Does Online Learning make Cheating Easier?

As Canadian universities are preparing for virtual learning for the Fall 2020 semester, post-secondary courses are being adapted to fit an online learning environment.  Virtual courses present a plethora of challenges for professors, including how to prevent a spike in cheating.  Multiple choice tests, online exams and the number of students enrolled in a course can all increase occurrences of academic dishonesty.  Cheating can diminish the learning process and, for individual students, lead to expulsion from university.  The challenge with trying to discourage cheating is it is caused by a vary of factors and is as much a problem with students’ behaviour as it is about testing methods.

Why students cheat

When and why are students more likely to cheat?  Pressure, stress and opportunity are all cited as reasons why cheating might be the rise.  Cheating can be as much about the pressure for high marks as it is about having the opportunity to cheat.  Statistics indicate over 80% of students (including university students) will cheat at some point during their studies (Woolfolk, Winne & Perry, p100).

Rudy Peariso, a student completing a Master of Distance Education at AU, wrote a thesis about internet facilitated plagiarism: When Online Student Discussions Become Cheating: Perceptions of Academic Integrity (2010).  Peariso’s (2010) research reveals a growing disconnect between students and academic institutions and what constitutes academic dishonesty when using online platforms.  Students engage with course content through chat rooms and social media which can lead to misrepresentation, borrowing of ideas, or accidental plagiarism (Peariso, 2010, p.1).  One recommendation to counteract academic dishonesty is to address cheating before it happens; be upfront with expectations and consequences for not handing in original work.  Prevention is key and universities can promote awareness about academic integrity and set clear expectations for students’ behaviour.

Is cheating more prevalent in online learning?

A recent CBC article claims there has been an increase in cheating because of the switch to online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.  Is cheating actually more prevalent in online learning? Studies show students are actually less likely to cheat when participating in online learning than in-person.  Online courses might appear to make it easier for students to cheat, but with proctored exams and the absence of peer pressure, students have less opportunity to cheat when participating in independent learning.  Online learning reduces the interaction between students which reduces collaborative cheating, the most common way for students to cheat.

Changing assessment methods can reduce academic dishonesty

Universities can make cheating harder and encourage academic integrity by focusing on preventative measures.  One recommendation is for educators to phase out traditional exams in favour of more authentic assessment methods.  All assessment methods present opportunities to cheat, but studies indicate cheating can be reduced by asking students to perform tasks which are meaningful and relevant to them (Harrison, 2020).  Authentic assessment includes having students demonstrate their learning through writing, creating, or presenting.  In his book Preventing Classroom Discipline Problems: A Classroom Management Handbook, Professor Howard Seeman suggests teachers use short answer questions instead of multiple-choice or true or false questions.  Short answer questions require students to synthesize the information they are learning into their own words which reduces the ease of cheating off another student.

Building resiliency

Universities will be making many adjustments to the Fall 2020 semester making student life feel very different than it has in the past.  I hope we see universities use this as an opportunity to make positive changes in the way students are assessed and they will consider the unnecessary pressure placed on students to achieve high marks.  I believe post-secondary education should be a process and both a time of discovery and transition.  Often, we place on ourselves an unnecessary pressure for excellence which can override the experience of learning.  As students we can be resilient by acknowledging the pressures of academic studies and knowing when it is time to ask for help.  Asking for help is a natural part of the learning process and is how we grow and understand.  As a starting place, I recommend AU’s e-Lab which offers students tools, resources and tutorials on a wide selection of topics.

Further resources:

Acadia University’s 10-minute video on how to avoid plagiarism (2020):

Tips for educators on how to prevent cheating (Seeman, 2003):

Online Education and Authentic Assessment by Douglas Harrison (2020)

AU’s Student Academic Misconduct Policy:

“Fostering resilience among students: a little stress goes a long way” (2018)
Kim Hellemans, University Affairs

Harris, L., Harrison, D., Mcnally, D., & Ford, C.  (2019).  Academic Integrity in an Online Culture: Do McCabe’s Findings Hold True for Online, Adult Learners? Journal of Academic Ethics.
Harrison, D.  (2020, April 29).  Online Education and Authentic Assessment.  Inside Higher Ed.
Woolfolk, A., Winne, P., & Nancy, P.  (2016).  Educational Psychology, Sixth Canadian Edition.  Pearson Education Canada.