incidences of cheating were related to the greater opportunities to cheat that the fraternity system provided its members. Uhlig and Howes (Cite) studied a group of 47 Eastern Kentucky State College undergraduate and graduate students under contrived situations applied under two different levels of stress. They found that in each situation, regardless of the presence or absence of stress, approximately one-third of a college class would cheat opportunistically if the climate were an advantageous one.
Social control theory
Social control theory argues that people are motivated to obey the law by social controls but that they do not need any special motivation to violate the law—this occurs naturally in the absence of any social controls. Since social control theorists assume everyone would violate the law if they could get away with it, they concentrate on explaining why people do not commit crimes (Cite). In 1986, Haines et al. looked at how 100 undergraduate college students perceived the various social control measures and the controls' effects on the incidence of their cheating behavior. They found that informal social controls were rarely initiated in the presence of student dishonesty. The data showed that when students saw cheating, they were more likely to ignore it than to report it.
When asked to suggest some social control that might help control cheating, students ignored informal controls and suggested that teachers should be more proactive toward cheating and that there should be more publicized discipline of students who were caught cheating. Some students even said cheating was a way of life and we should accept it rather than wasting time trying to control it (Cite). Leming (Cite) studied 153 undergraduates to find the effects of moral conduct on cheating in two specific situations: one with high supervision and high threat of detection and one with low supervision and a low threat of detection. He found that in both situations, students with high moral development cheated less than the other students did. However, he also found that, in a low threat of detection situation, students with high moral development were just as likely to cheat as students with low moral development.
Culture conflict theory
Culture conflict theory posits that deviants (cheaters) are members of peer groups that support norms that conflict with the norms of conventional society. In 1981, Eve and Bromley (Cite) assessed the efficacy of internal social control theory and culture conflict theory in explaining scholastic cheating by college students. Their study surveyed 681 undergraduate students at a southwestern university in a metropolitan area using questionnaires that assessed the relative honesty or dishonesty on 15 specific behaviors that were related to cheating.
The results of the study indicated confusion and ignorance concerning the norms and values held by most educators. Active, initiating behaviors, such as copying answers, were viewed as more dishonest than were passive, supporting behaviors, such as providing such answers. The data indicated both theories had significance as causes of cheating, with culture conflict theory being a better predictor of cheating than social control theory. The data showed a lack of consensus among students on precisely what activities faculty members are likely to see as forbidden. To reduce cheating, the authors recommend that colleges should: improve admission screening procedures, reduce the “culture conflict” norms and values of fraternities that favor cheating, not emphasize the social environment to the detriment of the intellectual environment, and should ensure the faculty clarifies precisely what behavior constitutes cheating.
Social bonding theory
Social bonding theory proposes that delinquency occurs when a person’s bonds to society (his/her attachment, commitment, involvement, and belief) are weak or broken (Cite). A student's attachment to his/her parents is weakened while he/she is away at college. Commitment involves the investment of personal resources in conventional activities while involvement refers to the amount of time spent in conventional activities. As related cheating, involvement in conventional activities may increase the chances of cheating since such activities detract from the amount of time available for studying. Belief represents the acceptance of the “moral validity” of conventional norms. In their 1989 study, Michaels and Miethe found that cheating was positively associated with attachment to peers who cheat, but negatively related to commitment, involvement in conventional activities, and conventional beliefs (Cite).
Moral-development theory proposes that the development of moral reasoning follows a universal sequence of distinct stages wherein cognitive structures provide the framework within which information is processed and organized. Cultural factors may stimulate or retard trends of development, but they do not affect the order of development. There are three major levels of moral judgment development. The first level is the “pre-conventional"(lowest level) where moral rules are understood as “do’s” and “don’ts” associated with punishment.
The second level is the “conventional” where the person understands, accepts, and attempts to uphold the rules of society. And lastly, the “post-conventional” level (highest level) is where social rules are critically examined in terms of universal human moral principles (Cite). Lanza-Kaduce and Klug (Cite) analyzed moral-development in the self-reported data on test cheating from 175 college students. The results showed that at the lower development levels, peer reactions best explained the cheating behavior of the students. For students at the middle development levels, internalized definitions were the most explanatory. Among students in the higher development levels, no pattern of social variables emerged to explain cheating.
