Thwarting Student Cheating on Online Apps

Online communication applications are giving students another method to cheat, writes Jonathan M. Golding, who offers six strategies to help deter at least some of the misconduct.

September 22, 2021
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COVID-19 has impacted higher education in many ways and will likely continue to influence the academy well into in the future. Students have found themselves in an extremely difficult situation during the pandemic, having to cope with online classes and, in many cases, forced to interact with peers only through the internet.

Online communication applications such as GroupMe, Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp have supported those interactions. Such apps allow students to communicate within private groups using any electronic device but most easily a cellphone. Groups may include not only class members but also students in other domains like Greek organizations, clubs, teams and the like. For example, students in an Introduction to Psychology class can set up a group to message with each other about that class.

A group starts when a single student registers their group on an online app. That person then invites other people or receives requests from them for permission to join the group. Once another student is given permission to join, they can access the group with a click on their device. All members are free to add others to the group, but only those in a group can access it.

The main goal of these online groups -- to allow easy communication -- has most likely served college students well. It appears that such groups have enhanced students’ social and learning experiences. Consider just three possible uses:

  • You are a freshman on campus trying to meet peers from class.
  • You missed class and need notes.
  • You did not understand something from the lecture and would like clarification.

In each case, whether you need connections, notes or an explanation, an online communication app can help.

Yet, at the same time, these apps have a negative aspect that is rarely discussed: the potential for cheating that is almost impossible to detect.

Several months ago, I gave the first exam in an online course. Following the exam, I received an email from a student who told me that many of their classmates -- ultimately 35 students out of 270 -- had posted screenshots of the exam to a GroupMe. Not only were students sending screenshots of exam questions to their peers, but they were constantly discussing questions on the exam. If that student hadn’t contacted me, I probably would never have known about the cheating. The experience made me wonder whether my colleagues were also dealing with this type of online cheating. Moreover, I felt like I had lost control of my class, and I was unsure how best to combat this type of cheating

The cheating incident pushed me to think more like my students -- and how they might use these apps -- and to radically change the way I presented graded material to my classes. I also kept in mind that depending on students not to cheat due to an honor code or statements in a syllabus was probably going to be a losing battle, based on years of research on college cheating. Sadly, many college students are willing to cheat, and online communication apps are giving them another method to do so.

Six Strategies

Can online cheating via apps be stopped in its tracks? It’s unlikely, but at least some of it may be preventable. Here are six strategies to help you deter potential cheating.

  1. If possible, present quizzes and exams only in person. Although online delivery and grading of exams and quizzes might seem easier, the possibility of students cheating using online apps will very likely increase when students are out of your sight.
  2. If you decide to present exams and quizzes online, develop a bank of questions. For example, if you have a 40-question exam, randomly select 40 questions from an bank of 80 questions. This strategy makes it harder for students to share information because they will not all receive the same questions.
  3. Decrease the amount of time allotted for a specific graded activity. With a decrease in time from, say, 50 minutes to 40 minutes, students may think twice about using valuable minutes switching from the activity to checking a group and back again. Be mindful, however, that this change can impact students who tend to take longer to complete these activities.
  4. Do not offer an extended window, such as a full 24 hours, to begin and turn in graded material. That extended window is an invitation for students to communicate online with one another about the material. Also, keep in mind that students are willing to trade off with classmates as far as supplying and receiving information. For example, on Exam 1, Student 1 finishes and gives answers to Student 2, and vice versa on Exam 2.
  5. Do not rely on software that blocks students from accessing the internet on their computer during exams, quizzes or homework. Similarly, don’t count on software that records students’ movements when graded material is presented. Internet-blocking software will not stop students from accessing online groups using other electronic devices. In addition, video may show students looking around or accessing those other devices, but in most cases, you will need to take the time to watch recordings of your students, and even then, it may still be difficult to determine whether someone was using another device to access a group and cheat.
  6. Avoid questions on graded activities that require a single correct answer. Such answers are the easiest to communicate via a group. Instead, ask questions that require creativity, critical thinking and the application of information.

In conclusion, as college faculty we must acknowledge that many of our students are primed to use online communication apps to facilitate cheating. I hope the above strategies will help you regain control over your class and attenuate this type of cheating.


Jonathan M. Golding is full professor of psychology at the University of Kentucky.


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