Exposé on Academic Dishonesty

Preface: We prefer to talk about academic integrity instead of dishonesty or cheating, because it assumes positive behavior. In this post, you will see all three terms. Sorry about that.

When technologists talk about Academic Dishonesty, we tend to think about tools used to combat cheating. An entire industry exists on the premise that technology (software) can fix this age-old problem. In fact, this company states that their software comes with “integrity built in.” We don’t agree, and neither does the research.

Academic dishonesty has existed for a longer period of time than has the technology we blame it on. Of course, technology has allowed for faster, easier sharing of information which means new ways of cheating. But if we focus on that, we’re missing the mark. My belief is that in order to prevent academic dishonesty, we should examine the motivators behind it. In doing so, we have discovered surprising reasons why ‘good students’ choose to be dishonest in their academic lives. We have also found that discussing “academic integrity” and “technology” together is not as easy as one might think. Why?

Technology is usually not the primary reason cheating occurs, nor is it the primary solution.

It seems that in many cases, “good people” cheat, but they do so only under certain circumstances. They justify it. It might be that they disagree with one teacher’s expectations or that they just don’t care about the subject matter of that one liberal ed course (and feel it shouldn’t impact their GPA). There are a number of reasons why students who would otherwise not be identified as “cheaters” choose to be dishonest in certain circumstances. We’ve asked two high-performing graduate students to break it down for us, in their words.



Why I Cheated – A soon-to-be Urban Outfitters Best Seller, by “Eliza”

I breezed through high school. It was small, in a rural community upstate, and I was one of the top in my class. I didn’t feel as though I needed to put in much effort to get the necessary grades for acceptance to most of the colleges I’d visited come senior year.  I’d heard from my friends who were older than me about the kinds of courses they were taking in college, but I hadn’t even considered whether they’d be more difficult than the work I’d been used to.

During my first semester as a college freshman, I was taking courses for my general degree requirement.

There was no reason to risk not getting accepted to a good MBA program because of one failed semester of biology.

I thought it was kind of ridiculous that, as a Business Administration major, I was expected to take a lab science. I didn’t know at the time that I was able to take a certain number of credits pass/fail if they didn’t count towards my major, so I ended up cheating on the exams and finding friends who had the lab reports from previous semesters. The class was general biology, intended for “non-science major” students. It didn’t make sense to me that I was supposed to spend my time learning about basic biology again. Hadn’t I already done enough of that in high school? I was already swamped enough with work for classes in my major; classes that mattered to me. I guess I just didn’t really care when it came down to it, so I stopped putting in the effort in order to focus my time and energy elsewhere. I would get my study guide together on my phone and discretely check for answers during exams. If I was being made to take this, and the grade was going to impact my overall GPA, there was no reason to risk not getting accepted to a good MBA program because of one failed semester of biology.

In my sophomore and junior years, everything seemed to get a lot tougher.  I felt lost in a huge group of people who were all trying to out-do one another, to be the best, to get the highest grade. The competitive atmosphere of class created by students and professors alike was overwhelming. I wanted to be successful in the future, and I didn’t know if I would make the grades I needed in order to stand out on applications for grad school. Junior year, my GPA was right on the verge to qualify me for Sigma Beta Delta, the Business Administration honor society. I knew that if I didn’t get at least a 3.7 for the semester I wouldn’t make it, and I felt desperate to build my resume. I decided to borrow some ideas for a final presentation that one of my friends from another college had success with. I guess I didn’t really think of it as cheating. There seems to be so much pressure on doing well and succeeding, on standing out, that I would have done anything.  These options, considered cheating, seemed within reason given the immense pressure I was facing.


Eliza states the following reasons for her academic dishonesty:


  • In high school, her primary goal was acceptance into college.
  • Liberal education courses were less important to her, and therefore posed a threat to her GPA.
  • Social pressure to “be successful” and competition for entry into graduate school.