Social learning theory
Social learning theory, specifically the differential association-reinforcement component, has been used to study cheating. Several studies have found support for the connection, finding that if close friends and local peers are perceived to regard cheating negatively, the probability of cheating is reduced. In their1989 study, Michaels and Miethe found that student cheating varied directly with the level of perceived support of cheating from their significant others and the extent of pro-cheating attitudes. This was especially true for future cheating (Cite).
Neutralization and rationalization theories
The two interrelated criminological theories of neutralization and rationalization seem to be especially suited to explaining college student cheating. LaBeff et al (Cite) found that cheating was situational and even though students indicated disapproval of cheating; many of them felt justified in cheating under certain circumstances. They found that neutralization and rationalization, which were originally developed to explain delinquency, could also be used to explain how college student cheaters justify their actions.
Neutralization is a type of control theory in which the offender attempts to justify future or ongoing behavior. Rationalization is when the offender attempts to justify past or present behavior (Cite). Generally, cheaters support and conform to the law and usually condemn other lawbreakers, so they need these two theories to justify their illegal actions (Cite). Most forms of cheating are clearly understood by most students as being cheating, such as directly reading another student’s answers, but a student may neutralize or rationalize the “accidental” glimpse of another student’s answers as not being an attempt to cheat. Students who help someone else cheat may agree that the other person cheated, but they neutralize or rationalize their actions as not cheating.
Neutralization, also called verbalization by Cressey (Cite), is the process by which individuals justify their violation of accepted behavior to protect themselves from self-blame and the blame of others. They profess a conviction about a particular law but argue that special circumstances existed that caused them to violate the law in a particular situation ((Cite). By using positive or neutralizing definitions of criminal behavior that justify or excuse it in certain circumstances, persons can rationalize their criminal behavior ((Cite). But every person who commits a crime does not need to neutralize his/her behavior since some people have little moral inhibition against committing certain types of offenses (Cite).
Neutralizations are commonly accepted rationalizations for committing criminal acts (Cite). However, neutralization is not just ex post facto rationalization, since it occurs before the offense occurs and it forms a part of the motivation for the original act (Cite). Neutralization not only allows the offender to commit a crime; sometimes it may also encourage it (Cite). Neutralization of society’s ethical constraints is one component that is necessary for cheaters to formulate motivations for their cheating (Cite). Students, who are not caught cheating and who are not concerned with sanctions from fellow students, often need to neutralize their ethics that act as an internal barrier to their cheating. Neutralization allows them to believe that general cheating is wrong, but that in certain circumstances it is acceptable or even necessary (Cite).
In 1957, Sykes and Matza proposed their neutralization theory. In their study of delinquency, they found that delinquents used specific methods to justify their behavior in attempts to neutralize their actions (Cite). They considered neutralization to be types of “definitions favorable” to crime as referred to in Sutherland’s differential association theory (Cite). Sykes and Matza developed five techniques of neutralization to explain how delinquents move back and forth between traditional and delinquent norms (drift theory) and to explain how delinquents rationalize their delinquent behavior. These same techniques can also be applied to the way college student cheaters justify their inappropriate behavior.
The five techniques are:
- Denial of Responsibility. If offenders see themselves as lacking any responsibility for their actions, then the effectiveness of disapproval of self or disapproval of others, as a restraining influence on behavior, is sharply reduced. Offenders may see themselves as “billiard balls” that are helplessly bumped around from situation to situation through no fault of their own. By viewing themselves as being more acted upon than acting on, offenders do not have to face responsibility for their actions (Cite). Cheaters may consider laws so vague and ambiguous that it was not their fault they broke them. They may plead “momentary insanity,” “ignorance,” “accident,” or “acting under orders” or try to shift the blame to a higher authority (Cite). This denial of responsibility helps them free themselves from experiencing any culpability for their deviance by allowing them to perceive themselves as victims of their environment (Cite).
