Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Social Deviance Among Students

In our society, our lives are structured by a set of rules and norms. We follow these consciously and subconsciously, doing our best to fit in with the expectations of everyone else. However, there are times when people break these rules. This is referred to as Social Deviance. This may be as simple as not stopping at a red light, or going so far as to rob a bank. We are presented with the choice to deviate every day from our norms. Robert Merton's Social Strain Theory illustrates the methods people use to achieve their goals. He believes that the majority of society conforms to the set of rules and norms, accepting similar goals and the institutionalized means to achieve them. However, there are those who have the same goal, but follow unconventional means to get there. This is evidenced by college students who cheat in their classes so that they may make the grade they really want.

We wanted to study social deviance among college students, and find out whether cheating is something students consider to be wrong. Across schools, cheating is typically frowned upon by teachers, professors, students, etc. However, that does not mean it does not happen. Students provide various reasons for their deviant behavior, attempting to justify breaking a rule. We believe that cheating has become a common phenomenon across campuses, despite the fact that the majority of students admit that it is the wrong thing to do. Through anonymous surveys, we attempted to find out whether the students at UT Austin are as guilty of cheating as other students across the country, and what they believe justifies this occurrence.

The video discusses academic dishonesty at UNT. Dr. Alice Mathews, the Assistant Vice Chair of the English Department at UNT, explains that people look for shortcuts constantly in life. She is not surprised that some students use cheating as a shortcut during their college careers.  Teachers expect you to work hard and learn the assigned material, regardless of how challenging it is. The faculty members feel as if you have betrayed their trust because you aren’t working hard for your grade and because you aren’t learning any of the new material. There has been a steady increase in the amount of students who have cheated. This shows that although cheating is considered a form of deviance, more and more students are finding it to be more acceptable saying “desperate times call for desperate measures.” Some students want to make a good grade by using any means necessary.  However, even though students cheat, if they see other people cheating, they still consider it to be a bad thing.

There are multiple reasons for increases in cheating. Cheating tends to increase when students aren’t as prepared for the classes that they enrolled in.  Students want to be seen as honest, hard-working individuals who want to learn class material and use that knowledge to help them in their careers. Being in a profession with no real knowledge isn’t going to help an individual in the work force. If someone gets caught cheating, their image gets tarnished.  As open as they are to speak with friends about their deviant behavior, when it comes to admitting this on camera, they all decline.  Cheating is a widespread issue that has negative long term effects on a student not just while they’re in school but even after they graduate and enter the real world. Cheating will never get you anywhere in life without actually gaining the knowledge necessary to be successful.  

The Numbers Tell the Real Story

As part of our project, we created an anonymous survey to ask students objective questions about cheating, which can be found here:


These are the questions we chose to focus on:
1. Do you believe it is wrong to cheat in the classroom?
2. Have you ever cheated on a quiz, test, paper, etc.
3. If you have cheated, why did you?
4. If you have cheated were you ever caught?
5. Would you cheat again if given the chance?
6. Do you know if any of your friends or fellow classmates have ever cheated?
7. Do you believe that your friends influence your choices in the classroom?

We received responses from 100 students and discovered some very intriguing facts. Overall, 91% of the students agreed that it is wrong to cheat in the classroom. Most expressed strongly that it is dishonest and wrong. One student quoted, "The classroom is meant to assess yourself and others and the tests become obsolete if you are tampering with the system and making it unequal."

A good majority of the students reported feelings of guilt over cheating. Some stated that it gives an unfair advantage to those who cheat over the students who work hard to study and get a good grade on their own. However, despite these sentiments promoting honesty, 52% of the students admitted to cheating. When asked why, a large number of the students said that they wanted a good grade, and cheating provided the best option. One said that they "felt pressure to get the highest grade possible." Another stated that he "wasn't prepared for the test and couldn't afford to get a bad grade.

Next to grades, many students reported that their teachers had not prepared them adequately for what would be on the test. Some mentioned that their professor had not taught the material at all, or that the teacher "was trying to make the subject matter more difficult." Several of the students we surveyed were quick to blame someone else for their behavior, instead of accepting responsibility.

