The Aims of This Series

Academic dishonesty – a term that encompasses a wide range of behaviors, from unauthorized collaboration and falsifying bibliographies to cheating on exams and buying pre-written essays – is a serious problem for higher education. Left unchecked, academic dishonesty can damage the culture of integrity that colleges and universities seek to promote, and it can even undermine the value of a degree from a given institution.

Not surprisingly, much attention has been paid to how to combat academic dishonesty. Literature on the subject, especially articles aimed at a general audience, tends to echo certain assumptions: that dishonest behavior is on the rise; that technologies such as the Internet and online learning have exacerbated the problem; and that technological tools for surveillance, such as online proctoring software or plagiarism checkers, are vital if the problem is to be curbed.

In this blog series, we will examine – and challenge – these assumptions. In the first installment, we will explore the scholarly literature to consider whether academic dishonesty is truly a growing problem and what its causes are. Subsequent installments will present strategies for promoting academic integrity in the classroom, with a focus on technology. We will consider what technology can do, and (just as importantly) what it cannot do, to prevent academic dishonesty.


Is the Problem Getting Worse?

Many media narratives take for granted that academic dishonesty – usually referred to by the popular term “cheating” – is worse today than it has ever been. Explanations for this include the easy availability of information on the Internet; the ubiquity of cell phones, which make sending and receiving messages easy; and, more broadly, a moral decline in society, with students taking an instrumentalist view of their education: grades are all that matter, and any method of securing a good grade is legitimate.

Going hand in hand with this narrative is a valorization of the notion of “control”. Bluntly put, if students are given the opportunity to cheat (so the thinking runs) they invariably will cheat. Thus, the key to academic integrity is hemming students in with controls that deprive them of any opportunity to behave dishonestly. Take away their laptops and cell phones; proctor them closely, whether in-person or online; check their work against databases of previous student work to find possible plagiarism; and so forth.

The COVID-19 pandemic has proven to be something of a laboratory for testing these claims. In the early days of the pandemic, when most colleges and universities made an emergency shift to remote instruction, there was an astronomical jump (nearly 200%) in questions submitted to the controversial “homework help” website Chegg (Redden 2021). Such data appeared to confirm widespread fears that students were taking advantage of the online environment to behave dishonestly. Deprived of the ability to proctor exams in-person, many institutions that had not previously used an online proctoring solution raced to adopt one (Flaherty 2020).  Their decision found support in scholarly literature that argued proctoring is necessary, as students are more likely to consider cheating acceptable when an exam is unproctored (Dyer, Pettyjohn, and Saladin 2020). The University of Chicago itself set up an agreement with the online proctoring service Proctorio, although Academic Technology Solutions did not encourage its use.

This approach, however, has not been without pushback. Advocates of “compassionate pedagogy,” such as Jesse Stommel in his keynote at the 2021 Symposium for Teaching with Technology, have pointed out that claims of rampant cheating are often based on emotion rather than evidence. Furthermore, in the unprecedented and nightmarish circumstances of the pandemic, students reaching out for help wherever they can find it should not be taken as evidence of a moral collapse, but rather as an understandable coping strategy.

There is also empirical evidence that problematizes the narrative of skyrocketing academic dishonesty. Donald McCabe and Linda Trevino, in a longitudinal study, found that the percentage of students self-reporting dishonest behavior remained fairly constant between 1963 and 1993 (McCabe and Trevino 1996). Admittedly, this study predated the Internet and other technologies that may enable academic dishonesty, and it did find that certain types of cheating (notably unauthorized collaboration, which we will delve into in greater detail in future installments) were on the rise; nonetheless, it remains suggestive.

On a more fundamental level, though, it is worth considering why students may commit acts of academic dishonesty. If we look beyond a straightforward narrative of moral decline, we see that there are contextual factors that can make academic dishonesty more or less likely; most of these factors are not new, but they have long shaped the classroom environment. This discovery has important implications for our attitude toward technology. It can be argued (and, in subsequent installments, will be argued) that while technology does have a role to play in helping to promote academic integrity, no tool or piece of software is a panacea. Furthermore, we will show that many of the most important steps faculty and administrators can take to combat academic dishonesty have nothing to do with technology and everything to do with thoughtful, compassionate pedagogy.


Why Do Students Cheat?

