How to Minimize Cheating in an Online Course

Sep 25, 2020

Cheating is a concern for any course at any level, but for many instructors, concerns about cheating are magnified in the online space. If a student is sitting at home with an Internet full of answers waiting at their fingertips, what’s to keep them from giving in to temptation?

While there is no silver bullet to prevent students from cheating in your online class, there are steps that you can take to significantly reduce the likelihood that students will cheat, including addressing both the underlying motivation to cheat and the mechanisms students use to cheat.

Three Things You Can Do to Reduce Cheating in Your Online Course

Step 1: Reduce the Stakes on Individual Assessments

Students are most likely to cheat on high-stakes assessments that comprise a significant portion of their final grade. So, instead of having a high-stakes final and midterm exam where students will be stressed out and highly motivated to cheat to improve their grade, consider having multiple, lower-stakes assessments.

These formative assessments will not only reduce the motivation to cheat but also give you immediate visibility into whether students are mastering the content for the course. This insight can help you intervene and give students help before they feel the need to cheat to get the right answer.

Step 2: Think Differently about Assessments

While it’s easy to look up the answer to a question that asks you to define a term, it’s much more challenging to look up the answer to a scenario that has you using key terminology to solve a problem. When you do use multiple-choice questions on assessments, whether they are low-stakes formative assessments or high-stakes summative assessments, strive for questions that have students applying and analyzing information instead of repeating information from the textbook.

These types of questions not only reduce the likelihood students will cheat but also promote critical-thinking skills by asking students to apply the knowledge they are learning in class.

Step 3: Create Barriers to Cheating

Determining what types of barriers you want to create to prevent cheating gets at some philosophical questions that every instructor needs to ask themselves when teaching online: How much do I want to trust my students to do what I say? How much do I need to use tools that force them to do what I told them to do? What kind of technology am I comfortable requiring my students to use to meet these goals?

Student looks at cell phone while taking a quiz on her laptop
While no piece of technology can completely eliminate the risk of cheating, there are applications that can create barriers to cheating that will discourage the majority of students from trying. There are tools available that will lock students’ browsers so they can’t open other windows while taking a test or that will use the camera on a student’s computer to watch students while they are working and flag any instances where it looks like students could be cheating (e.g., looking away from the computer or stepping away from their desk).

For writing-based assignments, there are plagiarism checkers that will look for correspondences between a student’s paper and writing on online websites or other papers that have been submitted to the plagiarism checker. These tools cannot guarantee students won’t find creative ways to work around them (e.g., looking up answers on a tablet or phone if their browser windows are locked), but they can present a barrier.

If you’re not comfortable using applications like these to reduce cheating, there are some other alternatives you can explore. Restricting the amount of time students have to complete an assessment—particularly a recall-based multiple-choice exam—can make it nearly impossible for students to cheat because they won’t have the time to do so. (However, accommodation letters from students with disabilities still need to be respected and arrangements worked out.) Many learning management systems (LMSs) can jumble the order of questions and/or responses, which can also make cheating a challenge.

Simple steps, such as requiring students to read and sign a statement saying they did not cheat on the assessment or even stating clearly what resources students can and cannot use on the assessment, have also been proven to reduce cheating.

Resources to Get You Started

Want more tips on how to minimize cheating on assessments, design an effective formative or summative assessment, or provide effective feedback on assessments? Check out Faculty Success—a free resource to help you optimize your course for online teaching.

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