Interestingly enough, only 9% of our respondents had ever been caught cheating. 60% said they hadn't, and the remaining 31% said they've never cheated. If the risk of being caught is so low, it's no wonder so many students cheat. They can still get the grades they want and not worry about the consequences. Surprisingly, even though they might not get caught, only 19% of the people we surveyed said they would cheat again. When asked why, they tended to respond the same way they did earlier. Some said it was just a matter of opportunity. If they did not feel prepared, they were more likely to cheat. Without being corrected or sanctioned, students are more likely to be deviant.

We were also interested to see if students were influenced by their peers choices. Often times, people are more willing to conform if they are pressured by others they know. 94% or our respondents believe that their friends or fellow classmates have cheated before. We were shocked to see this figure. But at the same time, only 55% of the students admitted that their friends influence their choices in the classroom. It seems that friends are not always enough to persuade a student to go against the norm.

Similarities Across Campuses

In order to compare the beliefs of students from different universities, we went beyond UT Austin and interviewed a student from Texas State. Here is her response to our questions:

"Yes I think [cheating] is wrong, but I also feel that there are certain circumstances that don't make it right but less wrong. When it comes to being really crammed with school work and having three tests in one week or something along those lines it should be okay to get help with assignments or quizzes from other students. I personally can say that I have cheated on a paper before even though I knew it was morally wrong. I think it all comes down to the amount of effort students put into their work and studying. Many of the people that I know who have cheated did it based off of pure laziness and showed low interest in the course. Laziness is probably the most important aspect of cheating."

When asked whether she thought professors know that cheating is a frequent occurrence, she said:

"I think they have an idea but are unable to catch the majority of the students. There are so many different ways to cheat these days. Students have become very creative, using techniques such as writing on the backs of calculators, scribbling down on scantrons before handed the test, or writing on the inside of their arm and keeping it covered. It's hard to focus on every student when there are hundreds in the classroom.
When it comes to the benefits of cheating, as long as you aren't afraid of being put on academic probation or getting a zero in a class, then yes the benefits outweigh the risks. The benefit of receiving an A in a class without having to put much effort in would be considered worth it to most students including myself."

Through this interview, we could tell that a broad range of students have the same thoughts on cheating. Many students may be ashamed of cheating including this particular student, but most seem willing to accept shame over failing a class. The sad reality of this deviant behavior is that the majority of students will have cheated by the time they graduate. It is a matter of undermining academic honesty or risk falling behind.

 My Freshman Year

Rebekah Nathan in her book "My Freshman Year," dove into the issue of academic dishonesty. During her stint as a freshman student at her university, she learned that "cheating is kind of like traveling in basketball or stealing signs in baseball - everybody does it" (Nathan 124). Defining cheating is where the real problems arise. In her study, about 90% of college students reported seeing other students cheat in the past year, and has become "an active part of classic college culture" (Nathan 123). Nathan found that students use several reasons to justify cheating: 

  • Looking at someone's scantron to see if they had the same answer as you for reassurance
  • Believing that everybody else has cheated academically at some point in their lives
  • The teachers did not demonstrate the material well, put subjects on the test that were not covered in class, or made tests too difficult in general  
  • Pressure to perform well
Nathan also explains that most students she questioned did not support the "general idea of cheating," but admit that they have done it themselves, and are aware that it is a prevalent issue across campuses. However, only 17% of students are "habitual test cheaters" (Nathan 128). There may be some hope after all that cheating is still recognized as breaking a societal rule.                                                                                            
Durkheim argues that by defining what is deviant, we can recognize what is not, therefore reinforcing our shared values of society. If deviance is rewarded though, it will reduce other people's willingness to play by the rules of society. Through this project, we came to realize college students continually cheat since they receive benefits from this behavior more often than punishment. Students are focused on maintaining good grades, but sometimes must adopt alternative means to reach their goals. Even though very few individuals condone cheating, this has not stopped the majority of the student population. They still achieve their desired goals through deviation. Without reprimands for their actions, students will use unconventional means to get what they want, instead of obeying societal values. 


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