How Students See Cheating, and How Colleges Can Contain It

Student perceptions of academic integrity and exposure to unethical behaviors uncovered in our survey can guide colleges in educating about such issues and taking action to prevent cheating.

November 23, 2021
 
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During Pamela Vallejos’s freshman year at Hofstra University, she learned a tough lesson when a peer on a group project got away with passing off her work on a lab report as his own. “My teammate had to write the intro, but he asked me to help. So I wrote what I would have done for the intro, and he used that entire thing,” says Vallejos, a biochemistry major with plans to go to med school after her 2022 graduation. Her conclusion didn’t fare as well as that intro grade-wise. “He ended up getting better compensated and taking all the credit.”

Reporting his actions didn’t help. “I spoke to the professor, and he kind of laughed in my face,” she says. Surely the Google document history, showing only her name as intro author, would rectify the injustice? “The professor didn’t end up taking my side,” Vallejos says.

Rather than focusing on that frustration, Vallejos got involved in supporting the university’s honor code, a statement of shared values adopted by faculty members, the Student Government Association and the president in 2012. This academic year, she’s one of seven undergrads serving on the Honor Board, a group of faculty, staff and students overseen by the provost’s office that helps promote and implement the code.

As with any behavior, understanding why students cheat is key to addressing the problem, which existed long before the pandemic exacerbated it by abruptly changing in-person teaching and learning to virtual. Among the 2,000 students responding to the latest Student Voice survey in mid- to late October, nearly three-quarters see pressure to do well as a reason for cheating in postsecondary education. Lack of preparation for exams and heavy or unrealistic course workloads are the next most common reasons cited in the survey, conducted by Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse with support from Kaplan.

A lot of students, feeling overwhelmed (pandemic or not), may remain conscientious about coursework in classes they see as most important, but they “end up doing things they don’t want to” in other classes, says Vallejos.

Eren Bilen, a professor in the department of data analytics at Dickinson College who has conducted research on cheating during the pandemic, sees the issue this way: “If the students have an option to choose between cheating and not cheating—cheat to get an A, don’t cheat to get a C—the temptation is just too strong. If they have the ability, they go for it.”

But cheaters are not the enemy, notes David Rettinger, president emeritus of the International Center for Academic Integrity.

“Your data shows this as much as anything I’ve seen. Everyone has their price: stress, family pressure, time constraints. Everyone has a breaking point. Most students are able to reach that breaking point over the course of a semester,” says Rettinger, a professor of psychological science and director of academic integrity programs at the University of Mary Washington in Virginia.

As one survey respondent from a private college in Massachusetts wrote, “Cheating isn’t something bad people do. It’s something desperate people do.”

Intrinsic versus extrinsic motivations are another piece of the academic integrity puzzle. It’s easy to blame cheating on bad decision-making in 17- to 21-year-olds. “To focus on that misses out on the larger context. The system encourages cheating because it’s so focused on extrinsic rewards” such as test scores and grades, says Tricia Bertram Gallant, director of the academic integrity office at the University of California, San Diego, and a former board member of ICAI.

Don McCabe, considered the founding father of the field of academic integrity, started ICAI in 1992, a year before conducting the first academic study of cheating at the college level. While behaviors around cheating haven’t changed much since that time, says Bertram Gallant, research on the impact of college on students reveals a shift from most students going to college to develop a meaningful philosophy of life to most students going to college to get a job. That extrinsically motivated focus sets the scene for more cheating.

Interest in academic integrity as a topic of concern within higher ed over the past decade has ebbed and flowed, at least in the experience of Renee Pfeifer-Luckett, director of learning technology development in the University of Wisconsin system’s Office of Learning and Information Technology Services. “I see it as kind of a wave. Over the last 11 years, I’ve seen this topic come up, crescendo and come back down, come up, crescendo and come back down,” says Pfeifer-Luckett, who has presented on learning tech tools used to ensure academic honesty. “The students’ response has been stirred up due to COVID,” she adds. “Students who never had to be proctored remotely because they never took an online class—those are the students you’re hearing from now.”

