Return to site

How Cheating Cheats Asian Students Overseas

For several years now, my conversations with US university admissions officer and administration friends often raise the question, “Why are we having so many problems with Chinese students cheating?” In the past month, cheating problems have hit the news again both in China and abroad. Cheaters on last week’s gaokao (national college entrance exam) will now be subject to criminal prosecution. A week earlier, the ACT college entrance exam cancelled its Hong Kong exam because of suspected cheating. And, just last month, University of Iowa found its way into the international press with another high profile cheating scandal involving Chinese students.

How serious is the problem?  I don’t know – but I do know that the perception that Chinese students tend to cheat is growing stereotype that US-bound students face.  Understanding overseas universities expectations for student character and academic integrity is quickly becoming as important to success as scoring well on the SAT.  Getting an early start in building the right study habits, understanding how American universities view cheating, and identifying the pressures that drive it can help students get the most out of their overseas study experiences.

What is Cheating? An American Perspective

When I was in college, our academic “honor principle” addressed multiple dimensions of cheating – it defined and forbid cheating while promoting a culture of integrity and character.  Very simply, any work that a student submitted that was not his or her own was considered cheating.  This definition included getting assistance on tests, submitting the same work for more than one course, getting unauthorized help on lab assignments, homework and take-home exams, fabricating data or research, and plagiarism. Most other universities in the US have similar definitions of cheating.  And like my Ivy League alma mater, most schools also provide very detailed guidance to help students understand and avoid cheating. 

Among all of these forms of cheating, plagiarism seems to snare the most students.  Students, even American students, tend to plagiarize for several common reasons.  Some plagiarize inadvertently, because they haven’t learned (or hadn’t taken seriously) the proper ways to cite original sources and material.  Others plagiarize because they are lazy and naïve (“the professor isn’t really smart enough to know that I just cut and pasted these few paragraphs”).  And still others haven’t grasp the interpretation and analysis (instead of copying and recitation) that is really expected of them at the college level.

For most US universities, cheating isn’t only about breaking the rules and challenging their authority. Cheating undermines two fundamental values that schools are increasingly trying to deliver to their students: learning how to think and developing character.  Passing tests to demonstrate knowledge is still important, but presenting your ideas, your research methodology, and your findings now becomes equally (and sometimes more) important.  For international students that are coming from test-driven education systems like China, this requires a quick shift in learning and study habits for which some students may not be prepared.

Why Cheating Matters For International Students: The Stakes Are High

With growing scrutiny on international students, the risk of getting caught is high. But what many students (and parents) may not fully grasp is how high the stakes actually are – whether the student gets caught or not.   First, getting caught is more likely than students expect.  Self-policing policies like academic honor codes tend to reduce tolerance for cheating among peers.   Although students may not turn in cheating classmates, they are likely to avoid or ostracise them, making cheating behaviour more noticeable.  Additionally, many schools permit professors to accuse students of cheating based on suspicion rather than facts – while fact-based investigations will follow an accusation, the accusations (and resulting rumors), themselves,  tend to raise questions about students’ integrity and reputations regardless of actual guilt.  Plagiarism detection technology also enables professors to quickly and easily flag questionable student work.

Second, getting caught is costly.  Even light punishments mean losing credit for a course and carry measurable financial costs.  More serious suspensions or expulsions can quickly derail a student’s academic career.  Expulsion and suspension are cause to be removed from the US Student and Exchange Visitor Program – meaning that a student’s visa may be revoked. The Student and Exchange Visitor Information System tracks students in schools across the US, meaning that a student’s expulsion, suspension, or unauthorized withdrawal status is quickly reported.

Students Lose Even When They Don’t Get Caught

For the students that don’t get caught, cheating carries some insidious long-term costs.  Having hired nearly a hundred recent graduates from China over the past 15 years, I’ve seen the results of cheating too many times.  While they’ve usually come away from their overseas studies with a degree on their resumes, academic short-cuts lead to delayed failures is several areas:

  1. Missed Skills.  These students studied overseas, got a degree, but missed developing core learning, thinking, and communication skills.  These skill gaps show up in the form of poor English skills (particularly written and presentation skills), weak critical thinking, and research that lacks analysis and interpretation.  While students had time and resources to develop these skills, make mistakes, and correct and relearn in school, a job leaves little space for catch up.
  2. Missed Fit. These are the students who studied something that they shouldn’t have – perhaps they struggled through economics or business when their real passion and talent was design.  As a result, their field of study didn’t hold their attention and they retained little knowledge and even fewer skills.  In other cases, the student may have gone off to university before he was ready – when faced with “sink or swim” challenge, he just floated, surviving but without developing the social or self-management skills that he’ll need to make next-step decisions about his career on his own.
  3. Weak Character. Although “moral” character traits do matter in the workplace, “performance” character traits like resilience, persistence, and discipline to complete tasks and create and follow through with plans, and take ownership for tasks quickly separate the marginal from the promotable entry-level employee.  When a recent graduate sends me an unfinished Powerpoint at 2:00 AM for a presentation that his team needs to give in the morning, I wonder, “will he be able to redo it?  Will he give up? Will he blame it on a colleague?”  More important, was this a habit that he carried with him from school?

Why Do Chinese Students Cheat?

Although “cultural differences” sometimes shoulder the blame for cheating among Chinese students, the real drivers are more universal: competitive pressure, lack of preparedness, and group pressure. In China, years of relentless competitive pressure and family, peer, and school expectations regarding performance may be the biggest drivers for cheating on the gaokao. If cheating or “short-cuts” become a common response to these pressures, then we can easily see how students respond to similar anxieties when they go overseas to study. An unfamiliar environment and the lack of nearby family support makes these risks even more tempting.

