Academic Dishonesty: How to Mitigate Student Cheating

As an accreditation evaluator for the Northwest Commission of Colleges and Universities (NWCCU), Scott L. Howell, PhD goes out a couple of times each year to review the testing practices and assessment characteristics of higher education institutions that are under the NWCCU’s purview.

He’s been doing this for years, but says he has yet to find comfort in the cheating countermeasures colleges and universities have taken to ensure academic integrity on their campuses. In fact, he says, in an effort to try to minimize problems with cheating some institutions have gone so far as to reduce the number of exams and graded assignments.

Cheating has become a topic of great concern for educators, and for good reason. Survey after survey finds cheating is on the rise, becoming not only more pervasive but more sophisticated as well. From the low-tech old standbys of writing formulas on a tiny piece of paper or peeking at the answers of the person sitting next to them, to high-tech solutions like replacing the song names on their iPod with notes or test answers, the trends are disturbing.

In the recent online seminar The New (and Old) Ways Students Cheat: What You Can Do About It, Howell, director of the BYU Salt Lake Center, provided a breathtaking list of examples of the ways students are cheating. These included writing notes to the inside of a hat brim, on stick of gum which can then be eaten, on a water bottle label, or even on a heavily tattooed arm. Meanwhile high-tech devices like graphing calculators, DocuPens and cell phones allow students to store and share test answers in just a few clicks.

“I’ve been in education for 20 years and I was unaware how pervasive the problem is,” says Howell, who’s been studying academic integrity for a few years now. “Each of us has to do a better job than we have done.”

The ways that students cheat are just as varied as the reasons why they cheat. Some of the justifications students provide for cheating, whether it’s cheating on an exam or plagiarizing a paper, include: everyone else is doing it, they won’t get caught, a friend needed the answers, they have to pass the class, and the course is too hard.

While there is no single thing faculty can do to eliminate cheating, Howell recommends staying current on the latest cheating methods and communicating that fact to your students. He also suggests making the following changes to the testing environment:

  • If space permits, arrange students so that there are empty chairs in between each student.
  • Have assigned seating during tests, making sure to separate friends.
  • Display signs at the test center entrance regarding use of cell phones.
  • Have a policy that no personal belongings are permitted in the testing area and all such belongings will be confiscated.
  • Ask students to keep hands in plain sight above the table top.
  • Instruct students to keep their test papers close to their body and on the surface of the table during the test.
  • Don’t sit in the front of the room. Walk around and monitor students frequently.
  • Don’t allow more than one student to go to the restroom at a time. When a student leaves for the restroom, collect his test and hold it until he returns.