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The Student Voice survey covered perspectives on that technology, the prevalence of cheating, prevention efforts such as honor codes and academic integrity awareness training. A few highlights:

  • Forty-four percent of students say it’s very or somewhat easy to cheat on tests when they’re online; online proctoring, which some view as effective prevention and detection technology, is something 71 percent of students have experienced in their courses.
  • Two-thirds of all students surveyed agree at least somewhat that having an honor code in place that prohibits cheating encourages students to behave more ethically; results are nearly the same when looking at the 1,364 students who formally agreed not to cheat by signing such a code (note: some students may only have signed one for an individual class).
  • Forty-three percent of students say many or all of their professors have made efforts to use more authentic assessments (defined within the question as assessments that require individualized responses, understanding of material and complex problem solving).
  • Four in 10 students believe cheating occurs somewhat or very often at their college, but only 6 percent say they have been accused of either cheating or plagiarism in a course. Black and Asian students are most likely to report being accused of plagiarism (12 percent of each group).

A March 2020 ICAI survey found nearly one-third of undergrads had cheated on an exam. The original McCabe research showed that more than 60 percent of university students freely admitted to cheating in some form. “That sounds shocking, but it’s not all the time. They’re cheating at some point,” says Christopher Small, an academic resources and technology operations specialist at Southern New Hampshire University.

New research from Online Plagiarism Checker on cheating among students in English-speaking countries found that fewer—nearly half of—respondents had cheated at least once during their studies, with about three in 10 claiming to have cheated multiple times in the last academic year.

Self-reports of cheating are also being looked at in a new benchmarking study being fielded by ICAI, says Rettinger, who has this message for administrators and faculty members: “There’s a problem on your campus whether you know it or not.” That goes for both online and in-person courses, he adds—even though eye contact and other connections in a classroom influence more honorable behaviors.

Unfortunately, when students believe others are cheating, they’re more likely to cheat, says Bertram Gallant. “Think about yourself walking in a new city downtown at an intersection. Do you jaywalk or wait for the green? If everyone else is jaywalking, you will,” she says. “Students look around and see what everyone else is doing, and they kind of do it, too.”

One-third of respondents to the Student Voice survey (which did not specifically ask if they had ever cheated) say they know someone who has been accused of cheating. “That should be alarming to all administrators,” says Bertram Gallant.

Warren Frisina, dean of the Rabinowitz Honors College at Hofstra and a leader in developing the university’s honor code, will tell people that about 5 percent of students would cheat any opportunity they could get, and another 5 percent would never cheat. “The remaining 90 percent can be moved in one direction or another if you don’t get your messaging right,” he says.

Following are more findings from the Student Voice survey, and six academic integrity actions that may keep instances of cheating at bay.

1. Think through online proctoring possibilities.

While such systems have been heavily criticized in recent years, 40 percent of respondents with at least some professors who have used it think it’s useful in preventing cheating. Still, 62 percent say students who want to cheat will find a way to do it, even with proctoring. “You see memes about students getting very creative on how to cheat, even in front of a camera,” says Vallejos, who says very few students feel comfortable under proctoring technology surveillance.

Whether or not online proctoring is in use, or if virtual learning means taking assessments via Zoom, “it’s helpful if it’s uniform for all instructors,” says Alexander Matros, who partnered with Bilen on the cheating research published in September 2020 and is a professor of economics at the University of South Carolina.

“It’s kind of invasive, but it’s true for every single person,” says Bilen of online proctoring. “If you remove proctoring and tell students they can do whatever they want, that is not uniform. That’s at least some positivity when it comes to these proctoring tools.”

Small, who says Southern New Hampshire generally uses online proctoring only for math placement testing and nursing certification tests, says student discomfort is a big reason online proctoring isn’t used more widely.

And he struggles with how marginalized students using a library or work computer would be unable to install necessary software, as well as how the technology reminds Black students or other groups of what it’s like to feel as if everyone everywhere is watching them to catch wrongdoing. However, Small explains, “proctoring products have a lot of methods to avoid false positives.”

2. Educate students about academic integrity expectations.

About one-third of Student Voice survey respondents have had some training on academic integrity, although four-year college students report this much more than peers at two-year institutions, 39 percent versus 9 percent.