Similarly, group pressure within Chinese overseas student communities can lure students to follow their peers in breaking the rules. These risks become even higher when students perceive that their classmates are able to cheat and get ahead with impunity. Close-knit international student groups that provide important support and guidance make it even more likely that their peers will follow along.

However, lack of preparedness is probably the single biggest and broadest force behind student cheating. International students who cheat are likely to be unprepared in one or more of the following areas:

  • Critical Thinking Skills.  Suddenly being confronted with the need to research, interpret, challenge, and persuasively present their thoughts and learning processes (particularly in English) can be daunting – particularly for an undergraduate far away from family and the familiar game rules of the China education system. 
  • Definitions of Integrity.  International students coming from test-driven education systems like China and Korea also may lack and understanding of how US academic communities define plagiarism and the research and presentation skills to properly paraphrase and cite original sources. 
  • Under-developed Performance Character.   In his book, How Children Succeed, Paul Tough distinguishes between “moral character” (traits like integrity and fairness) and “performance character” (traits like diligence, resilience, and perseverance).  Although Asian students are often stereotyped as exemplars of “performance character”, a closer look at those students that cheat may find the accuracy of this image is slipping fast among affluent Chinese students.  Like many of their American peers, this privileged generation of students often arrives at school unprepared for failure and lacking the resilience needed to independently rebound from the setbacks and social discomfort that can come from a new and different environment.  Without adequately developed performance character to provide confidence and manage anxiety, students turn to purchasing term papers, borrowing homework, and cheating on as an appealing alternative.

Nipping Cheating in the Bud: Starting at Home

So, what can parents do to curb a child’s temptation to cheat – particularly when he or she is grappling with grades, course choices, a new system, a foreign language, and a new social environment?   Unfortunately, outfitting a teenager to resist cheating is not as clear-cut as prepping for the SAT; cram courses the months before won’t do it – planning and practice need to start much, much earlier.  Several core skills, behaviors, and plans that parents can work on with their children can reduce the stress, specific social pressures, and rationalization that lead students to cheat. 

  • Learning Skills. Parents who are considering overseas education for their children can lay the foundation for their smooth transition and success by understanding the learning, thinking and social skills that a student will need and working backwards to create a learning plan.  These fundamental skills include a broad set of critical thinking skills, interpretative reading, independent research, problem-solving, and English-language presentation skills.  Preparation can begin as early as primary school.  Forward-looking parents can begin comfortably building skill development into home and after-school activities, play, leisure reading, and family trips.  By the time that the child reaches university in California, New York, or Vancouver, he is on a similar footing with his local classmates and is able to confidently attack assignments in with a common toolset.
  • Right Fit.  Assuring the “right fit” between a student’s interests, abilities, and maturity level and his prospective school environment, curriculum, and culture is often a “make-or-break” decision that determines academic success.  Prioritizing school rankings and international recognition over important subjective criteria such as school and class size, location (i.e. urban vs rural), professor vs graduate-student taught courses, academic help for international students, and size of Chinese student population can increase the difficulty of adapting to a new education environment.  A child-centric (rather than ranking-based) approach to creating a school list followed by well-planned school visits can help match students to right schools.  Timing is another element of “fit” that eager parents and students can easily overlook – is now  really the right time for a child to study overseas?  Does he have the maturity and self-management skills to enter and adapt to the schools where he has been admitted?  Or, would he be more comfortable, successful, and confident after a “gap” year?  And, what would the development goals and activities or projects for that gap year be?
  • Move Beyond the Chinese Student Crowd.  As hundreds of thousands of Chinese students opt to study overseas each year, Chinese populations on campuses across the US, Canada, the UK, and Australia have mushroomed to hundreds and sometimes thousands of students per school.  These large Chinese student groups make it easier for students to insulate themselves in a familiar language, culture, study habits, and values.  Although connecting with fellow Chinese students can ease the transition, failing to move beyond this group sharply reduces the learning that comes from interacting and adapting to a new and diverse pool of local (or more likely international) classmates.  Within these familiar and relatively closed Chinese social circles, study habits and attitudes that reinforce cheating can also spread quickly. 
  • Role Modelling at Home.  Even when parents, themselves, have not studied overseas (or studied at all for that matter), early parent role modelling still has the single biggest impact on children’s overseas study success.  While parents may not be confident modelling skills like critical thinking, they can certainly model character traits that are even more important for children’s long-term success.  As Paul Tough carefully documents in his previously mentioned book, decades of research by US educators, psychologists, and neuroscientists has demonstrated that “character” not IQ or specific knowledge consistently correlates with higher levels of long-term academic and career success.  Researchers have shown that strength in performance character is a direct driver for success in university and beyond.  Clear, consistent examples of both moral and performance character create a foundation for self-management that supports both academic success and integrity.  Starting even before children enter primary school, parents can set clear, consistent examples that represent and reinforce these values.

Not only can an early focus on character help inoculate children against habits and anxieties that derail students’ academic careers, but “character”, itself, is becoming an increasingly important criteria for getting in the door of selective universities. At the beginning of 2016, a working group of top admissions officers at Harvard, MIT, and a cluster of top schools announced a renewed focus on “character” in the admissions process for some of the US’ most selective schools. This movement suggests top universities are increasingly building concern for community, individual character, self-management, and integrity even more deeply into their academic missions --- moves that are likely to drive less acceptance of cheating and greater assessment of the qualities that resist it in both admissions and on campus.

All Posts

Almost done…

We just sent you an email. Please click the link in the email to confirm your subscription!