Academic dishonesty, which encompasses behaviors such as cheating, plagiarism, and falsification of data or citations, is a widespread and troubling phenomenon in higher education.  (For the full spectrum of behaviors that qualify as academic dishonesty, see Berkeley City College’s What Is Academic Dishonesty?)  It may be as simple as looking over a classmate’s shoulder during a quiz or as elaborate as hiring a ghostwriter online for a course paper, but whatever the method employed, academic dishonesty harms the learning experience and gives cheaters an unfair advantage over those who abide by the rules.  This post examines some of the chief factors that lead to academic dishonesty among college students, as determined by empirical research in the field, and offers suggestions to faculty and instructors on ways to reduce the likelihood of dishonest conduct among their students.

What Causes Academic Dishonesty?

There is no single explanation for the occurrence of dishonest behavior in college.  Studies suggest that most students realize academic dishonesty is morally wrong, but various outside factors or pressures may serve as “neutralizers,” allowing students to suppress their feelings of guilt and justify their dishonest acts to themselves (Baird 1980; Haines et al. 1986; Hughes and McCabe 2006).  In certain cases, dishonest behavior may arise not from willful disregard for the rules of academic integrity, but from ignorance of what those rules are.  Some common reasons for students’ engaging in academic dishonesty are given below.

Poor time management

Particularly in their early years of college, many students have difficulties with managing their time successfully.  Faced with demands on their out-of-class time from athletics, extracurricular clubs, fraternities and sororities, etc., they may put off studying or working on assignments until it is too late for them to do a satisfactory job.  Cheating then appears attractive as a way to avoid failure (Haines et al. 1986).

Academic pressures

Sometimes a student must maintain a certain GPA in order to receive merit-based financial aid, to participate in athletics, or even to continue receiving financial support from his/her family. Even high-achieving students may turn to academic dishonesty as a way to achieve their target GPA.  Academic pressures can be worsened in courses that are graded on a curve: with the knowledge that only a fixed number of As can be awarded, students may turn to dishonest methods of surpassing their classmates (Whitley 1998; Carnegie Mellon University).


In very large classes, students may feel anonymous; if the bulk of their interaction is with teaching assistants, they may regard the instructor as distant and unconcerned with their performance.  This can increase the temptation to cheat, as students rationalize their dishonest behavior by assuming that the instructor “doesn’t care” what they do.  Not surprisingly, this can often be a danger in online courses, since course sizes can be huge and students do not normally interact with their instructors face-to-face (Carnegie Mellon University).

Failure to understand academic conventions

The “rules” of academic writing often appear puzzling to students, particularly those who have not had extensive practice with academic writing in high school.  The Internet has arguably exacerbated this problem; the easy availability of information (accurate or otherwise) on websites has led many students to assume that all information sources are de facto public property and need not be cited, which leads to unintentional plagiarism.  Faculty and instructors should not take for granted that their students simply “know” when they must cite sources and how they should do so (Perry 2008).  In addition, the ready availability of websites on every topic imaginable has had a deleterious effect on students’ ability to assess sources critically.  Some students simply rely upon whichever site comes up at the top of a Google search, without considering the accuracy or potential biases of the information with which they are being presented.

Cultural factors

Related to the above, international students may face particular challenges in mastering the conventions of academic writing.  They do not necessarily share Western/American understandings of what constitutes “originality,” intellectual property rights, and so forth, and it often takes time and practice for them to internalize the “rules” fully, especially if English is not their first language.  In addition, students who come from cultures where collaborative work is common may not realize that certain assignments require them to work entirely on their own (Currie 1998; Pecorari 2003; Hughes and McCabe 2006; Abasi and Graves 2008).

The academic pressures common to all college students can be particularly acute for international students.  In some cultures (e.g. those of East Asia) excellent academic performance at the university level is vital for securing good jobs after graduation, and students may therefore believe that their futures depend upon receiving the highest possible grades.  When a student’s family is making sacrifices to send him/her overseas for college, s/he may be concerned about “letting the family down” by doing poorly in school, which can make academic dishonesty all the more tempting.

Low-Stakes Assignments

While some people may think of cheating as a risk only on high-stakes assignments (course papers, final exams, and the like), it can easily occur on low-stakes assignments as well.  In fact, the very lack of grade weight that such assignments bear can encourage dishonesty: students may conclude that since an assignment has little or no bearing on their course grade, it “doesn’t matter” whether or not they approach it honestly.  For this reason, it is vital to stress to students the importance of honest conduct on all assignments, whether big or small.  The University does not take grade weight into account when deciding whether academic dishonesty has occurred; plagiarism is plagiarism and cheating is cheating, even if the assignment in question is worth zero points.