The Labeff et al. survey of student cheaters (Cite) found that denial of responsibility was the justification most often used as a reason for cheating. Some students said they did not intend to cheat until other students presented them with the opportunity; they also blamed these other students for letting their papers be copied. McCabe’s survey of cheaters found that 61 percent of them claimed denial of responsibility as a justification for their cheating; most of them claimed they had a mind block (Cite)
- Denial of Injury. The law differs in its view of crimes that are Mala in se (wrong in themselves) and crimes that are Mala prohibita (wrong because they are prohibited). Offenders use this same reasoning to differentiate between their behaviors so they can deny any injury or harm from their actions. By denying the wrongfulness of their actions, such as by considering vandalism as mischief or larceny as borrowing, offenders can deny there was any actual injury or harm from their actions (Cite). Sometimes offenders even claim their activities were economically beneficial to their victims, and therefore, no harm was done (Cite). Since society sometimes supports these same distinctions between wrongs, it further supports the offender’s denial of injury since it makes the wrong appear as just a common practice (Cite). This allows offenders to feel their deviance may be executed without any direct harm to others (Cite). Student cheaters may also use denial of injury to justify their actions. They may say: “Nobody was hurt” or “Higher grades make the school look better” or “It doesn’t cause anyone to lose any money.”
Labeff et al. (Cite) failed to find any evidence of denial of the injury in their survey of student cheaters. In McCabe’s survey of student cheaters, only four percent of them claimed denial of injury as justification for their cheating, with the most students feeling cheating was harmless (Cite).
- Denial of the Victim. Even if offenders accept responsibility for injuries caused by their actions, it may be neutralized by their insisting the injury was not wrong due to the circumstances. Offenders may claim there was no injury since their actions were in the form of justified retaliation or punishment.
Denial of victim may facilitate an offender’s deviance when the offender feels he/she can justify the action as retaliation upon a deserving victim (Thurman, 1984, p. 292). Offenders may view themselves as avengers of some wrongdoing by their victims, acting as if they were modern-day Robin Hoods. Also, if the victim is not present when the offender commits a crime, such as only cheating when the professor is out of the room, the offender may deny to him/herself that there was an actual victim (Cite). In some crimes, such as college student cheating, the offender may not have to deny the victim at all since there is no real target of the crime (Cite). Dehumanization of the victim is a form of denial of the victim. Students may feel a professor is mean, unfair, and does not deserve the usual protection of the norms of society. Neither Labeff et al. (Cite) nor McCabe (Cite)could find any evidence of denial of the victim in their surveys of student cheaters. However, Coston and Jenks (Cite)found that ten percent of their respondents denied the victim, but they pointed out this could be explained by their use of open-ended questions.
- Condemnation of the Condemners. Offenders may shift the blame from themselves to the motives and behaviors of those who condemn their behavior by viewing their condemners as being hypocritical or spiteful. These feelings can gradually harden into bitter cynicism toward enforcers of the rules (Cite), which allows the offenders to project blame for their actions upon law-makers and law-enforcers (Cite).
Condemnation of the condemner was the second most common justification given by the student cheaters in the Labeff et al. (Cite) survey. The students claimed their instructors were unfair, unethical, and uncaring, which forced them (the students) to cheat. In the McCabe (Cite) survey, 28 percent of the student cheaters used condemnation of the condemner as justification for their cheating, using pointless assignments, and no respect for the professor as their main reasons for the condemnation.
- Appeal to Higher Loyalties. Offenders may sacrifice the demands of the larger society for the demands of a smaller social group to which they associate. The offenders do not necessarily repudiate the larger society, rather, they see themselves as being caught up in a dilemma between their loyalties to the two groups, which then causes them to break the law (Cite). The offenders feel their deviant behavior is legitimized because a nonconventional social bond dictates greater relevance to them than one more consistent with conventional society (Cite).
In the LaBeff et al. (Cite) survey of student cheaters, appeal to higher loyalty was the third most prevalent reason the students gave for their cheating. They claimed an obligation to their peer group overrode their resistance to cheating, such as helping a friend that needed a better grade. In the McCabe survey (Cite), seven percent of the students claimed appeal to higher loyalties as a justification for their cheating.
