Recently, one topic seemed to emerge a lot in conversations I’ve been having: Students cheating, or the fear thereof. Cheating is “easier” when exams are written online and we don’t have students directly under our noses, and to instructors it feels like cheating has increased a lot (and maybe it has!). We’ve discussed all kinds of ways to avoid cheating: Asking questions that have answers that cannot easily be googled (but caution — this tends to make things a lot more difficult than just asking for definitions!). Putting enough time pressure on students so they don’t have time to look up things they don’t know (NOT a fan of that!!!). Using many different exams in parallel where students get assigned exercises randomly so that they would at least have to make sure they are copying from someone trying to answer the same question. But one question that has been on my mind a lot is why do students cheat in the first place, and is there anything we can do as instructors to influence whether they will want to cheat?
I read the chapter “Why students cheat: an exploration of the motivators of student academic dishonesty in higher education” in the Handbook of Academic Integrity by Brimble (2016) and here are some of the points, all backed up by different studies (for references, check back to that chaper), that stood out to me:
Students are under an enormous pressure to succeed academically, yet at the same time they are real people with lives, families, responsibilities, possibly jobs, and more. Whether its because of financial considerations, expectations of parents or peers, or other reasons: Cheating might sometimes feel like it’s the only solution to survive and finish a course among competing priorities.
Since students are under such a pressure to succeed, it is important to them that the playingfield is level and others don’t get an unfair and undeserved advantage over them. If students feel like everybody else is cheating, they might feel like they have to cheat in order to keep up. Also if the workload is so high they feel like they cannot possibly manage in other ways or content is so difficult, they feel like cheating is their only way out.
Students also feel that cheating is a “victimless crime”, so no harm done, really. Especially helping other students, even if that counts in fact as cheating, isn’t perceived as doing anything wrong. Especially if courses feel irrelevant to their lives or if students don’t have a relationship with the instructor, it does not feel like they are doing anything wrong by cheating.
Also in other cases, students might not even be aware that they are cheating (for example if they are new at university, or studying in interdisciplinary programs where norms differ between programs, or in situations that are new to them (like for example in open-book online exams, where it isn’t clear what needs to be cited and what’s common knowledge?).
Students report the actions of their role models in their academic field, their instructors, are super important in forming an idea of what is right and acceptable. If instructors don’t notice that students cheat, or worse, don’t react to it by reporting and punishing such a behavior, this feels almost like encouragement to cheat more, both to the original cheater and to others who observe the situation. Students then rationalize cheating even when they know it’s wrong.
Cheating is also a repeat offense — and the more a student does it, the easier it gets.
So from reading all of that, what can we do as instructors to lower the motivation to cheat?
First: educate & involve
If students don’t know exactly what we define as cheating, they cannot be blamed if they accidentally cheat. It’s our job to help them understand what cheating means in our specific context. We can probably all be a little more explicit about what is acceptable and what is not, especially in situations where there is a grey area. Of course it’s not a fun topic, but we need to be explicit about rules and also what happens when rules aren’t adhered to.
Interestingly, apparently the more involved students are in campus culture, the more they want to protect the institution’s reputation and not cheat. So building a strong environment that includes e.g. regularly communicated honor codes that become part of the culture might be beneficial, as well as helping students identify with the course, the study program, the institution.
Second: prosecute & punish
It’s not enjoyable, but if we notice any cheating, we need to prosecute it and punish it, even though that might come at high costs to us in terms of time, conflict, admin. The literature seems to be really clear on this one: If we let things slide a little, they become acceptable.
Ideally we would know what the rules and procedures are like at our institutions if we see something that we feel is cheating, and who the people are that can support us in dealing with the situation. If not, maybe now is a good time to figure this out.
Third: engage & adapt
Cheating is more likely to occur when there are no, or only weak, instructor-student relationships. Additionally, if students don’t feel engaged in a course, if they don’t receive enough guidance by the instructor, or if a course feels irrelevant or like they aren’t learning anything anyway, students are more likely to cheat. Similarly if a course feels too difficult or too time-consuming, if the workload is too high, or if they feel treated unfairly.
So the lesson here is to build strong relationships and make the courses both engaging and relevant to students. Making sure that the learning outcomes are relevant in the curriculum and for students’ professional development is, of course, always good advice, but in the light of making students want to learn and not have them feel like they just need to tick a box (and then do it by cheating because it really doesn’t matter one way or the other). Explaining what they will be able to do once they meet the learning outcomes (both in terms of what doors the degree opens, but also what they can practically do with the skills they learned) is another common — nevertheless now particularly useful — piece of advice. And then adjusting level of difficulty and workload to something that is managable for students — again, good advice in general and now in particular!
Of course, doing all those things is not a guarantee that students won’t cheat. But to me it feels like if I’ve paid attention to all this, I did what I could do, and that then it’s on them (which makes it easier to prosecute? Hopefully?).
What do you think? Any advice on how to deal with cheating, and especially how to prevent it?
Brimble, M. (2016). Why students cheat: an exploration of the motivators of student academic dishonesty in higher education. Handbook of academic integrity, 365.