Matros points out that the finding may be more indicative of prevalence of unethical behaviors than of colleges being proactive. “In our university, if the Office of Academic Integrity has to consider your case, then they send you for training. Otherwise, students would not take the class. It’s a very big signal that a lot have cheated.”

All students at SNHU, however, have content on academic integrity built into an introductory class, the course on what to expect from the college experience, says Small. Students’ initial English course includes a unit dedicated to citations, and then throughout the year, academic integrity information campaigns are held. “We also push writing centers and other student services so those who don’t feel confident get in early and often,” he adds.

“I don’t think anybody misunderstands plagiarism, although there are some cultural differences,” says Karen Symms Gallagher, a professor of education at University of Southern California whose school was an early adopter of online education for master’s degrees and who was in a position to help colleagues shift to online teaching in March 2020. International students whose countries have differing notions of plagiarism may not find policies to be as clear as U.S. students do.

Thirty percent of Student Voice respondents report that their college administration addresses academic integrity and cheating—such as via email, announcements or on-campus events—often or very often. That result is only 1 percent higher among the 1,364 respondents who say they’ve signed a code of conduct agreeing not to cheat.

In terms of educating students about citing sources and seeking supports, nearly 86 percent agree at least somewhat that they were taught how to cite properly when writing papers, and the same percentage agrees they know where to seek help on completing coursework. Slightly fewer, 79 percent, agree at least somewhat that their college provides enough resources to help students with coursework.

Two-year college students are more likely than four-year students—54 percent compared to 31 percent—to strongly agree their college provides enough resources. That resonates with Small, who has seen how at four-year colleges “some of the first things they drop are student services when they have a budget crunch.” Community colleges, he adds, are more likely to be “investing in [support] centers, while four-year schools are de-investing.”

3. Determine whether to institute an academic honor code.

As noted, two-thirds of students surveyed agree that honor codes encourage more ethical behavior. Among various hometown regions of students, international students are the most likely group to disagree that codes influence behavior positively.

“A lot of schools will tell you they have honor codes, but it’s not the kind of honor code where it’s a strong part of the message that students get when they begin at the school,” says Kathy Baron, an education journalist and host of The Score, a podcast about cheating in higher education that launched in October 2021.

Some data support honor pledges and timely reminders, says Rettinger, but “the famous study that showed honor codes reduce cheating has been retracted for data that was fabricated.” He’ll still tell colleagues, however, that instituting an honor code costs nothing and could be effective if it is part of practices and cultural behaviors aimed at reducing cheating.

“You can’t just say, ‘I’m going to trust students’ and go from there. It’s like putting the pyramid point down if you do that. You have to build up from a solid foundation of training students and creating assignments that are engaging.”
—David Rettinger

“You can’t just say, ‘I’m going to trust students’ and go from there. It’s like putting the pyramid point down if you do that. You have to build up from a solid foundation of training students and creating assignments that are engaging,” he explains.

Frisina first began working toward an honor code for Hofstra in 2010, as several high-profile academic dishonesty cases were in the news. The provost and deans discussed how “that kind of publicity could undermine the public’s faith in the quality of what it is we’re turning out when we give out degrees,” he says.

A campus survey indicated, not surprisingly, that cheating occurred at Hofstra, but that it wasn’t at an epidemic level. Questions intentionally did not ask students and faculty what they thought was happening but rather about their own actual experiences, Frisina notes.

Vallejos and her Honor Board peers meet frequently throughout each semester to brainstorm and execute ideas for communicating institutionwide about the honor code. “We do our best to get the word out there,” she says.

4. Frame an honor code as beneficial to the institution and to students.

“It’s less about the moral context and more about us making sure—and this helps with student attitudes—that the degree itself is valued,” says Frisina. In other words, students aren’t thought of as bad guys with no moral sensibility.

Now, says Vallejos, “as a student you will hear about [the honor code], and every professor has it on the syllabus. Most professors will have you sign the honor code on every exam.” Still, she believes more discussion could take place within classes about the code throughout the semester, considering midterms are two months after the syllabus comes out and finals—“when people get really stressed and do things they may not intend to,” she says—are even further out.