Technology and Academic Dishonesty

The rapidly increasing sophistication of digital technology has opened up new avenues for students bent on academic dishonesty.  Beyond simply cutting-and-pasting from webpages, an entire Internet economy has sprung up that offers essays for students to purchase and pass off as their own.  Students may also use wireless technology such as Bluetooth to share answers during exams, take pictures of exams with their smartphones, and the like (McMurtry 2001; Jones, Reid, and Bartlett 2008; Curran, Middleton, and Doherty 2011).  Research suggests that the use of technology creates a “distancing” effect that makes students’ guilt about cheating less acute (Vanderbilt University).

How Can Faculty and Instructors Combat Academic Dishonesty?

There is no panacea to prevent all forms of dishonest behavior.  That said, at each step of the learning design process, there are steps that faculty and instructors can take to help reduce the likelihood of academic dishonesty, whether by making it more difficult or by giving students added incentive to do their work honestly.

Course Management and Syllabus Design

The sooner students are informed about the standards of conduct they should adhere to, the greater the likelihood that they will internalize those standards (Perry 2010).  This is why it is worthwhile for faculty to devote a portion of their syllabus to setting standards for academic integrity.  Consider setting the tone for your course by offering a clear definition of what constitutes academic dishonesty, the procedure you will follow if you suspect that dishonest behavior has occurred, and the penalties culprits may face.  Include a link to UChicago’s statement on Academic Honesty and Plagiarism.  If you have a Canvas course site, you can create an introductory module where students must read a page containing your academic integrity policies and “mark as done,” or take a quiz on your policies and score 100%, in order to receive credit for completing the module.

If your syllabus includes many collaborative assignments, it can also be useful to explain clearly for which assignments collaboration is permitted and which must be done individually.  You can also specify what you consider acceptable vs. unacceptable forms of collaboration (e.g. sharing ideas while brainstorming is allowed, but copying one another’s exact words is not).

Finally, consider including information in your syllabus about resources available to students who are having academic difficulties, such as office hours and tutoring.  Students who are facing difficulties with time management, executive function, and similar issues may benefit from the Student Counseling Service’s Academic Skills Assessment Program (ASAP).   The University’s Writing Center offers help with mastering academic writing and its conventions.  Encourage your students to avail themselves of these resources as soon as they encounter difficulties.  If they get help early on, they will be less likely to feel desperate later and resort to dishonest behavior to raise their grade (Whitley 1998).

In general, making your expectations clear at the outset of your course helps to build a strong relationship between you and your students.  Your students will feel more comfortable coming to you for help, and they will also understand the risks they would be running if they behaved dishonestly in your course, which can be a powerful deterrent.

Assignment Design

When crafting assignments such as essays and course papers, strive for two factors: originality and specificity.  The more original the topic you choose, and the more specific your instructions, the less likely it is that students will be able to find a pre-written paper on the Internet that fits all the requirements (McMurtry 2001).  Changing paper topics from year to year also avoids the danger that students may pass off papers from previous years as their own work.  You might consider using a rubric with a detailed breakdown of the factors you will be assessing in grading the assignment; Canvas offers built-in rubric functionality.

If an assignment makes up a large percentage of your students’ final grade (e.g. a course paper), you might consider using “scaffolding”.  Have the students work up to the final submission through smaller, lower-stakes sub-assignments, such as successive drafts or mini-papers.  This has the double benefit of making it harder for students to cheat (since you will have seen their writing process) and reducing their incentive to cheat (since their grade will not be solely dependent upon the final submission) (Carnegie Mellon University).

In the case of in-class exams, you may find it worthwhile to create multiple versions of an exam, each with a separate answer key.  Even as simple an expedient as placing the questions in a different order in different versions makes it harder for students to copy off one another’s work or share answer keys (Carnegie Mellon University).

Technological Tools to Prevent Academic Dishonesty

Even as students have discovered more sophisticated ways to cheat, educational professionals and software developers have created new technologies to thwart would-be cheaters.  Canvas, the University’s learning management system, includes several features intended to make cheating more difficult.

By default, the Files tab in Canvas is turned off when a new course is created.  This prevents students from accessing your course files and viewing files they should not, such as answer keys or upcoming exam questions.  If you choose to enable Files in your course, you should place all sensitive files in locked or unpublished folders to render them invisible to students.  For more details, see this post.

