From CAT: Designing for academic honesty online

This message to all faculty, deans, directors, and department heads has been approved by Dr. Sally McRorie, Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs.

Since we moved to remote instruction, there’s been an uptick in reported cases of academic dishonesty. We don’t know whether this jump reflects technological issues, students’ reactions to the new conditions, heightened suspicions on our part, or a combination of factors. But faculty have always had concerns about academic integrity in online settings. Since the personal relationships that underpin “honor” and “community” feel more tenuous online, we may feel more fearful to trust our students. So it’s a big relief if, rather than exhausting ourselves with surveillance and hearings, we can use course design strategies to minimize students’ temptation to take shortcuts.

Because the Testing Center is closed right now, the Office of Distance Learning is providing support for online proctored exams but also suggesting alternate assessment strategies that don’t require proctoring and work well in online classes. We also suggested alternatives in our tip about preparing for final exams and projects last semester. In addition to the challenges of teaching and learning online, we and our students are also living in more stressful conditions than usual. National data show that students are more likely to cheat or plagiarize when they believe that circumstances make it impossible to succeed. So in addition to technological solutions, we can also consider what research tells us about the conditions that foster (or discourage) academic integrity.

James Lang’s illuminating study, Cheating Lessons: Learning from Academic Dishonesty (2013) identifies the major factors that make a learning environment prone or resistant to cheating—and, maybe surprisingly, many of those factors are under our control. Lang’s extensive research revealed that cheating is rampant under certain conditions, and almost nonexistent in others. Probably unsurprisingly, students who feel confident that they’re learning, and learning something meaningful, are rarely tempted to cheat.

The four critical factors that Lang found increase the likelihood of cheating are high stakeslow expectations of success; an emphasis on performance, as opposed to mastery or learning; and extrinsic rather than intrinsic motivation. In other words, people are likelier to cheat when there’s a lot of weight on their performance on an exam or project; when they’re afraid they won’t be able to do well on their own; and when they don’t have a good sense of the value or utility of the work they’re doing. They’re also likelier to cheat if they think everyone else is doing it—so refusing to cheat would put them at a disadvantage—or if they feel the situation is unfair.

As Lang explains, “Cheating is an inappropriate response to a learning environment that’s not working for the student. Both sides of that sentence are important. It’s inappropriate, which means that we have to hold the student accountable for the dishonest action, and ensure that we maintain high standards of academic integrity. But it’s equally true that something in that learning environment doesn’t seem to be working for that student. He might see the course as a curricular requirement that means nothing to him; he might be confused by the assignment or see it as busywork; he might see himself as not having the knowledge or skills he needs to complete the assignment.”

This means that our course design and our communication with our students can alleviate the pressures that too often lead to cheating, if we take care. When we’re teaching online, we have to make more careful plans for everything, including academic integrity. But these adjustments can also make our courses stronger in other ways.

Students who have lots of opportunities for feedback, opportunities to see how they’re doing and correct their errors, have less incentive to cheat. Ideally, students also need to see that their grades are distributed across many assignments, rather than just a few high-stakes tests or projects. Although you can’t change your grading scheme for a term that’s already begun, you can add opportunities for practice and feedback; give non-graded quizzes that help students to see how they’re doing and how to adjust; or add peer-review opportunities before final due dates.

You can also help to create conditions that emphasize learning and discourage cheating by helping your students discover enthusiasm for your material. You can help them see how exciting, and how valuable, the skills and ideas they’re acquiring can be. You can help them see the relevance of the skills and concepts they’re mastering, and show them how critical mastery will be to their future success.

As you’re designing online learning experiences that cultivate academic integrity, or developing strategies for helping students to see value in the learning they’re doing, we’re here to help. Please email us at