McCabe’s larger survey fully supported the findings of the earlier and smaller Labeff et al. survey on all aspects of the application of neutralization theory to college student cheating. Both studies found that neutralization permits some students to justify cheating in their minds.
Minor (Cite) identified two more techniques of neutralization in addition to the five techniques that were identified by Sykes and Matza. These two techniques are:
- Defense of Necessity. Defense of necessity reduces guilt by allowing offenders to view their deviance as the only choice available to them in each set of circumstances (Cite). Offenders may claim their criminal behavior was necessary to survive or to achieve vital economic goals, such as graduation from college (Cite). Student cheaters also use this defense to justify their illegal behavior (Cite).
- Metaphor of the Ledger. In metaphor of the ledger, offenders feel they have built up a sufficient supply of “good” behavior to their credit and thus can indulge in some “bad” behavior without any feelings of guilt. Students who feel they are “good people” who only need a little help in certain situations, may use metaphor of the ledger to justify their cheating.
Thurman et al. (Cite) found that tax evaders used one other neutralization strategy to justify their tax evasion. The tax evaders felt that since everyone else was cheating on their taxes, then they also should be allowed to cheat (Cite). This same neutralization may also be used by college student cheaters.
Although delinquency and cheating are similar in the way the offenders view their illegal acts, there are two main differences between the two groups: (1) delinquents feel the legal system is out to get them, while the cheaters feel the law is on their side; and (2) cheaters consider themselves to be more committed to conventional values and respectability than do delinquents. Consequently, cheaters have a greater need to neutralize the moral bind of the law than do delinquents (Cite).
Cheaters can cover themselves in “purity” because the “structural immortality” of society provides them with a virtual library of verbal techniques to use in their neutralization of the moral bind of the law (Cite). Neutralization theory does have its critics. While neutralization theorists suggest that offenders hold rather global notions of right and wrong, such as “thou shalt not steal,” critics contend that individuals have more specific guidelines for behavior in times of temptation, such as when they use levels of cheating in their thought process to consider some types of cheating as moral and other types as immoral (Cite). Sheley’s research also found that since there was no homogeneity of moral values in society, initial offenses do not always require neutralization ((Cite).
Rationalization is usually thought of as referring to the process of finding some logical excuse for a questionable action that has already occurred, but it can also apply to the thoughts leading to the action and to the final decision to act (Cite) Rationalization usually comes into play after the crime has been committed (Cite) but the mere availability of rationalization seems to play a role in cheating ((Cite). Thinking up a seemingly good reason for unacceptable behavior is the simplest way to avoid feelings of guilt (Cite). By redefining the meaning of a certain behavior, people can rationalize their behavior as being justified under the circumstances (Cite).
Rationalization is used by both professional criminals and student cheaters. Professional criminals rationalize that they are no more dishonest than the greedy businesspeople they steal from (Cite) while student cheaters may rationalize that, since other students are not obeying the law, they must cheat to be academically competitive.
Smigel (Cite) found that the nearer people are to the situation, the easier it is for them to rationalize their illegal behavior. He found that people who had cheated to gain unemployment compensation rationalized that their behavior was not illegal since they had contributed half the money. Student cheaters who must pay for their education may also use this same rationalization.
Some cheaters rationalize their actions by seeing themselves as “problem solvers” who are trying to better a bad situation (Cite). Others may claim “everybody else is doing it,” while others may claim they deserve the grades (Cite). Most cheaters do not invent these rationalizations on their own, they are simply taking existing definitions that they have learned from others and applying them to their behavior (differential association and social learning theories) (Cite).
Smigel, in a 1950s random sample of 212 non-transient adults of Bloomington, Indiana, found that almost 50 percent of the respondents preferred to steal from large organizations because they rationalized that stealing from large organizations was not as bad as stealing from small businesses, since the large organizations were impersonal, powerful, ruthless, and could afford the losses. Another 25 percent of the respondents rationalized that stealing from the government was justified since the government was big and wealthy (Cite). These same rationalizations could also apply to how student cheaters justify their cheating of large colleges or state-supported colleges.