Frisina believes continuous nudges help students in the middle, who might be swayed either way on ethical decisions within academic work, reminding them that not everybody is cheating.

5. Support professors in authentic assessment development.

Avoiding multiple choice and out-of-the-book exam questions, many scholars believe, naturally makes cheating more difficult. Do students think professors are developing and using more authentic assessments? More than eight in 10 are, at least to some extent. But institution type influences response. More than half of students at private nonprofit institutions say that many or all/nearly all professors have embraced the practice, compared to 40 percent of those from public institutions. Reports of no professors doing so is about equal for both school types, but public institutions are more likely than private ones to have only some professors making such efforts.

Over all, these numbers are encouraging, says Rettinger. “It shows our voices are being heard. One of my favorite notions is shifting the idea of focusing on teaching to focusing on learning. Once you shift, you realize nobody ever teaches anything anyway. We put material out there and hope students engage with it so it makes a long-term change for them.” He challenges professors to consider to what extent their assessment process is part of the learning process. “A well-designed multiple-choice test could even be designed that way,” he adds.

Symms Gallagher says it’s fair to lay some cheating-problem blame on faculty—“blame in the sense of rethinking how you teach and how you assess.” When discussing assessments with professors, she’ll explain how accreditation standards now require that assessments be tied more to what is seen out in the field, what students need to know and be able to demonstrate.

If the needle continues moving forward on authentic assessments, institutions could shift the focus from technology surveillance to using technology to help create such assessments that measure outcomes and for creating great rubrics, says Pfeifer-Luckett of the University of Wisconsin.

“I would hope to use technology to promote good teaching and learning versus punishing,” she says. “In the end, students are going to vote with their feet. They’ll know which professors are doing the canned multiple-choice tests and those who will have a more engaging experience.”

Student Voice explores higher education from the perspective of students, providing unique insights on their attitudes and opinions. Kaplan provides funding and insights to support Inside Higher Ed’s coverage of student polling data from College Pulse. Inside Higher Ed maintains editorial independence and full discretion over its coverage.

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A university system session Pfiefer-Luckett once co-presented on academic integrity offered several strategies for designing better assignments. For example, professors could use data to determine which exam questions have been problematic and then take a fresh look at questions that are better aligned to course objectives. They could also ask students to give the rationale or thought process for solving a problem.

She advises that faculty members model academic integrity expectations, such as by providing references and citations as appropriate in their course materials. In the Student Voice survey, 42 percent strongly agree that their professors generally model ethical behaviors, setting a good example to students, with an additional 48 percent agreeing somewhat.

Even filtered to include only the 205 students who say they have been accused of cheating, the percentage of students disagreeing has only a two-percentage-point differential.

Supporting professors in good assessment design is no easy task. “It’s a systemic problem in higher ed, that we don’t value teaching,” says Bertram Gallant. “It’s not part of the U.S. News & World Report ranking. Clearly we care, but we don’t put the resources, money and systems behind that … If we want to tackle academic misconduct, we want to tackle teaching and learning. This is a teaching and learning issue, not a conduct issue.”

Even at universities with good teaching centers, instructors aren’t necessarily given the time to create more authentic assessments, she adds.

6. Demonstrate academic integrity as a budget priority.

Since there’s not one reason that students cheat, there’s certainly not one single simple solution, says Baron.

But one action capable of making a big difference—as it has in diversity, equity and inclusion efforts within higher ed—is establishing a department focused on ethical academic behaviors. “When so few have an office like mine,” says Bertram Gallant, “it tells the campus, ‘We don’t really care about academic integrity.’ You could count on your hands how many have an academic integrity office or are an honor code school.” Hers is the only campus in the University of California system with that commitment.

Check out results from other Student Voice surveys.

ICAI, she notes, is trying to collect data on how many academic integrity offices actually exist, but based on conference attendance, “we generally know who they are.”

Rettinger is certainly a proponent of the organization’s idea. “Make it someone’s job if you want to make academic integrity a priority on your campus,” he advises. “You have to prioritize it in your budget and in your organization.”

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