Instructors can mitigate cheating in their courses by understanding the reasons students cheat and using course design that simultaneously addresses students’ reasons for cheating and limits opportunities to cheat.
A multi-pronged approach works best
A series of foundational studies on academic dishonesty conducted between 1963 and 2010 found high numbers of university students admitting cheating at least once in some form, with a large percentage also admitting to cheating on exams. However, these studies also recognized not all university students cheat, students cheat in “key” ways for similar reasons, and a minority of students identified as repeat cheaters. The presence of consistently enforced honor codes also mitigated student cheating (McCabe et al.; Lang).
During the Covid pandemic, some instructors and the popular press perceived an increase in cheating tied to new opportunities created by the sudden, widespread use of online classes (Adams; Dey; Hobbs). At this writing, research into levels of cheating during the pandemic is still developing (ICAI, “McCabe-ICAI Survey”), but some recent surveys provide students’ views of tech tools such as online “study” or “tutoring” sites, and group email and chat apps which may be used for cheating (ICAI, “Facts and Statistics;” Inside Higher Ed/College Pulse Survey 2021).
This page provides a brief overview of the reasons students cheat, followed by some practical strategies for overall course design, mitigating academic dishonesty, plagiarism, improper collaboration, and cheating on tests.
Dishonest behavior increases under certain conditions
Students’ self-reported reasons for cheating mirror earlier studies and include the following:
- performance pressure (from family, minimum GPA requirements, etc)
- focus on grades
- “high stakes” exams or assignments, often defined by high point value
- judging course workload as too high
- having limited time to study
- being unprepared
- feeling “anonymous,” disconnected from course material, a class community, professor, or institution
- increased opportunities to cheat enabled by tech (improper use of online sources, so-called study or tutoring sites, or group apps allowing for cheating on assignments, during physical or online testing, lack of effective proctoring for online testing)
- peer acceptance of cheating
- perception that academic dishonesty will go unpunished
- perception that cheating is a reasonable strategy rather than an ethical violation
- misunderstanding plagiarism or how to avoid plagiarism
- viewing improper collaboration or contract cheating as acceptable (use of group apps, collaboration, online searches, or “study” and “tutoring” sites for individual work)
(Inside Higher Ed/College Pulse Survey 2021)
Mitigate cheating through course design
Careful course design mitigates and discourages cheating by addressing the reasons students cheat and limiting opportunities to cheat. The following approaches reduce grade pressure and lower the stakes of particular assignments, mitigating primary reasons to cheat. These approaches also limit the opportunities to cheat by bringing work inside the classroom, scaffolding, and using other techniques to make assignments more cheat-proof.
- Make the path to success clear. Provide credit for hard work by recognizing doing, effort, and participation, as well as through other more traditional assessments.
- Lower the stakes and pressure of individual assessments. Increase assessment opportunities, reducing the stakes of individual assessments. (Avoid 25%+ single assessments.)
- Flip the classroom. Provide materials for students to study before class, and then work with the material in class.
- Scaffold assignments. (Assignments with multiple steps and due dates are inconvenient for cheating.)
- Use complete/incomplete grading on some assignments to lower pressure.
- Develop personalized assignments that ask students to draw their own conclusions, or apply principles taught in the course to a unique, personally familiar situation.
- Develop assignments that require original data collection through interview, observation, or other methodology.
- Establish yourself as a person who cares about students and academic honesty. Make your values known.
Academic dishonesty policies
Research shows academic dishonesty policies and honor codes mitigate cheating when students perceive that they will be enforced. Instructors can design courses to teach MSU’s commitment to the values of academic honesty and create knowledge of MSU’s Academic Dishonesty policy.
- Emphasize MSU’s Academic Dishonesty policy on your syllabus, on assignments, and in class. Let students know you will enforce the policy: Read and study MSU’s Academic Dishonesty policy together in class – the details are worth spending time on.
- Cover definitions of plagiarism, improper collaboration, and collusion, and how to avoid these forms of academic dishonesty. (Many students do not consider reusing their work in another class plagiarism.)
- Create an academic honesty assignment: Use a reflection, simulation exercise, quiz, or discussion assignment on cheating. See Canvas Commons for several quizzes and assignments.
- Require signatures on an individual Honor Code. The School of Business follows this model and examples of honor codes may be found on Canvas Commons.
- Partner with the library on scaffolding research assignments and information literacy.
