Curbing Cheating Online: Understanding Why Students Cheat

This post is part of a series to help you design an online course quickly and effectively. If you begin at the beginning, you will already have build your syllabus, created your policies, and framed your online course. We’re taking a small detour now to focus on how you can curb cheating in your classes.

To understand how to curb (We never dare say prevent cheating, because, as with an in-person class, 0% “irregularities” is an unreasonable goal at the course level.) cheating, it helps to understand why students cheat. While individuals may have unique reasons, they tend to fall into several common categories. I list them below, along with brief comments on how we can address them to reduce cheating.

They feared what are or what they perceive to be heavy consequences of failure, including, for example, loss of scholarship, suspension from an athletic team, dismissal from a degree program or even from the university, revocation of access to study in the US, or shame.

Obviously, individual professors teaching in their classrooms cannot change the policies that create tremendous pressure on students. But we can influence policies through shared governance. We can also petition for full funding for college (and the total cancellation of college debt right now) so that the consequence of bad grades isn’t a lifetime of debt but no degree.

They do not see the value of the work that is assigned.

We can make the purpose of every assignment clear. You may already indicate on your syllabus which learning objective each assignment supports, but, honestly, no student reads that. Instead, right under the name of the assignment, include a statement of What I hope you gain from this assignment. Valuing work is easier to do if we see it connected to a larger purpose, so state what that is.

They have legitimately worked hard to maintain perfect grades thus far and understand that, indeed, a single bad score on a high-stakes assignment, may ruin their overall status.

Again, this isn’t something that you alone can change; it requires a culture change in higher ed, including, I’d argue, the expansion of honors colleges. You can, though, lower the temperature by avoiding assignments that are worth more than 20% of a final grade. That’s enough to move a grade by 1 letter if the student fails and 2 letter grades if they don’t turn it in.

They do not see their behavior as cheating; that is, they do not understand what cheating is.

Fight this by explaining clearly and repeatedly what cheating is and providing examples. Include specific instructions on each assignment stating what is and is not permissible. (For example, on online quizzes, I say, “You may use any resources you have, including your book, your notes, the online lectures, and the internet, to complete this quiz. However, you may not collaborate with any other students, in person or online, to answer  these questions.”)

You can also given a low-stakes, repeat-until-you-get-it-right quiz over the kinds of cheating that are most likely in your class. Teaching a class where students will write papers? Prepare a video showing students different ways to integrate a direct quotation into their own writing. Then give them a quiz in which they have to select from among answer choices that do it appropriately.

Be sure to report cheating to the entity that tracks student academic dishonesty. Students who repeatedly claim that they “didn’t know” what constituted cheating need more accountability than you can provide.

They did not prepare to do well on the assessment (test, paper, quiz, etc.). For whatever reason, they did not devote time or effort to their own success.

Use “ready-to-learn assignments” to help them understand the expectations and the time they will need to devote to meeting them. Include the estimated time required on readings, videos, podcasts, and other course materials so they know how to plan their time. Remember that these are ways that students learn to be good learners, so don’t resent the effort required on your part.

Most importantly, assign large assignments in small parts. For a paper, for example, have students turn in a topic, a bibliography, notes over their sources (which I prefer over annotations because it’s hard for students to avoid plagiarizing from the abstract), an outline, a first draft, a final draft, and a reflection on their research and writing process. While not every students’ process is this linear and writing is recursive, weekly deadlines that show that they are making some progress help them manage their time and make it less likely that they will be trying to buy a paper online the night it is due.

In future posts, I’ll talk about more specific strategies related to curbing cheating, especially on tests and papers.

File:Frans Snyders - Three Monkeys Stealing Fruit - WGA21531.jpg ...

Frans Snyder’s Three Monkeys Stealing Fruit (1640s) shows three monkeys wreaking havoc with a basket of fruit.

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