From this literature review of how certain criminological theories have been used in attempts to explain college student cheating and from the study of other criminological theories, a new integrated criminological theory to explain college student cheating was developed. This new theory is fully explained in Section 2.
Section 2: Personal integrated theory
As discussed in Section 1, college students cheat for a variety of reasons, and researchers have proposed numerous sociological/criminological theories to explain why people commit crimes. Certain aspects of some of these theories have been combined to formulate a new theory of why college students cheat. This new integrated theory is the "convenience theory” of cheating. All criminological theories assume that crime is not a random event, that it is more common at particular times, places, and circumstances and among particular types of persons (Cite) The convenience theory of cheating also makes this assumption. College student cheating is not a random occurrence, it also occurs in particular times, places, and circumstances and among particular types of students.
What is convenience?
Convenience is defined as taking the handiest or easiest way to achieve a goal. When applied to cheating, a convenient way is a path that saves the most effort on the work required to achieve good grades. There are two primary ways to reach a goal, the hard way, and the easy way. Just as water trickling down a hill seeks the easiest path to follow, convenience theory proposes that some students will seek the most convenient path to follow toward achieving good grades. Since the legal path to good grades is many times the most difficult path, the most convenient path to good grades is many times the illegal path.
Convenience has become a necessity today. Everyone is surrounded by things such as convenience stores, automatic teller machines, and cellular telephones—things that were designed to make daily tasks more convenient. Today's electronic devices make even mundane tasks convenient to accomplish.
College students have grown up learning that it is not necessary to reach goals by hard work; there are more convenient ways to reach their goals. Convenience theory proposes that some students cheat because it is more convenient for them to cheat, it is the easiest path for them to achieve good grades, and they are predisposed to taking the easy way to achieve goals. It is more convenient for some students to cheat than for them to do the work necessary to attain good grades.
Convenience theory can be compared to the style function that is available in any top-end computer word processor. A style is a collection of attributes, such as bold, underline, font, etc., that a user can apply to a character, word, sentence, paragraph, page, or the entire document. Any number of styles can be created for use in a document, but each style is related to a base style, such as a particular font. If the font in the base style is changed, it affects all the other styles that are related to the base style. Convenience theory is analogous to a base style. It is an underlying theory contained in many of the previous theories that have attempted to explain why people commit crimes. No matter how any one of these theories attempts to explain why people commit crimes, the one underlying reason an individual commits a crime at any point in time is that it is the most convenient thing to do at that time, place, and circumstance. Convenience theory does not disagree with these other theories—it underlies each of them and ties them all together (see Figure 1).
What makes it convenient to cheat?
What makes it convenient for students to cheat? The convenient way to do something is the easiest way to do it at a particular time and place under the prevailing circumstances. Miethe and Meier (Cite) proposed that for crime to occur, three conditions must be present: (1) a motivated offender, (2) a vulnerable target, and (3) a facilitating social context. These same conditions can make cheating more convenient for some students. Still using the flowing water analogy, convenience theory is like water trickling down the development chart depicted in Figure 1. Convenience is the water that trickles through each of the theories in each of the three conditions: seeking the easiest path through each theory. The easiest path through theory is the factor in that theory that makes cheating convenient. For cheating to be convenient, three facts must be present: (1) a student that is suitably motivated to cheat, (2) a vulnerable target, such as an inattentive professor, and (3) a social environment that is conducive to cheating.
Student cheaters fall into three categories: (1) those who come to an exam prepared to cheat, (2) those who come to an exam adequately prepared and not planning to cheat but who may cheat if the opportunity presents itself, and (3) those who come to an exam inadequately prepared and not planning to cheat but who may cheat if the opportunity arises. In either case, due to the social, institutional, and individual factors in students' backgrounds, they come to an exam with sociological and psychological sets that give them the predisposition to either cheat or not cheat. When the opportunity to cheat presents itself and the decision to cheat or not cheat must be made, there must be something that triggers the final decision to cheat. That trigger is the convenience of the cheating. If there is a predisposition to cheat and a convenient situation to cheat presents itself, the convenience may trigger the student to decide to cheat.