Continuing with Eliza’s advice…

College is challenging on so many different levels, both academically and socially. I don’t consider myself to be a dishonest person by nature. I can’t say I ever felt comfortable with what I doing, but at times it seemed like cheating was the only option. I would have been less likely to cheat in my classes if there had been a few modifications to the coursework.

I really had no personal interest in a majority of my assignments beyond getting good grades. Since I didn’t really understand the benefit for me as a student a lot of the time, I wasn’t overly motivated to get to work when the time came to complete assignments. It would have been nice to have teachers offer the option to pick topics for presentation that were of personal interest to us. One of my teachers selected topics for us in one of the introductory-level business classes I took and wouldn’t even let us trade topics with other students. I know that, had our professor allowed us to choose a topic, I would have been far more engaged in the assignment and wouldn’t have gone to one of my friends who had already completed a similar presentation to use her research.

It would have been helpful for our professor to show us what plagiarism looked like…

In classes where I had to write research papers, professors always made it a point to tell us not to plagiarize, but none of us really seemed to know exactly what that meant. Obviously we weren’t supposed to copy and paste information directly from a source, but how were we supposed to use the information while appropriately crediting the author? Especially when one of our professors required us to paraphrase, a lot of us ended up getting in trouble for what we thought we were doing correctly. It would have been helpful for our professor to show us what plagiarism looked like and help us to understand how we could avoid it in our own work.

Finally, for my courses that counted toward my general degree requirements and not toward my major requirements, I would have been grateful for open book tests and quizzes. It seems like professors avoid them because they want students to study, but honestly, if you don’t even study enough to know what sections of the book certain information is in, the open book format is useless. I think that having the support of the content resources would make me feel more confident in what I had already learned, without having to cram or put off other work for a test that I don’t feel particularly driven to prepare for.



Eliza states the following changes that would have reduced her likelihood to be dishonest:


  • More flexibility in coursework; adaptability to life experience/situations.
  • Lessons on what “plagiarism” looks like, not just what it doesn’t look like.
  • Ability to reference existing resources in testing situations.


It is clear, too, that Eliza could have benefited from a deeper understanding of what her liberal education was getting her.


Pressure, Cost, and Engagement, by “Everett”

The pressure. There is a local race to the top. You must impress them with your academic, performance, and collaborative skills to reach the apex. This will influence your future – graduate study, careers, and money.

Budgeting time turns into a real issue for college students. There are many tasks we have to do, and even more activities we want to do. Sometimes, cutting corners to stay on top academically is an enticing option when there are many other, sorry professors – more interesting experiences outside classwork.

Budgeting expenses is another concern as well. On top of high tuition, there is the even more outrageous price of books (which may or may not be used) and mysterious fees. These problems snowballed into one giant issue for me – here is my story:

I go to school full-time, and have two part-time jobs. With rent, car payments, and other necessary expenses, I am hemorrhaging money. As the fall semester is beginning again, I forgot about one expense, books. While looking for books for a class, I say to myself, “One book is $132.00 to RENT? How ridiculous! I hope we won’t be using that book because I can’t afford it.

A portion of this class involves online discussion. I enjoy online discussions because I don’t enjoy speaking up in class, and it gives me a chance to think and edit my ideas, which might not always come out fluently the first time. Unfortunately, online discussions were horribly done in this class. All that had to be done was to provide my understanding of the chapter I read. If the professor put no thought or effort into the assignment, why should I? All I had to do was read another students post, paraphrase it, and post. I saved time, money, and got full credit! I do not feel bad about my actions, because I doubt I would have gotten anything out of the poorly designed assignment even if I did purchase and read the book.


Everett states the following reasons for his academic dishonesty:


  • Pressure to get to the top (future success is his goal).
  • Lack of motivation caused by uninspiring assignments, which he represents as busyness/time management.
  • Financial burdens.


Continuing with Everett’s thoughts…

I speak for many when I say this: I pay a lot of money and give a lot of my time in search of the best education. Professors, if you really are trying to spark creativity and promote achievement, then show us through your actions, do not tell us about your past. By this I mean that I want to be engaged.

