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Regular version of the site

Why Undergraduates Cheat

Academic misconduct such as plagiarism, cheating and paying someone to write your course paper may be triggered by 'school fatigue', research suggests.


Leonid IlushinProfessor, St. Petersburg School of Social Sciences and Humanities Department of Public Administration, HSE Campus in St. Petersburg.
Anastasia AzbelAssociate Professor, Saint Petersburg State University Department of Psychology.

Undergraduate students whose memories of school days are marred by bitterness, frustration and boredom may be more likely to cheat, pay others to do assignments for them, or download essays from the internet instead of writing them. In contrast, those with positive memories of secondary and high school tend to be more diligent and responsible as undergraduates, according to Ilushin and Azbel, whose findings are published in the paper "The Impact of Positive School Environment on Student Educational Trajectories."

Overcoming Difficulties at School Key to Success

The researchers surveyed undergraduate students at five departments of the St. Petersburg State University and the Herzen University, whose teachers described their academic integrity as either good or poor. According to the study’s findings, less scrupulous students are more likely to have negative memories of secondary school.

Nearly one-half of respondents associated school with injustice, boredom, discomfort, duty and routine, and reported being overwhelmed and stressed; more than one-third described their schoolteachers' performance as 'weak', while 38% described it as 'so-so'. As for classroom relationships, these were often associated with 'competition' and 'indifference'.

Although some respondents indicated by the faculty as 'cheating' had positive school memories, the researchers suggest, having analysed their interviews, that their reason for lack of integrity may be the wrong choice of undergraduate course.

More than 70% of undergraduates deemed having high academic integrity reported feeling engaged and comfortable in secondary school, and 68% reported mutual support among classmates. More than one-third associated school with freedom, creativity, passion and favourite teachers; 68% described schoolteacher performance as 'strong'. Yet more than 60% of respondents with positive school memories also reported feeling overwhelmed and stressed at school.

According to the study's authors, even in good schools, students can experience emotional fatigue and lose interest in studying new things for various reasons, ranging from too many tests and assignments to poor motivation and a lack of positive stimuli. What makes a difference in the long run, though, is a student’s ability to overcome these difficulties. According to the study's findings, those who have eventually become responsible undergraduates were better at handling crises while at school, including turning to teachers and classmates for help. 

Portrait of the Perfect Teacher

The researchers examined the concept of a favourable school environment from student perspective and found that for teenagers, the best study environment is associated with psychological comfort, emotional excitement and interest in learning. The authors asked 650 ninth- to eleventh-graders in schools providing this type of positive environment to fill out questionnaires in order to identify the pros and cons of the educational process and determine the sources of 'school fatigue'.

As expected, the students emphasised the key role of teachers. Their description of the perfect teacher includes an ability to explain difficult concepts and convince others, as well as fairness and a good sense of humour. Students also expect the ideal teacher to respect and trust them, and to be a good mentor and adviser.

Table 1. Key qualities of the ideal teacher as seen by students in 'positive' schools. Student responses, %.

Trusting students


Good sense of humour


Being able to explain things and convince people


Being fair to everyone


Making remarks respectfully, without raising their voice


Having a good knowledge of life and ability to offer helpful advice


Source: Ilushin and Azbel's paper.

The researchers also asked school students to share ideas on what should be taught to teachers attending refresher courses. According to  most respondents, teachers need to be taught how better to motivate students and engage them in their subject. The second most popular response concerned teacher skills for presenting new material, followed by an efficient, no-hassle approach to preparing students for USE, the final exam.

Table 2. Things teachers need to be taught in refresher courses. Student responses, %.

How to reduce the amount of homework while maintaining the quality of education


How to explain the study material to those who struggle to understand it


How to prepare students for USE without hassle


How to engage students in a subject


How to manage time and keep up with everything


How to support students who cannot get it right the first time


Source: ibid

In addition to this, students emphasised the importance of teacher attitudes, such as being attentive to all students and cutting down the amount of homework while maintaining the quality of teaching.

Too Much Homework Means Overwhelm and Frustration

The authors found homework to be a factor contributing to  'school fatigue'. Thus, 68.3% of respondents would prefer unconventional rather than routine assignments, and more than one-half would welcome less homework as a reward for good performance. Many students believe that honest effort should be rewarded irrespective of the outcome (i.e. grades).

Just one-third agree that all school subjects are equally important for a good education. Nearly one-half believe that mastering a school curriculum without a private tutor is impossible.

The researchers also asked high school students about some of the useful skills they learned at school. The responses emphasised skills such as goal-setting, self-assessment, communication and focus, which students believe are essential for success at the university.

September 12, 2016