Miethe and Meier (Cite) pointed out several sources of offender motivation: economic disadvantage, weak social bonds, pro-crime values, psychological/biological attributes, generalized needs, and availability of non-criminal alternatives. These same motivations can also be applied to college student cheaters. Students may be motivated by the economic pressure of having to maintain grades for scholarship purposes. Or, they may be motivated by having weakened social bonds to their family and its moral values, due to the students being away from home. Students may be motivated to cheat by having pro-cheating values or because they have some psychological or physiological disorder, such as attention deficit disorder. Finally, students may be motivated to cheat by the excitement of cheating or because they do not have access to as many non-cheating alternatives as do other students.
The age of students may be a factor in how convenient they find cheating. Cheating may decrease as the age of the student increases. Older people have learned a convenient way to a goal is not always the best way. They know that although working hard may not always be the most convenient way to achieve a goal, it is more fulfilling in the end.
Fraternities that keep files on the testing characteristics of professors and copies of their previous exams make it more convenient for fraternity members to cheat. Also, the social environment of fraternities may influence a fraternity member's attitude toward cheating since fraternities appear to stress having fun more than they do studying. Student cheater motivations are explained in more detail in the subsection that explains the development of convenience theory.
For cheating to be convenient, there must be a suitable target or victim (see the victimization theories depicted in Figure 1). The immediate target of cheating is the person monitoring a test or exam or requiring some academic material from the student. In the case of cheating, the professor is usually the direct victim of cheating. But indirectly, the college and the students themselves are also victims of the cheating since they are adversely affected by the cheating. Miethe and Meier (Cite) pointed out four victim characteristics that provide opportunities for criminal activity: proximity, exposure, attractiveness, and lack of guardianship. These same characteristics may also make some professors attractive targets for cheating and thus make cheating more convenient. Professors are required to assess student knowledge of a subject, therefore, by necessity, they must be close to the assessment. Therefore, professors are necessarily exposed to a high risk of becoming victims of cheating.
The routine activities of professors, such as grading papers during an exam or leaving an exam to smoke a cigarette, may contribute to their becoming more attractive targets for cheaters (Felson and Cohen's routine activities theory). Routine activities are also related to the lifestyles of the professors. Their lifestyles, such as absentmindedness or even a lack of concern, may expose them to greater opportunities for cheating to occur in their presence (Gottfredson's lifestyle-exposure theory). A professor’s age, gender, race, nationality, religion, marital status, social class, assertiveness, or alertness may affect his/her exposure to cheating and thus, may contribute to their becoming a victim of cheating. Also, the type of exam used by a professor can make the professor a more attractive target to a cheater. Multiple-choice exams are more attractive to cheaters than are essay exams since it is much easier to cheat on a multiple-choice exam.
Professors may be unwitting participants in cheating (Miethe and Meier). A professor who does not provide proper guardianship during an exam may make cheating more convenient for some students. Actions such as leaving exams exposed in unlocked offices may make professors unwitting participants.
Professors may be unwilling or unable to assume the role of a guardian during exams (Friday's role repertoire). If a university’s academic dishonesty regulations are ambiguous, professors may avoid dealing with them. Professors may fear that complex legal proceedings will hurt their reputations so they may overlook cheating. Some professors may disagree with the penalties for cheating so they may be hesitant to enforce rules against cheating.
The same theories that explain the factors that contribute to a motivated offender can also be used to explain the factors that contribute to making a suitable target. These theories are discussed in more detail in the subsection that explains the development of convenience theory, starting on page 20. All these factors can work together to make certain professors more suitable targets for cheating. This, along with the proper social context, may make a motivated student feel that cheating is the convenient path to a good grade.
The last condition that must be met to make cheating more convenient for a student is a facilitating social context. Miethe and Meier (Cite) pointed out that for crime to occur, there must be a facilitating location, an interpersonal relationship between the victim and the offender, and a behavioral setting that establishes the activities of the victim at the time of the offense (see Figure 1). A large classroom with too many students may make cheating more convenient. When professors do not have a strong interpersonal relationship with their students, the students may feel it is more convenient to cheat since they do not have a close connection with the professors. In the case of academic cheating, the behavioral setting is predetermined. The professor and the students are necessarily together in a classroom.