The old way of doing things where students regurgitated facts that they read in a book is no longer acceptable for a few reasons. First, it doesn’t keep me wanting more. That’s a basic characteristic of people like me and it can’t be ignored. We want to be engaged and we want our valuable time and money spent doing things that will actually prepare us for life. We want to be challenged. If my discussion posts don’t challenge me, something else will – unrelated to your class. Second, the old way requires us to spend exorbitant amounts of money on textbooks that usually don’t engage me. I chose to be educated at a small, private school because they advertise small classes and community. I assume that both of these things meant authentic discussion and getting to know each other.

I never thought that in an online course I would end up feeling like I was sitting in a gigantic lecture hall doing things the old way. Please make coursework engaging! It’s also a nice feeling when the professor is involved and engaged with us. It makes us feel like all of this matters to them.



Everett states the following changes that would have reduced his likelihood to be dishonest:


  • Less reliance on expensive (out-of-reach) publisher content.
  • Evidence that his instructor(s) were engaged in the course (to drive student motivation).
  • Assessment through application, not memorization.



What Wasn’t Said


Despite giving both students clear directions to think about this topic as it relates to technology, neither student was able to do so. They didn’t say that they cheated because it was easy to do so with technology. We asked them to come up with scenarios that would have curbed their desire to cheat in the first place. What would it have taken to not want to cheat in the first place? We assumed their answers would be “plagiarism detection software” or “better use of the features and settings for online tests” (such as randomization). They were not.

In fact, some research suggests that while students say they are more likely to be academically dishonest in an online class, those same students report that they have cheated more frequently in traditional face-to-face situations than online situations. Perhaps the same misconception about technology’s effect on academic integrity exists for learners as it does for educators.


Suggested Takeaways


You know what problems exist in your classes whether you teach online or not. We’ve put together a sampling of ideas that have been identified as ways to correct the actual problems that cause academic dishonesty – not ways to restrict the cheating itself.

Fuel their motivation

Learners – particularly college-age, returning adults, and anyone learning in an online environment – need to be motivated. Without this, academic dishonestly is a stronger concern, as is drop-out, and – perhaps worst of all – lack of learning. Adult learners (and many college students fit this category) need to know why they need to know something and how it fits into their existing life or career. Even in an undergraduate “Biology for Non-Majors,” this should be well-discussed.

Don’t assume they’re lazy

In written work, plagiarism is often not a result of laziness, at least at that moment. Maybe they were lazy in high school, but that’s water under the bridge. Many college students don’t know how “not” to plagiarize. Show them. And show them how to plagiarize. Armed with examples of both and a conscience, students are more prepared to do what’s right.

Entering into the working world, your students are not likely to pass all of their written work and correspondence through a plagiarism checker. Instead, their success in life should be judged having left college knowing how to do it right.

Prepare them for real-life

Deciding to allow notes or other knowledge resources to be available during tests can be controversial – we know that. Consider this: in almost any real-life scenario, a professional will look to their resources before making a decision or taking action. “Knowledge management” is a growing area of research that deals with knowing how and when to use your resources. How important is it that they have memorized everything in their textbook? And, high stakes assessment creates pressure on students that can lead to dishonesty.

Help them with perspective

The best online learners are those who have developed a sense of self-determination and who know why they are giving up a piece of their life for this. They have goals. As we’ve read, above, these goals often include “the next step” in one’s academic or professional life, and therefore lead to a “need to succeed” – at any cost. Help your students develop the “right” perspective on your course, their grades, and life. Help keep their ethics and values above their GPA. This is, after all, at the core of our liberal arts mission.


If we’ve whet your appetite for more information, check out one instructor’s compilation of ways to prevent academic dishonesty and a great book that explores the underlying reasons behind dishonest behaviors in academia. Oh, and here is the article that inspired this discussion.