Anna Luce

“How do I know students aren’t cheating?”

It’s a question that comes up frequently when working with faculty to design and build their online courses. And it’s a valid one. Academic dishonesty is a longstanding issue in higher education, one colleges and universities take seriously with zero-tolerance policies and severe consequences for offenders. As more courses are offered online or in hybrid formats, instructors’ typical methods of deterring and detecting cheating might seem ineffective.

As information has become more easily available, and more quickly copied (and edited so as to appear original), it’s easy to see how an over-stressed college student may be tempted to cheat in any course. Online courses add another layer of perceived anonymity and actual, physical distance between instructors and students that one would think makes it easier to cheat. (The idea is that it’s easier to lie to your computer screen than your instructor’s face.)

When your students don’t take their exams in the classroom, how do you know they aren’t sharing answers? When you don’t interact with students face-to-face each week, how can you really get to know them, their ideas, and their unique perspective (which makes it easier to spot plagiarized content)? How do you know the textbook answer key isn’t open on their desk as they fly through quiz questions?

I was recently asked to do some research on this topic, and, I have to confess, I still can’t answer those questions. Here are some things I did find out:

The bad news?

  • It was really hard to find solid statistics about how cheating in online courses compared to traditional courses. And those studies that did provide quantitative results often didn’t account for important variables. For example, one study found more students admitted inappropriate behavior in face-to-face courses, but failed to account for the number of online courses offered at that university. Much more research needs to be done in this area.
  • Everyone—students and instructors—perceives the online environment as one that is really well-suited for cheating. One survey found 74 percent of respondents felt it was easier to cheat in an online class, and 61 percent thought that their classmates would be five times more likely to cheat in an online class. (This adds to the unfortunate sense that online learning is somehow illegitimate or lacking the integrity of face-to-face courses.)
  • There is a looming prediction that as online course offerings increase, so will ways to cheat.
  • Though these stats include both online and face-to-face courses, an incredible 60.8 percent of college students admitted to cheating, and 95 percent of those who cheated reported never getting caught.
  • The online environment may open doors for “imposter students,” people hired to do students’ work for them.

The good news?

  • The good news is that there doesn’t seem to be a dramatic increase in academic honesty violations when you move your course online. According to this study, students in online courses are less likely to cheat than their face-to-face peers, contrary to common perception.
  • There are things you can do. Thank goodness! This paper outlines four strategies to curtail cheating in online assessments. I particularly like Strategy #3, which suggests modifying curriculum from term to term, and considering alternative, project-based assessments which necessitate creativity instead of giving the same multiple choice exam over and over. However, if that seems daunting, Strategy #4 is simple and effective: provide students with an academic integrity policy and talk with them about it.

Here are some resources if you’re interested in reading more:

“Impact of an Honor Code on Cheating in Online Courses” Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, June 2011.

“Cheating in the Digital Age: Do students cheat more in online courses?” Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, Spring 2010.

“Point, Click, and Cheat: Frequency and Type of Academic Dishonesty in the Virtual Classroom” Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, Fall 2009.

“Eight Astonishing Stats on Academic Cheating”, Online Education Database, 2002.

“Do Students Cheat More in Online Classes? Maybe Not” Chronicle of Higher Education, September 16, 2009.

“Online Classes See Cheating Go High-Tech” Chronicle of Higher Education, June 3, 2012.

“The Shadow Scholar” Chronicle of Higher Education, November 2010.

“Ethics and Distance Education: Strategies for Minimizing Academic Dishonesty in Online Assessment”, Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, Fall 2002.

“Online Plagiarism and Cybercheating Still Strong – 61.9%”,, February 2011.

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