Colleges and their faculty can contribute to the cheating behavior of students by presenting themselves as attractive victims, by not taking the necessary precautions to protect exam information, or by creating an atmosphere of ambivalence toward cheating. If colleges or professors do not provide an adequate number of proctors for exams, they may contribute to cheating. To decrease cheating, colleges must decrease the motivation to cheat, increase the social restraints on cheating, and decrease the physical opportunities for cheating.
Development of convenience theory
Criminological theories have proposed several reasons as to why people commit crimes. These theories can be divided into three groups according to the areas in which they have a major effect: social structural theories, institutional theories, and individual theories. Convenience theory draws each of these groups to explain what makes cheating so convenient to some students (see Figure 1). These same theories can also be used to explain what makes some professors more suitable targets for cheating than are other professors.
The factors that lead students to decide to cheat or not to cheat begin at the time of their births. Students are born with a certain IQ level and an ability to learn, which may or may not change over their lifetimes (biological/physiological theories). These factors may be inherited from the parents or they may be attributed to problems that occurred during gestation. Students may also inherit a greater susceptibility to succumb to cheating (Mednick's theory of inherited criminal tendencies). All these factors affect students' abilities to do well in college and whether they may choose the convenient way to get good grades—cheating.
Social structural theories
The next factors that influence the decision to cheat or not to cheat are a part of students' early socialization. Social structural theories explain some of the ways society itself may contribute to a student’s socialization. The Marxist theory proposes that behavior is a result of class struggle. If lower-class students feel upper-class students are getting good grades because of their class status, they may choose to take the cheating (more convenient) path to good grades.
Lower class students may have different focal concerns (as proposed by Miller) than the college has. Lower class students may judge their success not on just getting good grades but on getting them by outsmarting their professors and taking the convenient, cheating path to good grades. Students in a lower socioeconomic status may be more inclined to cheat because they must spend so much of their time working to pay their college expenses and their living expenses. More mobile students and transfer between colleges more often than other students do may be more susceptible to cheating since they do not develop any loyalty to any one college or student body. Students from single-parent homes, homes with disruptive family relations, or homes with marital instability may cheat more than students that come from more traditional family homes.
If students have not been fully integrated into legitimate society before attending college, they may succumb to the easy, convenient, cheating path to good grades when the opportunity presents itself (Shaw and McKay's social disorganization theory). College campuses have a diversity of cultures represented by their students and faculty that may contribute to cheating since it may cause more conflicts of values, may weaken the realization of common goals, and may weaken bonds to traditional society. When students are not able to get along with people of other cultures and have conflicts with them (Sellin's culture conflict), the strain of competing may make them turn to the cheating (more convenient) path to good grades.
Students may feel they are under strain to achieve the culturally valued end of good grades but may feel unable to get them by culturally accepted means, so they may turn to the convenient, but illegal means of getting good grades—cheating (Merton's anomie theory).
Conflict theory proposes that society is not held together by agreement but by a dynamic equilibrium of opposing group interests where power is the principal determinant of the outcome of the conflict. Students, who feel powerless in their struggle to get good grades, may turn to a convenient method of cheating to gain power over their situation.
The last social structural theory used in developing convenience theory is feminist theory. If female students view the academic system as male-dominated, they may conveniently use cheating in retaliation against the perceived patriarchy.
Institutional theories attempt to explain how institutions add to the socialization process. When students are away from home and parental/community social controls, their bonds to their parents/community may be weakened or broken (Hirschi's social bonding theory). Their attachment and commitment to their parents/community may be weakened. Since students will probably not be as involved in their community any longer, they may begin to question their beliefs. With weakened ties to the social controls that have helped prevent inappropriate behavior in the past, students may turn to cheating without any special motivation to cheat.
