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Why Students Cheat
March 1, 2022
Natasha Karolewska, Grade 11

We’re well into the first semester of the school year, and the pressure is building up. The next few weeks will be jam-packed with group presentations, 2000-word essays, and multiple-choice exams that can bring down your grade by 20%. Trudging down the halls are crowds of sleep-deprived students trying to recall the different types of chemical reactions they were supposed to know for their tests. In between lessons, people are quizzing each other frantically, seeking clarification on the topics they couldn’t quite grasp. The stakes are high, and one wrong move can harm your academic average and crush your dreams of getting into university.

It seems natural to worry about your grades, since students are regularly told that post-secondary institutions only admit students with high GPAs. Also, we’re constantly being bombarded with unit tests and group assignments; at least every other week, for most courses. Students who perform well on these assessments are showered with accolades: the Governor General’s Academic Medal, for example, is distributed to graduates with the highest academic averages in their schools. But students who don’t receive these high marks are often penalized and prevented from taking AP and Honours courses. They’re also more likely to have lower levels of self-esteem, according to a study among school-age children in Finland. From an early age, students associate their marks with their self-worth and academic potential. 

But grades can be tampered with. Across Canada, students have found numerous ways to earn their high averages without even opening their textbooks. In 2018, Sarah Eaton, an associate professor at the University of Calgary, estimated that over 71,000 Canadian post-secondary students engage in academic dishonesty. That 96% that your classmate got in chemistry perhaps isn’t just the average mark on her chemistry tests. How much of that 96% came from her own knowledge of the structure of isobutane, and how much of it was from the free homework help site that she discovered? The survey at Burnaby North suggested that cheating is equally rampant, with a staggering 82% of survey respondents admitting that they would cheat on an exam - provided they weren’t caught. An additional 93% estimated that most of their peers would also take advantage of such an opportunity - simply to boost their test scores. 

Why do students plagiarize essays, look at answer keys, and copy from their classmates? For most people, studying is a chore. In the Burnaby North survey, 45% admitted that they dislike studying but do it because getting good grades is important to them. Consequently, the onerous task of reviewing chapter notes is to be deferred to the day, or the night, before a test. At the University of Pennsylvania, 99% of undergraduates admitted to cramming. At Burnaby North, almost 79% agreed that most of their classmates crammed the night before their tests, and 70% said that they missed out on sleep at least every week because they were finishing homework or preparing for their classes. However, there is little evidence to suggest that delaying homework to the last minute has any educational benefits. Among students, procrastination has been implicated in higher levels of stress and dissatisfaction with life. 

So, should students sacrifice their sleep and academic integrity to get the average they wanted? Probably not. Grades are, after all, numbers on a piece of paper. They attempt to capture how well you’ve mastered particular subjects, not who you are and where you’re going. They don’t have the prophetic powers that students often attribute to them.