If you are using Canvas Quizzes in your course, you can choose from a number of options that increase the variation between individual students’ Quizzes and thus decrease the chances of cheating.  These including randomizing answers for multiple-choice questions; drawing randomly selected questions from question groups; and setting up variables in mathematical questions, so that different students will see different numerical values.  For more details, see this post.

Several different computer programs have been developed that claim to detect plagiarism in student papers, usually by comparing student submissions against the Internet, a database of past work, or both, and then identifying words and phrases that match. Viper follows a “freemium” model, while the best-known subscription-based plagiarism checker, Turnitin, is currently licensed only by the Law School at the University of Chicago.  These programs can be helpful, but bear in mind that no automatic plagiarism checker is 100% accurate; you will still need to review student work yourself to see whether an apparent match flagged by the software is genuine plagiarism or not (Jones, Reid, and Bartlett 2008).  Also be aware that Turnitin and some other plagiarism checkers assert ownership rights over student work submitted to them, which can raise issues of intellectual property rights.

In addition to detecting plagiarism after the fact, there are technological tools that can help prevent it from occurring in the first place.  Citation managers such as Endnote and Zotero are excellent ways to help students manage their research sources and cite them properly, especially when writing longer papers that draw on a wide range of source material.  The University of Chicago Library offers a detailed guide to citation managers, along with regular workshops on how to use them.

What to Do if You Suspect Academic Dishonesty

If you suspect that academic dishonesty may have occurred in one of your courses, the University has resources to which you can turn.  For undergraduates, it is best to begin by speaking to the student’s academic adviser.  You can find out which adviser is assigned to a student in your course by visiting Faculty Access and looking at the “Advisor” column in the course roster.  If you have questions about disciplinary procedures specific to the College, you can contact the Office of College Community Standards, headed by Assistant Dean of Students Stephen Scott.   For graduate students, the appropriate area Dean of Students can provide information about the correct disciplinary procedures to follow.


The fight against academic dishonesty is a difficult one, and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future.  But if faculty and instructors give careful thought to the causes of student misconduct and plan their instructional strategies accordingly, they can do much to curb dishonest behavior and ensure that integrity prevails in the classroom.


Journal Articles

  • Abasi, Ali R., and Barbara Graves.  “Academic Literacy and Plagiarism: Conversations with International Graduate Students and Disciplinary Professors.”  Journal of English for Academic Purposes 7.4 (Oct. 2008), 221-233.  
  • Baird, John S., Jr.  “Current Trends in College Cheating.”  Psychology in the Schools 17 (1980), 515-522.  
  • Curran, Kevin, Gary Middleton, and Ciaran Doherty.  “Cheating in Exams with Technology.” International Journal of Cyber Ethics in Education 1.2 (Apr.-Jun. 2011), 54-62.  
  • Currie, Pat.  “Staying Out of Trouble: Apparent Plagiarism and Academic Survival.”  Journal of Second Language Writing 7.1 (Jan. 1998), 1-18.  
  • Haines, Valerie J., et al.  “College Cheating: Immaturity, Lack of Commitment, and the Neutralizing Attitude.”  Research in Higher Education 25.4 (Dec. 1986), 342-354.  
  • Hughes, Julia M. Christensen, and Donald L. McCabe.  “Understanding Academic Misconduct.” Canadian Journal of Higher Education 36.1 (2006), 49-63.  
  • Jones, Karl O., Juliet Reid, and Rebecca Bartlett. “Cyber Cheating in an Information Technology Age.” In R. Comas and J. Sureda (coords.). “Academic Cyberplagiarism” [online dossier]. Digithum: The Humanities in the Digital Era 10 (2008), n.p. UOC. [Accessed: 26/09/18] ISSN 1575-2275. 
  • McMurtry, Kim.  “E-Cheating: Combating a 21st Century Challenge.”  Technological Horizons in Education Journal 29.4 (Nov. 2001), 36-40.
  • Pecorari, Diane.  “Good and original: Plagiarism and patchwriting in academic second-language writing.”  Journal of Second Language Writing 12.4 (Dec. 2003), 317-345.
  • Perry, Bob.  “Exploring Academic Misconduct: Some Insights into Student Behaviour.”  Active Learning in Higher Education 11.2 (2010), 97-108.  
  • Whitley, Bernard E.  “Factors Associated with Cheating among College Students: A Review.”  Research in Higher Education 39.3 (Jun. 1998), 235-274.  

Web Resources

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