Online Cheating Isn’t Going Away. Use It as a Teachable Moment for Students and Educators

Jul 27, 2020

As more colleges and school districts prepare to resume remote instruction for the fall, educators may worry how to prevent cheating when assignments and exams are held online.

Maintaining academic integrity is important, but eradicating cheating is near impossible with how quickly technology moves, said Tricia Bertram Gallant, academic integrity director at the University of California, San Diego, and board emeritus at the International Center for Academic Integrity.

That’s why, instead of punishment, educators might consider incidents of cheating as a teachable moment.

“Ultimately, students are human beings and they’re going to make bad decisions under stress and pressure,” Bertram Gallant said. And whatever career they pursue, “they’re going to be under stress and pressure a lot and we want them to make ethical decisions. And by actually creating environments where students can learn from the integrity violations, I think we’ll do more for our society than trying to lock down our schools so that students don't have the opportunity to cheat.”

Her comments came during a June 18 virtual panel organized by Pando Public Relations, a public outreach agency for education, to discuss academic integrity and cheating in college.

Part of the issue when designing assignments and exams to deter cheating is recognizing what cheating in 2020 looks like. Valerie Schreiner, chief product officer at plagiarism detection service provider Turnitin, said the cost continues to decrease to hire someone to write your paper or gain remote access to a computer to take an exam. “I have literally had students tell me I didn’t cheat—I paid them,” Schreiner said.

Turnitin has seen use of its tools grow during COVID-19 and remote instruction. But Schreiner has not seen data that shows an increase in cheating since schools started closing.

Preventing cheating becomes a game of cat-and-mouse, said Ashley Norris, chief academic officer at ProctorU, a company that provides secure live and automated online proctoring services. Sometimes, identity verification features are thwarted when students pay a service to gain remote access to their computer to take an exam. “The people who know how to cheat know how to sell it,” she said.

During the panel, research on the prevalence and perspectives of cheating was presented by Jarret Dyer, coordinator of testing services at College of DuPage, a community college of more than 28,000 students in Illinois, and Steve Saladin, director of testing and assessment at the University of Idaho, a public school of more than 9,000 students.

Their paper, “Academic Dishonesty and Testing: How Student Beliefs and Test Settings Impact Decisions to Cheat,” published this year in the Journal of the National College Testing Association, looked at responses from 484 students from four higher-ed institutions and concluded that students are more likely to engage in cheating behavior when taking an unproctored exam.

“The entire institution needs to communicate thoroughly from the top down or from the bottom up that it takes academic integrity seriously,” Dyer said. “We need to continue to emphasize to students the importance of the assessments. And one way of doing that is by placing them in a proctored environment.”

Students don’t see exams as part of learning, he added. According to the paper, 37 percent of survey respondents, or 177 students, said that if an exam wasn’t proctored, they assumed they could use the internet and collaborate. The most often cited justification was that the instructor is responsible for providing an environment without resources for cheating.

Some students pointed out that in the real world, they’re expected to work with coworkers and find information, not necessarily memorize it.

“If a professor introduces the importance of test security, academic integrity and puts in place the guardrails of proctoring, students are less likely to believe that cheating is OK and less likely to cheat,” Dyer said.

Educators may need to pay mind to disparities that exist in policing cheating, Bertram Gallant said. They tend to assume international students cheat more than their counterparts, which is not apparent in the research. Plus, wealthier students can afford to buy papers written for assignments, whereas less wealthy students resort to the more easily traceable cheating method of plagiarism.

Online tools and honor codes alone don’t prevent cheating either. Rather, what helps is a culture of academic integrity and consistent reminders to students on when assistance is allowed for exams and assignments, and what specific types of assistance are allowed—be it notes, textbooks or internet searches.

In the rush to move education online in the spring, schools might not have had time to worry about cheating. But beyond preventative measures, they may also need to reconsider what makes for an effective assessment. For example, Bertram Gallant asked: How much value is there in a multiple-choice test that emphasizes memorization?

“Memorization, one could argue, is not necessary in a lot of cases anymore when Google knows everything,” she said. “What is necessary is information literacy because I have to know whether the source I found is actually good and legitimate.”


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