If students begin to associate with groups of students that condone cheating, they are likely to learn how to cheat and learn the rationalizations they need to justify cheating (Sutherland's differential association theory). Once they have learned enough reasons to cheat, they may feel it more convenient to cheat. If cheaters are the first students that new students meet (priority), if they meet cheaters more often (frequency) and spend more time with them (duration), and if they are closely associated with the cheaters (intensity), it then becomes easier and more convenient for the new students to cheat. From their differential associations, students may learn the definitions of cheating behavior and learn to cheat by imitating other cheaters. Also, the differential reinforcements they experience may be favorable to cheating (Akers' social learning theory).
With a weakened outer containment (parents and community) and a weakened inner containment (feelings of guilt), students may feel like they are being pushed or pulled into cheating (Reckless' containment theory). The pushing may come from the inability to get good grades legitimately. Students may also feel they are being pulled into cheating by the delinquent subculture with which they are associating (Cohen's delinquent subculture). Like water running down a hill, students tend to take the most convenient path through all the pushing and pulling. Sometimes the most convenient path is the one toward cheating.
Students may have a self-concept of themselves in which they consider themselves as being “bad students” rather than being “good students.” Students that consider themselves “good students” may be insulated against the temptation to cheat, whereas students who consider themselves “bad students” may succumb to the convenient, cheating path to good grades.
For some students, the role of a student may not be a part of their role repertoire (role theory by Friday). They may be unable or unwilling to accept the role of a student. They may resort to cheating to play the role of students the way they perceive it should be played, not the way it should be played.
As explained in Section 1, neutralization and rationalization play an important part in college student cheating. They make it more convenient for students to justify cheating in their minds.
Students with strong internal and external controls may be able to resist cheating more than students with weak controls (Reiss and Nye's internal and external control theory). If punishment (a direct control) has not been effective in preventing cheating, students may cheat. If students have not been appropriately rewarded for not cheating, they may cheat. If the fear of parents' disappointment (indirect control) does not control students' behavior, they may cheat. And, if their sense of guilt (internal control) is not strong enough, they may cheat. Students with high self-control will be less likely to engage in cheating or any other criminal act (Gottfredson and Hirschi's self-control theory).
All these theories and factors work together to help create students that may be motivated to cheat. Then, any time cheating becomes the most convenient path to good grades, these students may decide to cheat.
When a motivated student and a suitable professor come together in a social context that is conducive to cheating, the student then must evaluate the situation and determine if cheating is the most convenient path to good grades. If it is not, then the student is not likely to cheat. If cheating is the most convenient path, then the student must make a rational choice to cheat or not to cheat based upon the expected utility (rational choice theory, another individual theory). If the student expects that cheating will better his/her grade with a minimum chance of being detected, he/she may decide to cheat. If the student feels the better grade is not worth the risk of detection, he/she is more likely to decide not to cheat. The student's decision to cheat or not cheat may be episodic. Depending on the student's mental state at the time of the decision, his/her moral constraints may or may prevent him/her from cheating then (Matza's drift theory). Once a student either cheats or is accused of cheating (even if he/she did not cheat), he/she may be labeled as a cheater. The next time the student evaluates a situation as to whether it is a convenient time to cheat, the label of cheater may make him/her more likely to consider cheating as being a more convenient path to good grades (labeling theory).
Section 3: Conclusions
As discussed in Section 1, numerous criminological theories have been empirically studied as to their ability to explain why college students cheat. Of the established theories, neutralization/rationalization appears to be the one that best explains why college students cheat. Young college students do not live complicated lives. For them to try anything new, all they must do is justify the behavior in their minds. Neutralizations and rationalizations provide students with all the justifications they need to release themselves from any social controls that may prevent them from cheating.
Although neutralization/rationalization seems to offer the best explanation as to why college students cheat, this does not mean that the other theories do not contribute a lot to explaining why the students cheat. As explained in Sections 1 and 2, all the theories have something to offer in the explanation of why college students cheat.
Although convenience theory appears to explain all college student cheating, at this point it is merely a proposed explanation. It needs further refinement and it needs to be empirically tested to determine if it can significantly explain college student cheating.
Figure 1: Convenience Theory Development Chart (Omitted)