- Report instances of academic dishonesty using this form.
To mitigate plagiarism, incorporate instruction about citation and plagiarism through the following strategies:
- Start with a low-stakes plagiarism assignment: A low-stakes assignment (i.e, 5% of grade) allowing students to practice using citation early in the semester reduces the overall impact of a zero grade for plagiarism.
- Teach citation, paraphrasing and summarizing, underscoring that these also require attribution to the original source; send students to online and University sources (Sprague Library, CWE) for more help.
- Remind students of the logic of citations. Citation methods refer readers to useful sources and give credit where credit is due.
- Warn students against copying and pasting text from articles, as this is a practice that often accidentally leads to plagiarism.
- Warn students that reusing papers they wrote for one course in another course constitutes plagiarism.
- Use Turnitin and search engines to flag plagiarism, but realize both can bring up false positives that require more investigation, and that they can also miss many instances of plagiarism. (Some online tools can tumble and paraphrase texts so they do not trigger Turnitin.)
- For instruction in foreign languages, be mindful of automatic translators like Google Translate; tell students that they are prohibited.
Students may consider the use of online tools such as study or tutoring sites, as well as group work or collaboration through group apps, acceptable to complete individual assignments and tests (ICAI, “Facts and Statistics;” Inside Higher Ed/College Pulse Survey 2021). Instructors should clarify collaboration expectations for all assignments:
- Clarify expectations for individual and collaborative work. Provide clear instruction and feedback. Explain what type of collaboration (if any) is allowed on an assignment, and what kind of sources may be used.
- Warn students against using web companies that arrange for others to do students’ work: tutoring/file sharing/answer/ contract essay sites.
- Warn against using group chats like GroupMe to cheat or share cheating materials.
- Be clear about consequences if students are in a group when material used to cheat is being shared.
- Students might be added to a group without their knowledge, or all students might not be active in the chat when cheating happens. Should all students in the group fail?
- Do students have a duty to report? Is there a policy to keep whistleblowers private?
Mitigating cheating on tests
Access to devices during testing presents students with many opportunities to cheat on tests by using outside sources for answers. Design assessments to mitigate the opportunity to search “tutoring” or “study” websites, or to use group email and or group chats to share answers during testing.
- Hold exams in person and proctor: Collect devices or require that they are put away, move around the room, and actively patrol the exam environment.
- Use the Canvas Tools available to minimize cheating on tests: for example, tools help randomly distribute questions from an essay bank; show just one test question at a time; assign different test times to different students.
- Randomize questions, responses, and exam sets to prevent answer sharing among students during the exam.
- Avoid exams with all multiple choice or short answer questions. Open ended questions require individual responses and analysis.
- Design for open book tests and require analytic responses rather than rote memory.
- Don’t recycle tests: Design new and/or different types of questions with every rerun of the course to prevent recycling through students.
- Slightly rewrite test bank questions to reduce cheating by preventing the answer from being found online, simply because an exact match to the question may not exist online.
- Use short, frequent, low stake exams, strict submission deadlines, and delay feedback. (Submission deadlines may reduce the time to look up answers or share answers. The delayed feedback could defeat gaming cheating).
- Recognize limitations of browser lockdowns in an era when students have multiple devices and internet browsers.
- Adams, Susan. “This $12 Billion Company Is Getting Rich Off Students Cheating Their Way Through Covid.” Forbes, 28 Jan. 2021.
- Dey, Shena. “Reports Of Cheating At Colleges Soar During The Pandemic.” NPR, 26 Aug. 2021.
- Ezarik, Melissa. “How Students See Cheating, and How Colleges Can Contain It.” Inside Higher Ed, 23 Nov. 2021.
- “Shades of Gray on Student Cheating.” Inside Higher Ed, 7 Dec. 2021.
- Hobbs, Townell, D. “Cheating at School Is Easier Than Ever—and It’s Rampant.” The Wall St. Journal, 12 May 2021.
- ICAI. “McCabe-ICAI Academic Integrity Survey.” International Center for Academic Integrity. Accessed 14 Mar. 2022.
- “Facts and Statistics.” International Center for Academic Integrity. Accessed 14 Mar. 2022.
- Lang, James M. Cheating Lessons: Learning from Academic Dishonesty. Harvard University Press, 2013.
- McCabe, Donald L., et al. Cheating in College: Why Students Do It and What Educators Can Do About It. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012.
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