There is, of course, no one answer to why students may choose to engage in academically dishonest behaviors. Empirical research, however, has identified certain factors that increase the likelihood of academic dishonesty. Some of these are personal; others are contextual. Our focus here will be on the latter, inasmuch as the individual faculty member or administrator has more control over them.

It has been shown repeatedly that peer attitudes and behavior are vital. If students perceive that their peers consider academic dishonesty acceptable, they are significantly more likely to behave dishonestly themselves (McCabe and Trevino 1997). Conversely, when a college or university has a strong culture of integrity – for example, an honor code that spells out student privileges and obligations – peer pressure can be a positive force, discouraging students from behaving dishonestly (McCabe, Trevino, and Butterfield 1999).

Problems of understanding what, in fact, academic dishonesty is can also lead to trouble. Many students come out of high school with a weak, if not nonexistent, understanding of such basic academic notions as how to cite sources properly. They may consider some academically dishonest behaviors as perfectly acceptable that faculty and administrators would condemn (Nelson, Nelson, and Tichenor 2013). Cultural differences can further cloud the picture. If a student is a non-native English speaker, for instance, he or she may struggle to understand the very concept of plagiarism – which, it must be borne in mind, is based upon a distinctly Western understanding of proper source usage (Click 2012).

Finally, the classroom environment itself is a powerful factor in shaping student attitudes. Student engagement is vital: if students feel that they are receiving personal attention and that the tasks their instructor assigns are meaningful, they are less likely to behave dishonestly. Conversely, if they feel a sense of alienation or “depersonalization,” or if they believe they are merely being given “busy work” with no pedagogical worth, the chances of their behaving dishonestly increase markedly (Pulvers and Diekhoff 1999). This danger is particularly acute in very large classes and in classes held online. The more a student feels that he or she is just a number (or a grade), the less restraint he or she is likely to feel about violating norms of conduct.

These conclusions will shape our analysis going forward. In Part 2, “Small Steps to Discourage Academic Dishonesty,” we will look at immediate, short-term steps that faculty and instructors can take to make academic dishonesty less likely. In Part 3, “Towards a Pedagogy of Academic Integrity,” we will step back and introduce broader pedagogical considerations, which require more time and effort to implement but which are also likely to have greater impact overall in reducing dishonest behavior.


Works Cited

Click, Amanda. “Issues of Plagiarism and Academic Integrity for Second-Language Students.” MELA Notes no. 85 (2012), pp. 44-53.

Dyer, Jarrett A., Heidi C. Pettyjohn, and Steve Saladin. “Academic Dishonesty and Testing: How Student Beliefs and Test Settings Impact Decisions to Cheat”. Journal of the National College Testing Association vol. 4 issue 1 (2020), pp. 1-30.

Flaherty, Colleen. Online proctoring is surging during COVID-19 (Inside Higher Ed, May 11, 2020)

McCabe, Donald L., and Linda Klebe Trevino. “What We Know about Cheating in College: Longitudinal Trends and Recent Developments.” Change vol. 28 no. 1 (Jan.-Feb. 1996), pp. 28-33.

McCabe, Donald L., and Linda Klebe Trevino. “Individual and Contextual Influences on Academic Dishonesty: A Multicampus Investigation.” Research in Higher Education vol. 38 no. 3  (Jun. 1997), pp. 379-396.

McCabe, Donald L., Linda Klebe Trevino, and Kenneth D. Butterfield. “Academic Integrity in Honor Code and Non-Honor Code Environments: A Qualitative Investigation.” Journal of Higher Education vol. 70 no. 2 (Mar.-Apr. 1999), pp. 211-234.

Nelson, Lynda P., Rodney K. Nelson, and Linda Tichenor. “Understanding Today’s Students: Entry-Level Science Student Involvement in Academic Dishonesty.” Journal of College Science Teaching vol. 42 no. 3 (Jan./Feb. 2013), pp. 52-57.

Pulvers, Kim, and George M. Diekhoff. “The Relationship between Academic Dishonesty and College Classroom Environment.” Research in Higher Education vol. 40 no. 4 (Aug. 1999), pp. 487-498.

Redden, Elizabeth. Study finds nearly 200 percent jump in questions submitted to Chegg after start of pandemic (Inside Higher Ed, Feb. 5, 2021)

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