Activities that Promote Awareness of What Is and Isn’t Cheating

cheating in college classroom

Although some behaviors are pretty much universally identified as cheating (copying exam answers, for example), we’re not in agreement on everything. Particularly significant are disagreements between faculty and students (for example, students don’t think cheating occurs if they look something up on their phone and can’t find it; faculty consider cheating in terms of intent). In many cases, there is the question of degree (when, for example, collaboration crosses the line and becomes cheating). The effectiveness of cheating prevention mechanisms can be increased by clarifying upfront what is and isn’t cheating. Here’s a collection of activities faculty can use to ensure that students understand the behaviors that constitute cheating.

Behavior Lists

Lists of cheating behaviors and those behaviors that could be considered cheating have been used extensively in the descriptive research on cheating. The list below includes items that appear on multiple research lists. However, what’s not included are behaviors that students consistently recognize as cheating; such as copying answers during an exam, getting answers off an electronic device during an exam, claiming the material of others as your own, buying or borrowing a term paper. The focus of this piece is on those behaviors about which faculty and students disagree and behaviors where the activity is not clearly, but possibly cheating.

Because common cheating behaviors aren’t included, the list below should not be used to document the extent of cheating occurring in a course. Rather, the purpose of this list is to clarify how cheating is being defined behaviorally in a course.

Here’s a run-down of possible ways to use the list.

Rating options: Students can simply check off or write yes beside the behaviors on the list they consider cheating. Or, you could provide some other options. Students respond yes, no, or it depends, with space left on the list for them to identify what it depends on. Another approach might be having the students identify the three most serious cheating offenses and the three least serious offenses.

Compare Results: Both teacher and students review the list. After students (individually, in pairs, or in groups) have identified behaviors on the list they consider cheating, share your results, discussing those behaviors where there’s disagreement.

The Friend Factor: Research consistently finds that when friends are involved, students find it find it difficult not to “help” the friend. So, if it’s a friend who wants to know what’s on the exam or a friend asks for some answers on an assignment, students are more likely to comply with the request. The items on the list with an asterisk (*) describe cheating where collusion is involved. Have students discuss how the friend factor influences decisions about cheating—why it’s harder to say no to a friend, and if you want to say no, what are some constructive ways of responding to the request.

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Discussion Questions for Students

Don’t underestimate the effectiveness of discussion for raising issues related to cheating. Although most faculty do go over the academic integrity policy at the beginning of course, once is probably not enough. The conversation about cheating ought to be ongoing, and good discussion questions can keep raising the issues and challenging students to consider all that’s involved in cheating. The discussions don’t need to be lengthy to be effective.

Do bear in mind that those who have cheated and/or currently do would rather not talk about it, especially with the teacher present. But those are the students that most need to hear and be part of the discussion. You can provide space in the conversation for those who cheat with a comment something like this: “I know that students cheat, but for the sake of this conversation, I’m going to assume that nobody present today does. So, when you talk about cheating behaviors, you will be referring to hypothetical students who engage in certain behaviors. We will not assume that you are talking about yourself.”

Here are some ways to structure these discussions.

  • Pick a Question: It could be one of the questions listed in the section below or one of your own making. Begin or end the in-class exam review session with a short discussion of the question. Make the discussion topic timely. For example, use a question about plagiarism shortly before a written assignment is due. Students can write some thoughts before the discussion starts or they can talk with someone nearby before the whole class discussion begins. Or, you share a question and ask students to anonymously write some thoughts, which a student can collect and pass on to you. Students’ comments can then be used in a subsequent discussion. Conversations about cheating can occur in class, online, or both.
  • Feed the Discussion with Facts: Use the fact sheet resource. For example, when talking about whether students should report cheaters, note the study where only 4% of the students did. An analysis of 298 open-ended responses of undergraduates who had been reported for cheated revealed four themes related to why the students cheated; 1) they didn’t know they were cheating; 2) they blamed the professor for doing or not doing something; 3) they didn’t have enough time, resources, or skills; or 4) they didn’t have the time, resources, or skills and they accepted responsibility for what caused them to cheat (Beasley, 2014). Are these good reasons to cheat? When should students accept the responsibility for cheating behavior? A number of studies report that students who cheat say they’re just doing it on occasion to get through school and plan to stop when they graduate. Lots of research says that they don’t. There’s more examples and references to these on the fact sheet.

Discussion Questions

What if you attempt to cheat but are unsuccessful? You text a friend asking for an answer, but the friend doesn’t reply. Have you cheated? When does cheating occur? When you attempt it or when you execute it successfully?

What about those who enable cheating? (Examples: make it easy to copy their answers, provide information on test questions, cover for a friend who has skipped class and wants to make up a quiz). Are enablers cheating? Why? Why not? If they are, should they be punished? Should they be punished the same way the cheater is punished?

What about when the playing field in a course isn’t level? Some students in the class have access to old exams; others to do not. Should those with the exams make them available to everyone? That way everyone is equally guilty of cheating?

Should students who don’t cheat report those who do? Does failing to report cheating make you an accessory to the crime?

How does cheating hurt those who don’t do it?

Do your professors overlook cheating? How often? If they do, how does that make you feel? Are there ways you could share those feelings with the instructor?

What are your feelings about ethics in the workplace? Are those who cheat in college likely to continue dishonest practices in the workplace?

The Academic Integrity Policy Quiz

Most institutions rely on policies to prevent cheating. They appear in student handbooks and at many institutions faculty are required to include the policy in the course syllabus. Do students read the policy? At a large Australian university, students are sent a copy of the academic dishonesty policy. Fifty percent of more than 3000 surveyed reported that they hadn’t read the policy. Is familiarity with the academic integrity policy something that prevents cheating?

The details of the policy can be reinforced in your course by giving students a quiz on it. Generate a set of true and false statements regarding the institution’s or instructor’s academic integrity policy and give them to students as a quiz (make it worth a few points so it carries some weight).

Here are some incomplete, sample statements about policies. The missing information can be filled-in based on the policy.

  • The policy defines cheating as _________
  • The most severe penalties that can occur if cheating is confirmed are _________
  • The policy says that students who enable cheating _________
  • Instructors can refer instances of cheating to _________
  • Instructors can handle cheating cases on their own if _________
  • Instructors should have the following kinds of evidence to prove that a student has cheated _________
  • Decisions as to guilt or innocence are decided by _________
  • Due process insures that the student has the right to  _________
  • Students may appeal a cheating decision by _________

Access additional resources on cheating:

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